Are Europe’s oil and gas majors prepared for the climate change challenge?
In 2020 we saw what could prove to be a milestone year for the energy sector. Major oil and gas firms were finally willing to publicly address one of the industry’s main taboos – their contribution to climate change and their strategic efforts to address it. The momentum may be more survivalist than philanthropic, perhaps driven by the influence of active and engaged responsible investors, but it is clear the companies are starting to define their role in the transition.
Climate change and its effects have become a defining theme of our time. Ever since the start of the industrial revolution, our economies have required the burning of carbon-intensive fossil fuels on a massive scale, and this has led to equally massive emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), including carbon dioxide (CO2). Science has now charted this reality through clear and reliable data which starkly sets out the challenge before us.
About three quarters of GHG emissions relate to the burning of fossil fuels. To reduce them in any meaningful way, governments, businesses and individuals will all have to change habits and behaviours. The major companies in the sector, known collectively as the Integrated Oil Companies (IOCs), have faced growing pressure over their contribution to global GHG emissions and in turn, climate change.
But over the last year we have arrived at a moment where all European IOCs have clearly outlined energy transition strategies with targets to achieve net zero by 2050 on direct (known as scope 1 and 2) and indirect (scope 3) GHG emissions. Some are at more advanced stages than others, and slight differences also exist in the way companies define their targets. This complicates like-for-like comparisons, but all intend to use the same tools and act on the same levers to get there.
This is a fast-moving theme for investors to understand and we expect to refresh and reassess our analysis on a regular basis. Execution risks exist, but so far it seems to us that European IOCs will be able to reduce their scope 1 and 2 emissions in line with the targets they have set, at least to 2030.
Addressing the more prominent scope 3 emissions (around 85% of the total) is more challenging. This process will partly rely on technologies that are yet to mature or which do not yet exist, and on changes in the companies’ business models. Most importantly, it will require drastic societal changes over which the IOCs have no direct control.
Progress can be achieved here by reducing the carbon intensity of sales or removing carbon from the atmosphere. This implies developing renewable electricity businesses, developing carbon sinks and shifting the product mix towards lower-carbon products (typically more natural gas, more biofuels, and more chemicals – which trap the carbon if they are not burnt, like plastics). Scope 3 is the real challenge for companies’ current business models – the factor that is pushing them towards becoming energy companies rather than oil and gas companies.
Alongside this scope 3 conundrum, the European IOCs face other common challenges:
The time discrepancy: The demand to tackle carbon emissions has reached a level of urgency in public opinion that does not match today’s technical capabilities and the timeframe of business and technological developments
The geographical discrepancy: A one-size-fits-all strategy is not applicable as different regions of the globe have different energy profiles and different energy needs. Many analyses are focused on the western world and do not properly factor in areas where access to energy – be it in the form of electricity or natural gas – remains insufficient
Perception: Even the “greenest” oil and gas companies are, first and foremost, oil and gas companies. So far, their efforts have not been rewarded – unlike those of pure/purer players in the renewable energy space. Their legacy operations still overshadow their efforts and new businesses ambitions.
We think that IOCs can play an important role in the transition to a decarbonised energy system and world – but they will need to address these issues head on. They do seem willing, perhaps aware that their survival may depend on it. After reviewing their related strategies, we see Total and Repsol as best placed overall to meet their commitments, while Eni and Shell start from a more difficult position. But every firm we analysed has idiosyncratic features of their pathway, and these will demand close scrutiny from investors seeking to decarbonise portfolios over time.
You can see the full research, including individual assessments of preparedness for each European IOC, by clicking on the link below.
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