26 april 2018

Hey millennials, don’t fall for Shell’s pop star PR

Graham Readfearn, The Guardian, April 26, 2018

Shell is lining up superstars to sing in videos about solar panels, hydrogen cars, clean cooking stoves and lights powered by a bag of rocks and gravity

If you’re a millennial, the global oil and gas company Shell will have been most pleased if you’d seen one their #makethefuture music videos.

Twice now Shell has lined up superstars including Jennifer Hudson, Pixie Lott and Yemi Alade to sing about solar panels, hydrogen cars, clean cooking stoves and lights powered by a bag of rocks and gravity.

In 2016, Shell even flew three of the stars to the Rio Di Janeiro favela of Santa Marta to put on a concert.

Shell has said the first video – Best Day of My Life – was watched “more than 800m times”. The second video, On Top of the World, was as sickly sweet as the first and has racked up 19m views on YouTube since it was released in December 2017.

Why pick Santa Marta? As Shell itself explained, it is “one of Rio’s most headline-grabbing favelas” and it’s where they chose to help a winner of one of their entrepreneur awards put up some solar panels.

If you watch the pop videos, or hang around Shell’s YouTube channel, or see much of their marketing material, or visit their very flashy tumblr site, you’ll see very little of what Shell spends most of its time and money actually doing – drilling for lots and lots of oil and gas.

How sceptical should the millions of millennials in Shell’s marketing blitz – the Jennifer Hudsons and Pixie Lotts and their millions of Twitter and Instagram followers, for example – be of Shell’s contribution to the climate challenge?

In its annual reports and brochures for investors, Shell’s forewords and introduction will always note the challenge of bringing down greenhouse gas emissions and how the future energy mix will need to change. Shell says it supports the global Paris climate agreement.

But Shell’s central role in this challenge is what? Give the world more oil and gas. The marketing efforts of Shell are not new, and neither is the cynicism towards them.

In 2009, the Guardian’s George Monbiot took the company to task for its advertisements and marketing messaging that had already fallen foul of advertising regulators in the UK.

In his 2012 book Greenwash (which I was paid to help fact-check), author Guy Pearse said “the award for most prolific oil industry greenwasher goes to Royal Dutch Shell” for years of campaigns just like #makethefuture.
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Shell chairman Chad Holliday even went as far as evoking the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi in the company’s approach to the climate issue. “As Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted as saying, ‘The future depends on what you do today’,” wrote Holliday before outlining a new target the company had set to cut its own emissions by half by 2050.

This target includes the emissions from burning all the extra oil and gas they are enthusiastically pulling out of the ground and beneath the sea bed in locations across the world.

Shell says it was producing 3.7m barrels of oil every day in 2017 which, using the US EPA’s calculations as a guide, generates about 47 Mt of CO2e every month.

So what is Shell’s actual contribution to the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and releasing methane that is helping drive dangerous climate change?

I checked their annual sustainability reports going back to 2011 – around the time when Shell was planning its mercilessly mocked “Let’s Go” marketing campaign.

Shell’s direct emissions – those it has targeted for cuts – have hovered in the mid-70Mt mark since 2011.

In total, if you think it’s fair to include in its footprint the extra energy Shell buys to get its products to market, and then the burning of all their oil and gas by consumers, Shell’s contribution in 2017 was 664 Mt CO2e (for context, looking at figures gathered by the World Resources Institute, there are only 11 countries in the world with a footprint bigger than that). In 2011, Shell’s footprint was 570Mt.

Shell has been making much of its “New Energies” venture that look at hydrogen power, wind, biofuels and carbon capture and storage.

New Energies is part of the company’s “Integrated Gas” business – the same part of the company that explores for gas, extracts it, processes it and then gets it to customers.

Shell doesn’t report separately the capital spending or revenue for “New Energies” but has said publicly it plans to invest between $1bn and $2bn a year on the division.

What does that look like, in the context of capital spending across the rest of the company? In 2017, Shell made a $15.8bn profit and its annual report shows that they made capital investments of $23bn.

Shell is in the process of divesting its interests to cut debt – a divestment the company says will be $5bn a year for the rest of the decade.

In Shell’s latest annual report, Holliday wrote that “oil and gas will remain central to our business for many years” and how more investment was needed to develop oil and gas reserves.

In 2017 in Canada, Shell divested out of probably the most polluting of all fossil fuel enterprises – getting oil out of tar sands in Alberta.

But why did they do that? Was this a pique of conscience over the legacy those activities will leave on the environment and the climate? No.

According to Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden, the divestment was “prioritising businesses where we have global scale and a competitive advantage such as Integrated Gas and deep water.”

Holliday says “the greatest contribution Shell can make to providing more and cleaner energy is to deliver more natural gas” and that, as communities “seek cleaner alternatives to coal” gas will be more important than ever.

But as some analysts note, investing in new gas infrastructure risks locking in decades more of dependency on fossil fuels that is incompatible with the Paris goal to keep temperatures “well below 2C”.

Shell is currently lined up with other fossil fuel giants in a court case in the United States – accused by some Californian cities of being responsible for knowingly warming the climate and pushing up sea levels.

A recent trove of Shell documents unearthed by Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers shows the company has been aware of the potential impact of the burning of its products since at least 1988.

Looking at the documents, it looks like Shell’s interpretation of the science around climate change and impacts of its products has drifted – both internally and what the energy giant was prepared to say about it in public.

But back to #makeithappen and Shell’s other “challenge” – its need to keep young people on side.

In advertising and marketing industry publication Campaign, Shell’s “head of integrated brand communications”, Malena Cutuli, spelled it out.

“It’s no secret that Shell’s own macro challenge is particularly tough, so amidst deep cynicism and complexity, we needed to develop a disruptive approach to engage young people in our new energies mission,” she said.

Featured in the pop videos and tumblr sites is an initiative to give people in developing countries more clean-burning cookstoves to avoid them dying from breathing in polluted indoor air. This is a huge issue and one that the World Health Organization says kills more than four million people a year.

What is Shell’s actual contribution to clean cookstoves in developing countries that gives them the licence to brag about it in slick advertisements?

According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves directory, Shell’s contribution to their work has been $12m in donations and time spent with the initiative. That’s not a small amount, but for a company the size of Shell it is about 0.07% of its 2017 profits.

Shell also took a food truck around New York and made young people jump on pads that converted their energy to electricity in return for, presumably, some food.

“What better way to get people engaged in the global energy challenge than by tapping into a universal passion – food,” said Cutuli.

Actually, I can think of another way. Several actually.

One might be to avoid being the gullible millennial who takes directions on the future of energy from one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies.

Another might be to “get engaged in the global energy challenge” by understanding that for all Shell’s earnestness about combatting climate change, its carbon footprint is bigger than most countries.

Graham Readfearn is a climate and environment journalist

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