The benefits of environmental hypocrisy

Atle Midttun, Nina Witoszek

How hypocrisy can play a constructive role in the ongoing green transformation.

In a dramatic essay published by biggest Norwegian daily Aftenposten on 10 July 2021, two leading academics, Dag O. Hessen and Thomas Hylland Eriksen, accused adult generations of “stealing” decent living conditions from future generations.

Like Greta Thunberg, they appeal to our feelings of guilt – feelings which begin to disturb the fossil peace of the oil industry.  A peremptory glance at the latest annual reports from many oil companies shows resplendent “green enthusiasm”. BP took a huge green leap in 2019 when chairman of the board, Helge Lund, declared: “We enter a new decade with a new company purpose: to reimagine energy for people and our planet. We also set a new ambition: to become a net-zero company by 2050 or sooner.”

It is almost too good to be true. But now, Norwegian Equinor has also joined the green chorus. The chairman of the board, Jon Erik Reinhardsen, has said that the largest reorganization of energy systems in modern times is underway, and Equinor is well placed for the changes to come.

Hypocrisy or a pipe dream?

Becoming “net-zero in CO2 by 2050” has become a cliché for European oil companies. It is pertinent to ask whether this is an exercise in wishful thinking, or, plain hypocrisy, or both. According to William Todts of the industry association Transport and Environment, “The oil industry´s PR game has improved, but there´s nothing new about their actual practice, which, in reality, is about perpetuating Europe´s addiction to oil imports”.

Still, oil hypocrisy should not be dismissed quite so easily.  There are reasons to believe that it can play a constructive role in a seemingly impossible transition to green economy. In the words of the French philosopher François de La Rochefoucauld: “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.” That is to say, an actor who previously didn’t see anything negative in his own actions gets a bad conscience and must pretend to agree with his critics.

Eventually the gap between words and deeds becomes too large and the moral burden of continuing business as usual gets too heavy for the actor in question, leading him to change previous actions.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

In short, the relentless repetition of half-truths leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

This process is well described in a book, Built to Last, a classical text on strategy published in 1994 by Jim Collins and James Poras. Built to Last insists that companies should strive for big, “hairy” goals, even if they seem utopian.

According to a BI study, international oil companies have gone through 3 phases – corresponding to three perceptions of the oil industry – on the road to “hairy” climate goals:

  • Oil is good.
  • Oil is not so good. Petroleum must be marginally adapted to the climate through “clean petroleum”.
  • Oil is bad. The oil industry must get out of petroleum.

“Clean Petroleum” was obviously hypocritical in a contradictory combination of oil and purity. CO2 emissions from oil are inevitable when oil is burned.

The ‘out of oil’ approach seems even more hypocritical because it apparently involves the suicide of the oil industry.

The oil industry's resources for transformation

That said, there is extensive evidence to the effect that the oil industry has massive resources if it decides to go green. Production technology for oil and gas can be reused in offshore wind and advanced fish farming. Competences in transport can be invested in capturing and saving carbon. Refining can be turned to bio-refining. Petrol stations can be resurrected as energy stations offering charging, biofuels and hydrogen, in combination with retail and food.

Danish Örsted and Finnish Neste are two Nordic examples. Both have been reborn as successful green companies. Örsted did it by buying up electricity production and selling off its petroleum portfolio. It is presently turning itself into a clean offshore wind company.

Neste did it by turning itself into a large-scale bio-refining company that has become a leading global player. Both companies have benefited from the paradigm shift – judging by their higher share prices and better profits – compared to their petroleum colleagues.

Out of the borderland of hypocrisy

Obviously, climate effects are not exclusively caused by the transformation of oil companies. There is little point in many European oil companies selling their oil portfolios to international financial players – such as The Carlyle Group – that are happy to increase their oil production. In order to succeed, European politicians have to implement their bold climate goals and emerge from the borderland of hypocrisy.

In Norway, Oslo’s Green influenced City Council launched a highly ambitious plan for CO2 reductions. It is far from meeting its goals. Recently many of the city´s buses were taken off biofuels and put back on diesel.

Germany has signalled a similar retreat. No so long ago, it proclaimed a radical “Energiwende”, a massive transition to green energy. At the same time, Germany has invested heavily in the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 – ready to increase the use of Russian gas if Norway and Equinor are serious about their changes.

The transition away from fossil fuel cars has only just begun. The bigger climate effects will only be tangible once the European car industry, and heating and electricity production go green. While the oil hypocrisy continues, the UN climate report earlier this year illustrated several horror scenarios. If the bad conscience from stealing the future of Thunberg’s generation does not lead to effective action, both politicians and business leaders risk being be put, literally, on trial.

We are already seeing the some signs of this scenario playing out. The German constitutional court ordered the government to present detailed emissions reduction measures to meet its climate goals. In this way, the cost of deep climate adaptation measures will not be pushed onto future generations.  Ditto the recent sentence against Shell in a Dutch court where the company was forced to commit to reducing CO2 emissions by 45 per cent by 2030.

The former Arne Næss-Professor Polly Higgins fought to introduce “ecocide” – analogous to genocide – as a crime against humanity and nature. The quoted court verdicts illustrate that, in order to fight ecocide, civil society needs sharp legal teeth. As yet, the teeth are biting mostly in Europe. Other regions in the world have barely reached the stage of hypocrisy.


Published 27. October 2021

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