Fossil Fuels

Total: An Illusion of Climate Strategy

Total likes to present itself as a responsible business with a strategy for dealing with climate change. The French company even published its own climate strategy, explaining how it intends to contribute to the goal of keeping global warming below 2°C. But as 350.org France and Observatoire des multinationales reveal in this new report, Total’s actions and strategy are completely at odds with effective action to tackle the climate crisis.

Total is facing pressure from some of its investors who are demanding that the company clarify its strategy for dealing with the climate issue. During the 2016 annual general meeting, the chairman at Total published a document presenting the key features of this climate strategy. Entitled “Integrating Climate Into our Strategy”, this is meant to show how Total intends to respect and implement the international objective, established by the Paris Agreement, to keep current global warming temperatures below 2ºC. At the same time, the company’s chairman announced several acquisitions (Saft, Lampiris) which were advertised as a commitment to the energy transition.

This report consists of an analysis of the climate strategy announced by Total, for the purposes of assessing the reality and ambitions of the measures implemented by the group’s management, in the wake of his announcements.

It especially shows that Total’s climate strategy:
- does not effectively or seriously address the climate crisis and its implications;
- does not constitute a significant redirection of the strategy which the company has been pursuing for many years,
- and is characterised by a large number of omissions or misrepresentations of the issues, which shed doubt on the sincerity of the exercise.

Specifically:

- Total’s climate strategy legitimises the large continued investments to develop new gas and oil deposits in the years to come, whereas fossil fuels are by far the main causes of the climate crisis. This approach is only compatible with the 2ºC target if we rely heavily on costly and controversial technology whose effectiveness has yet to be proven, especially carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). These technologies, however, remain coupled with an intensive use of nuclear power. Without these hazardous solutions, the conclusion should be the complete opposite: freeze the development of new gas and oil deposits, and start planning the anticipated end of the existing deposits.

- The few precise commitments announced by Total executives on the subject of energy transition appear to be very modest, in both terms of ambition and finance. The amount of money dedicated to R&D is marginal in comparison to the billions of euros invested in the exploitation of gas and oil. In addition, these commitments almost exclusively target gas, agrofuels or even carbon capture and sequestration, in contrast to renewable energy and energy efficiency which should be at the forefront of a real transition. There appears to be deliberate confusion in this strategy on the part of the company’s management.

- Like the majority of other energy and oil giants, Total executives insist that gas plays a key role in the energy transition, without specifying that this would largely be unconventional gas and that its real benefits for the climate, in comparison to coal, are very debatable. The management at Total is sidestepping this debate by presenting, in a particularly cavalier way, the results of a study on this issue which they had commissioned.

- Alongside all this, Total continues to invest in sensitive areas (the Arctic) or in very risky and polluting practices (oil sands, shale gas, extreme offshore drilling).

Overall, the climate strategy published by Total’s management appears to be an exercise in communication aimed at reassuring their employees, investors and other external stakeholders as well as the public authorities, in which they put forward measures of little consequence.

The public position adopted by Total’s chairman on the climate issue certainly distinguishes them positively from their North American counterparts (but not necessarily their European counterparts), but the actual content of the climate strategy does not shield the company from accusations of duplicity, which they have previously faced. We especially do not see how this concretely modifies the company’s strategy. The document written by Total’s chairman rather suggests that he is attempting to circumvent the debate at little cost, to continue in the same direction all the while appeasing most of the criticism.

Download this executive summary and the foreword in English, or the full report in French.

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Photo : Dan Simpson CC