Shell backs climate change resolution filed by shareholder activists

In a “huge victory” for campaigners, Shell supports call for deeper analysis into the climate risk for its business

Investors are putting pressure on oil companies to climate-proof their business plans (Pic: Shell/Flickr)

Investors are putting pressure on oil companies to climate-proof their business plans (Pic: Shell/Flickr)

By Megan Darby

Shell is encouraging shareholders to vote for a climate change resolution, in a win for campaigners.

The resolution requires the oil major to publish detailed analysis of how its business plan fits with global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

It will heighten scrutiny on frontier projects such as Shell’s Arctic venture, which analysts say could be left stranded by effective climate action.

In a letter to shareholders published alongside financial results on Thursday, Shell recommended they back the resolution at the next annual general meeting in May. It needs 75% of votes to pass, which with the board’s support looks likely.

“This is a huge victory,” said Elspeth Owens, a barrister at ClientEarth, one of the groups behind the resolution.

“This throws down the gauntlet for BP to face up to its climate risk and support the identical resolution made by its own shareholders.”

Investor coalition

The breakthrough follows sustained pressure from ClientEarth, ShareAction and the “Aiming for A” coalition of investors since 2011.

More than 150 shareholders representing billions of dollars of investment co-filed the resolution in December, which aimed to be “supportive and stretching” of Shell.

A similar resolution has been lodged with BP, which reveals its 2014 financial results next Tuesday.

The UK’s Environment Agency, US local authorities and the Church of England were among those using their clout to demand Shell consider a low carbon future.

This means stress-testing its business plan against the goal agreed by governments worldwide to limit warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels.

While Shell has officially accepted the need to act on climate change, its future energy scenarios are not compatible with 2C.

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A recent study by UCL scientists found that one third of known oil reserves need to stay in the ground to meet that goal – including all Arctic oil.

That did not stop Shell today reiterating plans to drill in the Arctic this summer.

Helen Wildsmith, head of ethical investment in CCLA, which convened the “Aiming for A” coalition, said those decisions would come under the spotlight.

“A lot of shareholders are asking very searching questions of Shell around the Arctic,” she said in a press call.

With oil prices plummeting, climate concerns go hand in hand with doubts about the financial viability of such “frontier assets”.

Investors around the world are increasingly asking companies to justify high cost projects, Wildsmith added, which often have the highest carbon footprints.

In December, Goldman Sachs identified US$1 trillion worth of oil investments that were unprofitable at US$70 a barrel. Since then, the price has fallen further, to below US$50.

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The Carbon Tracker Initiative has led warnings that effective action on climate change will curb demand for fossil fuel in the long term.

It suggests the fossil fuel sector may be overvalued, creating a “carbon bubble” that could burst and destabilise the markets.

In common with other energy companies, Shell has dismissed the argument as “alarmist”, arguing policymakers are unlikely to meet the 2C goal.

The debate rumbles on, with industry lobby group IPIECA arguing there is “no clear evidence” of a bubble and Carbon Tracker hitting back at its “complacent” stance.

Shell’s concession to the shareholder campaign appears to indicate a readiness to start engaging with the issue.

Andrew Logan, oil and gas specialist at sustainable business advocacy group Ceres, said: “It is going to make it much harder for other companies to take a less than cooperative approach. It is a real validation that these concerns are important.”

While oil companies had deferred some projects, Logan said: “We have not yet seen any real indication that the industry is ready and willing to transform itself for a low carbon economy.”

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