Net-zero pipe dreams: Carbon-neutral fossil fuel claims amount to greenwashing

A new Carbon Market Watch report thoroughly investigates the growing number of fossil fuels that are being marketed as “carbon neutral” and concludes that they amount to brazen greenwashing. Published ahead of the COP26, the document challenges governments and industry to halt greenwashing practices and commit to binding fossil fuel phaseouts.

Today, Carbon Market Watch releases a new investigation entitled ‘Net-zero pipe dreams: Why fossil fuels cannot be carbon neutral’ which explores the troubling new trend of so-called carbon-neutral fossil fuels.

Carbon intensive or carbon neutral? 

A growing number of fossil fuel companies have been offering these supposedly carbon-neutral products by typically claiming to have offset an undisclosed amount of  emissions using an undisclosed amount of carbon credits they have purchased from undisclosed projects. Assessing the value and validity of these questionable claims required considerable sleuthing.

The firms involved include such big names as Shell, Total, BP, Gazprom and PetroChina. The so-called carbon-neutral fossil fuels have been dispatched to markets as diverse as the UK, China, Japan, Mexico, India.

Hope or hype?

Our investigation of 18 such deals shows conclusively that these carbon-neutrality claims are little more than marketing gimmicks and amount to greenwashing.

“Illusory, opaque and baseless claims of ‘carbon-neutral’ fossil fuels overtly defy science and reason,” says Carbon Market Watch’s Jonathan Crook, the lead author of the report. “This is nothing more than a desperate and shameless attempt by oil and gas majors to keep business-as-usual activities and hoodwink the public.”

“At COP 26, governments must keep 1.5°C alive by committing to clear and binding fossil fuel phase-out plans that will nip this kind of greenwashing in the bud,” Crook urges.

Key findings

The reports main findings include:

  • No firm respects the most basic requirements to begin to even consider calling a product, let alone a fossil fuel, “carbon neutral”.
  • Burning fossil fuels, which have been buried in the ground for ages and will emit greenhouse gases affecting the atmosphere for centuries, cannot be offset with temporary storage in living ecosystems, like planting trees.
  • The firms never disclose full details about the source of carbon credits, obstructing independent third-party review to gauge credibility and quality.
  • No firm publicly discloses the price paid for their credits, raising concerns these are underpriced transactions that disincentivise the reduction of value chain emissions.
  • No firm voluntarily discloses an estimate of lifecycle emissions for the specific fossil fuel cargo it is calling “carbon neutral”.
  • One-third of claims do not even factor in Scope 3 emissions (related to the final combustion of the fossil fuels), despite the fact that these represent the vast majority of total lifecycle emissions.

Main recommendations

The report makes a number of recommendations, including:

  • Fossil fuel firms must take real climate action, and stop greenwashing, by setting in motion plans to phase out fossil fuels.
  • Policymakers and lawmakers must proactively design and implement regulations and legislation to prevent greenwashing.
  • Civil society organisations and the public should continue to apply pressure on polluters and policy-/lawmakers to move beyond fossil fuels.
  • Scale-up climate and conservation finance responsibly.

‘Net-zero pipedreams’ is available for download here: https://carbonmarketwatch.org/publications/net-zero-pipe-dreams-why-fossil-fuels-cannot-be-carbon-neutral/