Stop demonising oil and gas companies, says UN climate chief

Christiana Figueres tells business leaders efforts by fossil fuel companies to green their operations should be welcomed

Oil companies can be part of the solution to climate change, says UN climate chief (Pic: Shell/Flickr)

Oil companies can be part of the solution to climate change, says UN climate chief (Pic: Shell/Flickr)

By Ed King in Barcelona

Fossil fuel companies should not be demonised for their contribution to climate change, but embraced as part of the solution, the UN’s top climate official told business leaders in Barcelona today.

Christiana Figueres said it was time to stop “pointing the blaming finger at fossil fuel companies”. Their technical expertise and “amazing power” can help to slow the rise of greenhouse gas emissions, she said.

“Bringing them with us has more strength than demonising them.”

According to recent research from Thomson Reuters, the fossil fuel sector’s 12 largest companies alone account for 22% of global emissions, led by Gazprom, Coal India and Glencore XStrata.

Historically many big oil companies have been deeply hostile the idea of a global climate deal, seeing it as a direct assault on their business model.

Scientists say that more than two thirds of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves need to be kept unburnt to avoid dangerous levels of warming, which could cause more floods, droughts and rising sea levels.

Report: Fossil fuel giants reject calls to keep oil, gas and coal in ground

But at a side event at the annual Carbon Expo conference, Figueres said she had been encouraged by her recent interactions with senior executives from the sector.

“I had very interesting conversations with the gas and oil industry last week in Paris,” she said. “Can the gas and oil industry focus its engineering capacity on de-linking the fuel from the emissions?”

She did not mention the coal industry, the single largest source of carbon pollution and a fast-growing fuel in developing countries like India, China and Indonesia.

Speaking to RTCC afterwards, Figueres said she was not criticising the growing divestment movement, which calls for investors to pull funding from polluters. Rather, she was calling for a greater common effort to cut emissions.

Her organisation is currently coordinating plans for nearly 200 countries to sign off on a new global climate pact in Paris later this year, which will require efforts across all sectors, she said.

“We need everyone – climate change is so important so we cannot afford to demonise any country or company.”

Report: Axa to ditch €500m of coal holdings in 2015

At last week’s Business and Climate Summit in Paris, Total and Statoil bosses said they were cutting operational emissions, putting a stop to routine flaring and investing in renewable energy.

And at the last round of UN climate talks in Lima, beset by protesters, Shell made a case for carbon capture and storage (CCS) to neutralise fossil fuel emissions.

The UN’s climate science panel counts on CCS for most of its future scenarios to cut carbon out of the economy, but the technology is being slow to take off.

Figueres’ intervention comes a week after leading hydrocarbon producers announced plans to set up a think tank to develop a common strategy on climate change.

Royal Dutch Shell, Total, BP and Statoil were among those backing the move, which was not supported by Exxon Mobil or Chevron.

“Companies who are serious should ensure we can scrub the lobbying efforts,” Figueres said. “If you are committed make sure your association is lobbying with you.”

Report: Shell adopts climate plan, defends Arctic oil drilling

The oil industry is also split over calls to disclose their exposure to climate risk.

Shell and BP have adopted shareholder resolutions that will force them to reveal which of their assets are “unburnable” if global warming is to be limited to 2C – the international goal.

Chevron and Exxon are expected to reject similar proposals at their AGMs this week.

Laurence Tubiana, France’s top climate diplomat and one of the key figures behind plans for a Paris agreement said it was essential all companies revealed their long term environmental goals in the coming months.

“What is needed is to deliver confidence to governments that they can deliver… that’s business solutions, there’s a willingness to be innovative and there is an appetite,” she said.

“We need companies to say how they see their future in the low carbon economy.”

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