Two years after internal documents surfaced showing that Royal Dutch Shell, like ExxonMobil, knew about climate dangers decades ago, the oil giant released its latest annual report outlining its business strategy and approach to addressing climate change. Despite clear warnings from scientists, global health experts and even central banks of impending climate-driven crises, Shell's report largely sends a message that everything is fine and the company's "business strategy is sound."
That is not to say that Shell is ignoring the challenges facing it and other oil majors. But overall Shell appears to be toeing the line between saying it is responding to the climate challenge and inevitable energy transition on the one hand, and maintaining its core oil and gas business model on the other.
Shell's 2019 Annual Report is filled with statements that reveal the company's perspective on the Paris agreement, the energy transition, and climate litigation and regulatory risk to its business. A few of these statements seem contradictory, and it is important to keep in mind the context of #ShellKnew when the company says now, in 2020, that it is committed to being part of the solution.
According to the report, there are three parts to Shell's overall strategy going forward: to thrive in the energy transition, to provide a world-class investment case, and to sustain a strong societal license to operate. That may sound good on paper, but in reality significant challenges are mounting for each of these pillars.
In terms of the energy transition, Shell appears to be paying lip service to it more than actually revamping its portfolio or overhauling its business model. Its core business remains oil and gas. Period.
The company may be ahead of some other oil giants like Exxon and Chevron in terms of adding alternative energies to its energy mix, but overall its commitment to clean energy is minimal.
Shell notes in its report that it spends "$1-2 billion a year until 2020 in different services and products from a range of cleaner sources," and "investments in power could grow to $2-3 billion a year on average" from 2021 to 2025. The vast majority of the company's capital expenditure ($24bn to $29bn in 2020) goes into oil and gas, and failure to replace proved reserves could have a "material adverse effect." Instead of aligning with the energy transition, Shell's business model is based on continual hydrocarbon exploitation.
In terms of a "world-class investment," the oil and gas sector is particularly vulnerable at the moment to financial pressure and investors are increasingly turning away from fossil fuels. Jim Cramer infamously dubbed fossil fuels "in the death knell phase." Shell acknowledges this risk. It notes in its report that fossil fuel divestment "could have a material adverse effect on the price of our securities and our ability to access capital markets."
Shell also recognizes its vulnerability to an eroding social license as the public and particularly younger generations start to scorn Big Oil.
"In 2019, many protested about climate change, sometimes directly targeting Shell," Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden wrote in the report. The company includes challenges to its reputation as a risk factor, noting, "There is increasing focus on the role of oil and gas in the context of climate change and energy transition. This could negatively affect our brand, reputation and licence to operate."
Shell did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the risk to its social license.
Shell Claims to Support Paris Agreement, Plans for Gradual Energy Transition
In its report, Shell says it fully supports the Paris agreement goal to limit warming well below 2 degrees C, and supports "the vision of a transition towards a net-zero emissions energy system." But, in contrast to fellow European oil major BP, Shell is not committing its own business to net zero emissions.
Shell says it has "no immediate plans to move to a net-zero emissions portfolio over our investment horizon of 10-20 years." Instead, Shell's Net Carbon Footprint "ambition" is to reduce emissions (including its customers' and suppliers' emissions) of its energy production and products by 20 percent by 2035 and by 50 percent by 2050. This is not aligned with climate science guidelines that say complete decarbonization or "net zero" is necessary by 2050 at the latest.
Shell's own business is therefore not aligned with the goal of the Paris agreement, and the company is facing a lawsuit over this in its home country of the Netherlands. Current emissions reduction plans or "Nationally Determined Contributions" (NDCs) submitted by countries under the Paris agreement are also inadequate. As Shell notes in its report, current NDCs amount to about 3 degrees C of warming. "In coming decades, we expect countries to tighten these NDCs to meet the goals of the Paris agreement," the report states. Shell's view appears to be that the world has decades to get its act together.
In that view, Shell says it is fully on board with the energy transition and plans to transform its own business "over time." The report includes statements like "Shell aims to become an integrated power player and grow, over time, a material new business", and, "for us, protecting the environment also means working to transform our product mix over time, for example, by expanding the choice of lower-carbon products we offer customers."
Yet, in a seeming contradiction to these statements, Shell says it "agrees with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1.5°C special report," which clearly warned that limiting warming to 1.5°C would require, as Shell notes, "an even more rapid escalation in the scale and pace of change."
While Shell claims to fully support the Paris agreement, in another seeming contradiction, the company states in its report that the government action necessary to meet Paris targets could harm its business: "Policies and regulations designed to limit the increase in global temperatures to well below 2°C could have a material adverse effect on Shell – through higher operating costs and reduced demand for some of our products."
Shell also says it is wary of governments actually taking climate action: "we believe measures taken by governments to control national energy transitions may also have unintended consequences."
Yet, at the same time, Shell says it expects to be subject to increasing regulation. "We also expect that GHG regulation, as well as emission reduction actions by customers, will continue to result in suppression of demand for fossil fuels, either through taxes, fees and/or incentives to promote the sale of lower-carbon electric vehicles or even through the future prohibition of sales of new diesel or gasoline vehicles, such as the prohibition in the United Kingdom (UK) beginning in 2035. This could result in lower revenue and, in the long term, potential impairment of certain assets," the report states.
Climate Litigation Risk
Shell, like other fossil fuel companies, has long been concerned about governments imposing climate policies or regulations that would affect its business. Shell and its industry peers are already facing climate lawsuits, and Shell is explicitly identifying climate litigation as part of a broader risk factor associated with "rising climate change concern."
In its report, Shell acknowledged the lawsuits could negatively impact its financial condition: "In some countries, governments, regulators, organisations and individuals have filed lawsuits seeking to hold fossil fuel companies liable for costs associated with climate change. While we believe these lawsuits to be without merit, losing any of these lawsuits could have a material adverse effect on our earnings, cash flows and financial condition."
Shell actually foresaw climate-related lawsuits as a possibility more than 20 years ago. One of the internal documents that a Dutch news organization first uncovered (and published on the site Climate Files) is a 1998 document of Shell planning scenarios where the company hypothetically envisions a series of violent storms battering the eastern U.S., which then spur environmental NGOs to bring "a class-action suit against the US government and fossil-fuel companies on the grounds of neglecting what scientists (including their own) have been saying for years: that something must be done."
One statement from Shell's annual report rings particularly true: "Shell has long recognised that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the use of fossil fuels are contributing to the warming of the climate system."
Indeed, Shell has long known that fossil fuels are warming the planet and that the consequences would be of a huge magnitude.
One internal Shell document from 1988 called "The Greenhouse Effect" warned that GHG emissions would lead to warming over the next century, likely ranging from 1.5 C to 3.5 C. According to that document, "The changes may be the greatest in recorded history." Some parts of the planet may become uninhabitable, and there may be "significant changes in sea level, ocean currents, precipitation patterns, regional temperature and weather," it says. Impacts could be severe and "could have major social, economic, and political consequences."
What did Shell do with that knowledge? It started introducing doubt and giving weight to a 'significant minority' of 'alternative viewpoints' as the full implications for the company's business model became clear.
Shell was a member of the Global Climate Coalition, a fossil fuel industry-funded group that worked to undermine climate science and block climate policy internationally. The group formed in 1988 and Shell was a member throughout much of the 1990s.
During that time Shell was not exactly upfront with its own shareholders about potential risks climate change posed to its business. The first time Shell even mentioned climate change was in a 1991 annual report. But it wasn't until 2004 that Shell made a clear warning in its annual report about financial risk associated with fossil fuel investment.
Critics have for many years accused Shell's of greenwashing — acknowledging the climate threat and touting its "commitment" to being part of the solution, despite continuing to spend heavily on oil and gas with only minimal investment in alternative energy. Shell's latest annual report suggests the company isn't deviating far from that strategy.
Reposted with permission from DeSmog.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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