[Column] Shell-shocked

Shell is hiding behind a façade of sustainability while investing billions in its fossil fuel ventures. TU Delft should stop looking the other way, Vishal Onkhar writes.

Vishal Onkhar: “Rembrandt’s forays into Indian drawing techniques might have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” said my friend worriedly when I told him that I intended to write an article tying the fossil fuel giant Shell, TU Delft, and the climate crisis together. Indeed, this was a touchy subject if there ever was one, with possible repercussions if broached lightly. But how could I remain tight-lipped when there is widespread ‘greenwashing’ – the act of deceptively marketing undertakings as eco-friendly – of Shell’s ventures to make them seem like environmental exploits rather than environmental exploitation? How could I hold my peace when TU Delft is receiving millions in funding each year from the corporation, while looking the other way at the latter’s hand in bleeding our planet dry of its natural resources? Just how could I stay silent when the company has close ties at every rung of TU Delft – from students to alumni, and from professors to the upper levels of management – who, unwittingly or otherwise, are furthering Shell’s agenda and its unquenchable thirst for oil? And how could I keep quiet when I and my acquaintances too are indirectly party to this massacre of our environment?

With each passing year, Earth Overshoot Day slowly but surely occurs earlier and earlier

There is a Native American proverb [adapted] that goes: ‘When all the trees are cut down, when all the animals are dead, when all the waters are poisoned, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only THEN will you discover … you cannot eat money’. The emphasis on our too-late realisation is simply poetic, in my opinion. As if to foreshadow this, we recently passed Earth Overshoot Day on 22 August, signalling that humanity’s resource consumption for the year had exceeded the Earth’s capacity to regenerate. With each passing year, this date slowly but surely occurs earlier and earlier. This time around, the pandemic, with its lockdowns and shut businesses, granted us a few days’ grace and delayed the arrival of the ill-fated day. But in all probability, this reprieve will not last. The previous decade has been the hottest on record and has fuelled an additional increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters worldwide. At this very moment, we are facing a repeat of the devastating Amazonian forest fires of last year, although it is receiving considerably less media coverage. The latest Australian bushfire season is also arguably the worst in living memory. Along the west coast of the USA, the most intense wildfires in 18 years have blotted out the skies with great billows of smoke. And these are merely one type of natural calamity, and all within the span of less than a year! So, small wonder that heatwaves are melting the Arctic permafrost (in a cruel jest of its name), and as researchers from our very own TU Delft have discovered, ice shelves in Antarctica are cracking and threatening to open the floodgates to glacier collapse.

How does all of this trace back to a multinational corporation like Shell? Well, in 2019, just 18% of the total energy production in the Netherlands came from renewable sources. Although this was a rise from previous years, the Netherlands still lags far behind most European countries like Norway (97%), Sweden (54%), Denmark (50%), the UK (47%), and Finland (37%), to name a few. The poor performance of the Netherlands in the renewable energy sector has happened alongside the extensive anti-climate lobbying of EU and US officials by the oil giant to the tune of at least USD 22 million in 2015, not to mention annual amounts running into the millions to lobby EU policymakers over the course of the last decade. This can hardly be a coincidence.

Shell is the ninth largest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases in the world

More recently, however, Shell has adopted a different approach and lobbied Dutch Government officials to increase the Netherlands’ offshore wind energy target for 2030, after coming under fire from shareholders and the public for investing too little in green energy. It has also pledged to reduce its net carbon footprint by 3-4% and invest USD 300 million in protecting natural ecosystems before 2022, in response to the same pressure. Further, Shell has funded initiatives such as Eco-Runner, Ideas360, and Generation Discover, in which TU Delft has been actively involved. On the surface, these acts give the impression that Shell has turned over a new leaf and is taking committed steps towards saving the planet. The company’s green PR stunts have been so convincing that they have academics and environmentalists alike touting Shell as a cleaner alternative to its competitors. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that this is far from the truth – Shell is the ninth largest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, contributing single-handedly to 1.67% of global emissions. It also invested whopping amounts of USD 25 billion and USD 29 billion in its fossil fuel ventures in 2018 and 2019 respectively, including the search for new ‘proven reserves’ of oil and natural gas. These figures utterly dwarf its spending on renewables. Moreover, Shell’s targets to cut emissions in its existing operations have been widely criticised as being not nearly ambitious enough to meet the terms of the Paris climate agreement. And finally, there is the not-so-small matter of Shell’s role in the destruction of the Niger Delta and the associated human rights violations.

In the end, it would seem that Shell’s motives towards the environment are disingenuous at best, and that its true objective is an unchecked pursuit of profit, no matter the cost to human life, health, and the delicate ecological balance of the Earth. The corporation appears to be perfectly content to hide behind a façade of sustainability, all the while expediting the environmental collapse of our world. And TU Delft is either totally fine with this or too hesitant to raise its voice. A recent poll found that almost nine out of ten people want a more sustainable and equal world post-corona, rather than returning to the way things were before. Indeed, there is no going back now … not anymore. It is time for some real change.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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