Partnership with Shell



This week, the University of Exeter announced a new net zero collaboration with Shell. This five-year deal represents a significant amount of income to the University. This money will pay for research in the UK and Brazil that “is part of a wider Shell-led research programme focussed on carbon sequestration, which aligns with Shell’s target to be a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050.”

I was not involved in any decisions about this collaboration. I think it is a mistake. Beyond reputational risks to the University of Exeter, this new partnership with Shell risks providing a major oil and gas company with a social licence to maintain its core fossil fuel operations. Shell continues to develop new oil and gas fields. This will liberate carbon that will further increase atmospheric concentrations and drive warming beyond 1.5°C. The only way that we can avoid further dangerous global warming is to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Proposals of mass tree planting or other so-called “nature based solutions” at gigaton scale are dangerous fantasies.

It is the case that important science around the carbon cycle will be conducted because of Shell’s funding. Hard working and talented researchers will gain valuable experience and progress their careers. The University of Exeter will benefit from the publication of high quality papers and the development of further funding proposals. I know some of the scientists and some of the professional services staff involved in this work. These are people I respect and admire. None of this changes the nature of the collaboration and why it is a mistake.

The trouble with net zero

I have not made my concerns around net zero secret. I have co-authored an article about it. I have given many interviews about it. This year I gave a talk at a TED event about some of the dangers of carbon offsets and net zero. Beyond general issues about net zero policies, this new arrangement with Shell is a cause for serious concern.

Last year, a report by Johan Rockström and Gail Whiteman argued that Shell’s net zero plan is better seen as a defence of its core oil and gas business, which it is planning to expand, than a genuine energy transition. The report stated that “in a rigorous peer-reviewed analysis by 16 scientists, we found serious problems with the feasibility of Shell’s pathway.” Rather than propose meanignful reductions in the extraction and use of oil and gas, Shell intends to protect its core fossil fuel operations by offsetting the carbon dioxide it produces by tree planting. Rockström and Whiteman provide their withering assessment of such plans: “Offsetting carbon emissions with forest growth at this scale is a dangerous fantasy”.

Earlier this year, legal action was taken against the directors of Shell for failing to properly prepare for net zero. Last year a Shell campaign that claimed its customers can offset their emissions was ruled to be misleading by the Netherland’s advertising watchdog. Over this past summer, students protested at the University of Cambridge in the light of the Chemistry department’s partnership with Shell. Cambridge students argued that the university should not be facilitating the continued extraction of fossil fuels. Client Earth has a set of resources dedicated to greenwashing at Shell.

Counting the costs

While this new partnership represents a significant stream of research funding for the University of Exeter, it barely registers in Shell’s accounts. Shell’s revenue for the twelve months ending September 2022 was $375billion, a 65% annual increase. The company currently sits on over $50billion in cash. Independent assessments have concluded that Shell is committing $46billion for fossil fuel development and exploration for the period 2022- 2030. Shell does invest in low carbon energy development. Some of its efforts in this area should be supported. But it remains first and foremost a fossil fuel business that is committed to the extraction of oil and gas.

I fear that while the University of Exeter’s partnership with Shell may makes good business sense, it undermines not just the University’s reputation, but the futures of our students.