Why You Shouldn’t Applaud Exxon’s Decision To Disclose Climate Change Risks

March 25, 2014

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On Thursday, ExxonMobil made history by becoming the first oil and gas producer to tell investors about the risks it faces from climate change, and how it plans to be profitable in the face of those risks. Shareholders were very happy. Those who care about fighting climate change should not be.

For investors, Exxon’s decision to publish a Carbon Asset Risk report makes a lot of sense. By knowing the risks that climate change will pose to Exxon’s business model; how it plans to deal with regulations to limit carbon emissions; and how climate risks affect capital expenditure plans, investors will be able to better decide whether to put money in to the company or take it away.

From a business standpoint, this is arguably pretty good for Exxon, too. A Carbon Asset Risk report will force the company to be realistic about climate-related risks, and transparent about how it would survive them. It forces Exxon to accept climate change as fact (something most of the politicians whom Exxon funds refuse to do), and think hard about how upcoming climate regulations, climate-related storms, and shifted environmental surroundings might impact its profits. How would it survive if it couldn’t burn its fossil fuel reserves? How would it deal with a carbon tax? How much sea level rise would it take to harm offshore oil platforms? Could ocean acidification corrode piping? These are things that Exxon can now address, though what exactly it will address remains to be seen.

But here is what Exxon’s agreement with shareholders does not do. It does not require Exxon to disclose its degree of responsibility for climate change through its skyrocketing carbon and methane emissions. It does not require Exxon to disclose how much its emissions have caused the need for the regulations it now plans on claiming as risks. It does not require Exxon to make a commitment to reduce its carbon footprint, much less acknowledge it at all.

In fact, Exxon’s agreement — which it had rejected for the last four years — was made in exchange for dropping a more definitive one. According to the press release announcing the deal, Exxon only agreed to disclose climate change risks if the shareholder group pushing for the Carbon Asset Risk report agreed to drop a shareholder resolution. If approved, that resolution would have put Exxon on the books as acknowledging projections by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and The International Energy Agency (IEA) that state that “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050″ if the world is to avoid a global temperature rise above 2°C.

The groups that pushed for the agreement — led by the non-profit As You Sow — make the point that a risk disclosure could play a role in reducing Exxon’s emissions. “Getting these companies to look at the risk means they may diversify and move into new and cleaner processes, move into new energy sources,” As You Sow president Danielle Fugere told Grist.

Getting Exxon to disclose climate risks with the hope that it will eventually decide to diversify its energy portfolio is fine. But it is not a climate victory. A climate victory will come when Exxon — the second-biggest corporate carbon polluter in the world — actually makes a real commitment to diversify, and take responsibility for its own contribution to climate change.

To its credit, Exxon does currently report its greenhouse gas emissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project and has touted an investment of $330 million in 2012 to reduce greenhouse gases and up energy efficiency. But even so, its contribution to climate change is on the rise. As of 2002, Exxon had alone produced 4.7 to 5.3 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions, according to a report compiled by Friends of The Earth International. Adding in methane, Exxon’s total emissions in 2002 were about 21.53 billion tonnes of carbon equivalent. Put another way, Exxon’s emissions up until 2002 had contributed between 3.4 and 3.7 percent to total attributable temperature change since 1882, and 2 percent of the sea level rise.

Exxon acknowledges those numbers, and reported to the Carbon Disclosure Project in 2006 that its emissions had increased from that point. In 2012, the company reported gross greenhouse gas emissions of 146 million metric tonnes. And while it continues to insist that it is working to reduce its carbon footprint, Exxon said it expects total fuel production to rise from 4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (boe/d) in 2014 to 4.3 million boe/d in 2017. At the same time, the company continues to fund climate denial-focused policy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and politicians who thwart climate and tax reform legislation.

So while Exxon continues to emit greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, it will be good for business to disclose the risks that that trapped heat poses. Indeed, all fossil fuel companies would do well to address the likelihood that the reserves they depend on face a strong chance of devaluation in a carbon-constrained future. But simply talking about those risks means little, particularly when Exxon has been a primary factor in helping make those risks a reality.

Exxon sign image via Steve Snodgrass/flickr. Creative Commons license 2.0.

Tags: climate change, Exxon Carbon Asset Risk report, fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions