Sustainable Returns

Very few Big Oil climate targets 'have meaning': Former BP CEO Lord John Browne

Key Points
  • As BP CEO John Browne was an early pioneer of clean energy investing in the oil sector to confront climate change.
  • He says the amount of investment each year to control climate issues will need to increase by over $2 trillion.
  • He says many companies across sectors today have set science-based targets for reducing carbon, but meaningful plans are not there.

In this article

Former Treasury official Sarah Bloom Raskin on regulators' role in climate, ESG action
Former Treasury official Sarah Bloom Raskin on regulators' role in climate

Big Oil CEOs can no longer express doubt that burning of fossil fuels is a large contributor to climate change. Former BP CEO John Browne was way ahead of his time, though, as an oil CEO making renewable energy investments and reducing greenhouse gas emissions over 25 years ago. Now, as oil executives testify before Congress on Thursday about climate change, Browne says the big picture hasn't really changed — at least not nearly enough to achieve carbon reduction goals.

"I wish the oil industry had done something about this 25 years ago," Browne, now BeyondNetZero Chair, said at the CNBC ESG Impact summit on Thursday.

Browne said he was pleased to see oil companies are now "at least talking the right language," and "signaling virtues" but when it comes down to it, "very few are setting targets which really have meaning that have plans to deliver."

A customer refuels a car at a gas station in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The issue isn't limited to the energy sector. Roughly 1,800 companies have committed to Paris 2050 climate goals, but only 50% of those companies have set carbon reduction targets, and only 10% of those companies have plans to deliver.

"It's getting the plans to deliver. It's not just setting the targets. Those plans are in short supply everywhere," Browne said. 

And even for companies that have plans, the plans will require increasingly large investments.

The amount invested annually will need to rise from $1.2 trillion to $3.5 trillion. "It's a big change, and that change has to be done every year for the next decade," Browne said.

"We need to convert the conviction into conduct and actually step up to the plate with the authorities that various agencies have," said former Treasury Department Deputy Secretary Sarah Bloom Raskin, who spoke with Browne at ESG Impact.

The U.S. government Financial Stability Oversight Council held a meeting of multiple agencies last week on climate risks.

"We need to start to create for the private sector the milestones, the measurable guideposts in which to operate," she said, adding it is the "only way there will be real momentum to what the ESG movement is meant to accomplish."

For his old peers in the oil and gas sector, Browne said it is a difficult transition to make because shareholders in the energy sector demand dividends and cash flow to be returned to investors in what is a maturing business.

BP is again at the forefront of efforts to transition, scaling back its oil and gas production, and deciding to reduce shareholder return programs to increase renewable energy investment. But even among the European majors which have moved more quickly to embrace energy transition as a business model, tensions with investors remain.

Browne's comments came a day after activist investor Dan Loeb of Third Point Management said Royal Dutch Shell should be broken up into multiple companies because it can't satisfy all shareholder needs or attract new shareholders trying to combine an old energy company with a new one.

"That is a push pull," Browne said. Oil and has companies have to balance the investment in new clean energy projects, against investments other specialist firms are making in renewable energy, and against their investor expectations for shareholder returns. "It is all a balancing act," he said.

Oil company executives to testify on climate change
Oil company executives to testify on climate change