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BP’s investors are pushing it to act on climate change, but can they push hard enough?

At its annual shareholder meeting, the oil company accepted a climate resolution proposal. But the company successfully opposed a stronger proposal. How much pressure does it need before it truly addresses its climate impacts?

BP’s investors are pushing it to act on climate change, but can they push hard enough?
[Source Image: Wacomka/iStock]

At BP’s annual meeting today, investors holding billions in shares, including six of the largest fund managers in the U.K., asked the company to adopt a climate resolution in line with the goals of the Paris climate agreement. The resolution passed with 99% support.

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It’s a meaningful moment–the 58 investors that filed the resolution own nearly 10% of the company, and represent the largest group so far to support this type of resolution–but it also doesn’t go far enough, activists say. “I think that given where the world’s scientists are telling us we’re at with climate change, we can’t be tinkering around the edges and making small, incremental progress with companies like BP,” says Ben Cushing, a campaigner from the Sierra Club who attended the shareholder meeting with an Alaskan activist who asked about the company’s plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. During the meeting, other activists protested outside; some inside the meeting started shouting, “This is a crime scene,” and were thrown out.

The climate resolution calls for BP to disclose its strategy for meeting the Paris agreement’s goal of keeping the planet’s warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. It also asks the company to disclose how it evaluates new oil and gas investments in light of climate change, its targets for cutting emissions, and how it links executive pay to meeting those emissions goals. But it doesn’t ask BP about its targets on “Scope 3” emissions, which are outside its direct operations but come from customers using its products–like when people use BP gas in a car. Those emissions are the largest part of the company’s footprint. (Royal Dutch Shell, which made changes in the past after pressure from many of the same investors, does consider Scope 3 emissions, and now has some of the most ambitious climate plans in the industry–albeit still possibly not ambitious enough to address the crisis.)

A separate resolution that asked for targets on those emissions did not pass. “We think it clarifies where the company has to go,” says Danielle Fugere, president and chief counsel for As You Sow, a nonprofit that co-signed the second resolution. “If it’s not addressing its product emissions, it’s failing to address the problem of climate change at the scope and rate necessary to adequately deal with climate change. And that’s a really important issue–how quickly companies are coming to the table.”

BP, along with other fossil fuel giants, is one of a relatively small number of companies that have an outsized impact on climate change; just 25 fossil companies produced half of the world’s emissions over the last few decades, according to a 2017 report. But while the company has said that it supports the goals of the Paris agreement, and the company’s chairman says that BP believes “our strategy is consistent with Paris,” it plans to invest $140 billion in oil and gas over the next decade, according to the nonprofit Global Witness. In one projection for the future energy transition, it says that oil and gas will still account for more than half of global energy in 2040. After Donald Trump’s election, the company played a key role in lobbying to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling.

The new resolution is important, however, because it will help shareholders understand how the company intends to comply with the Paris Agreement and how it defines compliance, says Fugere. But shareholders also need to push for far more ambitious action, says Cushing, and be willing to follow up with divestment if they aren’t getting the necessary results, rather than returning to shareholder meetings year after year. “On climate, we all know that the next decade is incredibly pivotal,” he says. “We have no time to waste.”

A growing number of investors are realizing that. “Shareholders are starting to understand that their portfolios are at risk,” says Fugere. “Not just the company they’re investing in–the BPs or Chevrons of the world–but their entire portfolio becomes much riskier. The economy will start being extremely volatile as climate change increases as impacts increase, and this is across every industry.” Few would have predicted that PG&E, the utility company whose equipment led to devastating wildfires in California, would declare bankruptcy because of climate change. “That’s the kind of unpredictability, volatility, and harm that investors will see across their portfolios from agriculture to technology.”

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Still, some key investors, including Blackrock, have been notably uninterested in supporting climate resolutions (despite Blackrock CEO’s much-lauded letter to CEOs that called for businesses to do more to combine “purpose and profit.”) “If those companies actually decided that they were going to support more aggressive climate action and vote for more shareholder resolutions every year at major polluters, I think we would see action on the shareholder front take off a lot more quickly,” says Cushing.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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