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Greening Up — The Month When Everything Changed

No matter how it is categorizes, the fossil fuel industry has been handed a handful of rebukes in the month of May.

“If you want to keep the temperature low enough that civilisation will survive, you have to keep coal and oil and gas in the ground. That sounded radical a decade ago. Now it sounds like the law.” – Bill McKibben

Call it what you will: a setback; a rude awakening; a kick in the behind; a stumbling block; or just a bad few days at the office.

However you categorize it, the fossil fuel industry has been handed a handful of rebukes in the month of May.

First the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced a new report calling for an end to all new fossil fuel extraction.

The IEA may well have signalled the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era.

The Paris-based organization put it bluntly: “There is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net zero pathway. Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required.”

The emphasis is in the original report; in fact that sentence is in headline size type.

The report finds fossil fuel use must fall from four-fifths of energy supply today to around one-fifth in 2050. The immediate goals are to rapidly phase out coal power and internal combustion engine vehicles and halt new oil and gas development.

“The I.E.A. is finally recognizing the lock-in risk of new fossil fuel extraction. It’s clear that what’s already developed is enough to meet demand in a world aligning with 1.5 Celsius.” – Elizabeth Bast

Strong expressions of disapproval of fossil fuel advertising have resulted in Amsterdam becoming the first city in the world to ban fossil fuel and aviation advertising in its city centre and subway stations.

The new law followed mass movements – led by the Reclame Fossielvrij (Fossil Free Advertising) initiative – in and around the city.

“The decision to ban fossil fuel advertising from subway stations comes at a crucial moment in the fight against climate change. Adverts that portray fossil fuels as normal worsen climate disruption and have no place in a city − or a country − that has complied with Paris,” says Femke Sleegers, coordinator of Reclame Fossielvrij.

There are indications the law may spread to other major cities in the Netherlands, such as the Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, and similar initiatives are underway in France and the United Kingdom.

In France, Résistance à l’Agression Publicitaire produced a report demonstrating the urgency of similar laws in France to combat fossil fuel advertising.

In the UK, the Badvertising Campaign also fights for a ban on fossil fuel advertising, using similar strategies to previous campaigns against tobacco ads, which were made illegal in the UK in 2007.

“We obviously can’t stop burning fossil fuel tomorrow, but we have to be headed decisively in that direction – which means stopping the development of new fields and draining what we must from existing fields to hold us over until we’ve built enough solar panels and wind turbines.” – Bill McKibben

The environment ministers of seven of the world’s most powerful economies have made a forceful statement to the global coal industry – your time is up.

G7 nations, which include Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have pledged to phase out international financing for coal projects. This includes eventually ending the financing of coal-fired power plants in poorer nations, which Japan had previously supported

In a communiqué issued at the conclusion of a two-day meeting, the ministers also vowed to deliver climate targets that would limit Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. That goal, if met, would satisfy the most aspirational aims of the 2015 Paris agreement.

Not finished there, they also committed to protecting 30 percent of the world’s land and 30 percent of oceans by 2030.

The coal financing declaration adds to the 171 public and private banks, insurers and asset managers with formal exclusion policies relating to coal lending, investment and/or insurance policies.

It is a clear indication that coal is an industry on its last legs.

“It gives a very strong signal to the world that coal is an energy of the past and has no place in our future energy mix – it sets the stage for a radical transition towards clean energy.” – Barbara Pompili

Coal figured in an historic ruling by an Australian Federal Court judge that the country’s environment minister has a duty of care to avoid harm to young people as a result of climate change.

Eight Australian high school students and a catholic nun who acted as their litigation representative started the legal action.

They argued that federal environment minister Sussan Ley would be negligent if she decided to approve an application from the Vickery coal mine to extract an additional 33 million tonnes of coal from the mine which could have resulted in 100 million tonnes of additional greenhouse gas emissions.

In a landmark decision, federal court judge Mordecai Bromberg agreed that the federal environment minister owed a duty of care to young people to prevent harm as a result of climate change, dismissing many of the counterarguments made by the environment minister.

“By reference to contemporary social conditions and community standards, a reasonable Minister for the Environment ought to have the Children in contemplation when facilitating the emission of 100 Mt of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere,” judge Bromberg’s judgement says.

Ley had argued that no such duty of care existed as there were no reasonably foreseeable climate change-related consequences resulting from the extraction of additional coal from the coal mine.

Ley had also claimed that climate change mitigation efforts go beyond the bounds of her portfolio responsibilities as another minister has the climate change portfolio.

Ava Princi, one of the students who brought the legal challenge, said she was “thrilled” by the decision.

“We understand it is the first time a Court of law, anywhere in the world, has ordered a government to specifically protect young people from the catastrophic harms of climate change. My future – and the future of all young people – depends on Australia joining the world in taking decisive climate action.” – Ava Princi

Then came Black Wednesday (May 26th) when conclusions reached by shareholders, board members, and a court in the Hague signalled an accelerating transition away from a fossil fuel economy.

A ruling from the District Court of the Hague, where Royal Dutch Shell is headquartered, orders Shell to cut its global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent within the next 10 years.

The court found the massive energy company’s ongoing fossil fuel operations undermine basic guaranteed human rights. It said that Shell is directly culpable for the climate impacts created by the normal usage of the products it sells, namely oil and gas.

It rejected the company’s arguments that not selling these products would result in others selling the same, or that the responsibility lies with consumers rather than fossil fuel companies.

Shell has said it will appeal the “disappointing” ruling.

The legal action was brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) together with 17,000 co-plaintiffs and six other organizations.

“This is a monumental victory for our planet, for our children and is a step towards a livable future for everyone,” says Donald Pols, director of Friends of the Earth Netherlands. “The judge has left no room for doubt: Shell is causing dangerous climate change and must stop its destructive behaviour now.”
“This is a turning point in history. This case is unique because it is the first time a judge has ordered a large polluting company to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement. This ruling may also have major consequences for other big polluters.” Roger Cox

Next a majority of shareholders of major oil and gas companies backed groundbreaking climate-related shareholder proposals at meetings on Black Wednesday.

ExxonMobil shareholders voted to replace at least two of the company’s board of directorswith Gregory Goff, former CEO of Andeavor oil refining company, and Kaisa Hietala, former executive vice president of renewable products at Neste.

The proposal, filed by Engine No. 1, called for replacing four board directors with a slate of new climate-competent directors. Two other board members may still be replaced with more climate friendly directors.

Climate Action 100+, the world’s largest investor engagement initiative, flagged the vote as worthy of shareholder consideration. Investor signatories to the initiative including California Public Employees Retirement System, California State Teachers Retirement System, and New York State Common Retirement Fund all voted for the proposal.

In a statement on its website, Engine No. 1 says: “The energy industry and the world are changing. To protect and enhance value for shareholders, we believe ExxonMobil must change as well. We believe that for ExxonMobil to avoid the fate of other once-iconic American companies, it must better position itself for long-term, sustainable value creation.”

“This election result provides ExxonMobil with the expertise and experience to transform the company by developing a successful response to the climate emergency.” – Thomas P. DiNapoli

Shareholders also voted to support other climate-related proposals at Exxon including a proposal asking the company to report how its climate lobbying aligns with the goals of the Paris Agreement and a proposal seeking disclosure of the climate change risks the fossil fuel dependent company faces.

Meanwhile, at Chevron, the company’s management suffered a major blow when 61% of shareholders voted for a proposal from shareholder activist FollowThis calling for the company to follow its European peers and set a target for its product, or scope 3, GHG emissions.

Chevron is second on the list of fossil fuel firms with the biggest cumulative carbon emissions; ExxonMobil is third and Shell sixth.

Although the proposal does not require Chevron to set a target of how much it needs to cut emissions or by when, the overwhelming support for it shows growing investor frustration with companies which they believe, are not doing enough to tackle climate change.

Two other major oil companies, ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66, had already suffered investor revolts over climate inaction in recent weeks.

“Climate change is a financial risk and as fiduciaries, we need to ensure that boards are not just independent and diverse, but climate competent.” – Anne Simpson

Whether Big Oil has met its Waterloo and is doomed as I wrote about in a recent column, remains to be seen but the groundwork is definitely being laid.

These cataclysmic events have been driven by years of efforts by ordinary citizens and scientists who have warned for decades that the industry and its products were creating a climate crisis.

The industry has been put on notice that business as usual will not be tolerated by the courts, children, shareholders, board members, or non-governmental organizations.

How long it will be before politicians that have propped up Big Oil with billions in subsidies for years reach the same conclusion?

The 2020s is the decade when governments must legislate an accelerated renewable energy transformation; deploy measures to change corporate and individual behaviour; and redirect public expenditures to green initiatives.

At the end of May, an Energy Transition Summit took place which made it clear that net zero by 2050 will be economically achievable if there is an increase in investment and clearer regulation set out by governments.

Civil society has demonstrated emphatically that the time to walk that pathway is now – and without fossil fuels in tow.

“We can now hold multinational corporations accountable for the climate crisis.” – Andy Palmen

 Michael Jessen, a former journalist, restaurant owner, consultant, and recycling coordinator, currently lives and writes at Longbeach on Nelson’s North Shore. He can be reached at