• Scott Roberts

What's Wrong With Shells Drive Carbon Neutral Campaign?

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Since October 2019 Shell has been running a campaign praising their latest green scheme. The idea is very simple. As a Shell Go+ member, you simply scan your membership card every time you pay for fuel. Shell will calculate the emissions that will have been released as a result of that transaction and purchase carbon credits to offset the emissions released. The posters have appeared on Shell petrol station forecourts with the headline “Drive Carbon Neutral” usually seen on a background of lush green rainforest. This campaign is being investigated by the UK Advertising Standards Agency.

For drivers, this campaign offers a very appealing idea. When electric vehicles are priced out of the average consumer's budget, this is a scheme that requires little to no effort from the consumer whilst offering to soothe any environmental guilt they may have. Though it sounds good in theory, I’d like to show how this campaign assumes ignorance within its consumer and takes a lot of responsibility away from Shell having to deal with the emissions they are adding to the world.

Action Without Any Real Action

Let us first deal with the complications of this scheme and how it requires little effort from Shell. The success of this scheme relies entirely on the projects that Shell are purchasing their carbon credits from. There are many projects around the world which try to reduce carbon emissions. This could include cycle to work schemes, rewilding projects, community allotments or even carbon capture technologies. One of the most common projects we see are tree planting schemes and these are often a primary candidate for any carbon offsetting or carbon credit programs run by businesses. Carbon credits work on the premise that if a project were to remove 1 tonne of carbon from the atmosphere, a company could pay this project for the ability to release 1 tonne of carbon into the atmosphere. The focus isn’t on removing or stopping emissions but balancing the projects we know help mitigate the crisis with the necessary practises we know will aggravate it. I’m sure you can see the issues with this idea.

There is no actual removal of carbon in this scheme; the petrol you buy and put into the car is still going to pollute the atmosphere. We are relying on a project that is separate from our actions and separate from the actions of Shell to mitigate the emissions that we are releasing. There is no ironclad guarantee for the effectiveness of the projects that are selling carbon credits. The projects Shell utilises are checked by an independent body but it still means measuring uncertain and unseen practises against the obvious certainty that using fossil fuels will harm the planet.

A Difficult Situation For Any Energy Company

Shell has a very difficult task of getting consumers to continue buying a product that they know is damaging. They know that there is a growing public conscience and a need for companies to be seen to act on forward-thinking green policies. However, the idea that this campaign promotes is very weak. It doesn’t reduce the problem by removing carbon, it doesn’t promote positive climate action, it doesn’t even highlight any action on Shell's part in actively dealing with the climate crisis. It instead proposes a solution whereby Shell continues to sell their product, gains an amount of buying power from their consumer by soothing any environmental guilt upon product purchase and relies on the efforts of others to deal with the consequences. Clean energy is not the main focus of Shell. The majority of their investment goes into fossil fuels. For consumers to view this campaign and come away with an idea that Shell is playing an active part in solving the climate crisis is dangerous. And as I will discuss shortly, fairly ignorant of today's consumer.

Shell does say on their UK website when talking about this scheme that there are many ways to reduce our emissions but not all are an immediate possibility. This is a scheme that is here for customers who want to make a difference right now and allay some of the environmental guilt they may feel as a consumer. This could be forgiven if it wasn’t for the outrageous claim of being able to “drive carbon neutral”. To say that consumers can drive carbon-neutral, one of the biggest challenges faced by any sector or industry, simply by scanning a membership card and hoping that someone else will take care of it is fundamentally lazy. This is the major flaw of this campaign, in that it wrongly assumes a level of ignorance within the UK consumer.

The New Eco-Conscience Consumer

The modern consumer can not be labelled as ignorant or lazy when it comes to environmental issues. In the last year alone we have seen the general public demonstrate an awareness and an unprecedented understanding of environmental concerns. Not only has action been taken in some of the biggest climate protests we’ve seen, but the issues have made it into the shared concerns of the nation alongside dominating topics like Brexit and the state of our NHS. To suggest that a consumer can drive carbon neutral in such an easy manner is insulting to the intelligence of that consumer. They are a consumer that has shown a growing level of interest in the environment and who is becoming more knowledgeable about the difficulties of going carbon neutral. They are a consumer who will no longer be fooled by bold claims like being able to drive carbon neutral with little or no action on their part or by the company they’re engaging with.

So how could this campaign have reached a more engaged consumer and present Shell in a likeness that allows it to continue trading with a known damaging product whilst putting the consumer mind at ease? That’s a question perhaps too big for one blog post… There is a fundamental issue here in talking about a necessary item that is becoming increasingly dubious when held to global moral standards. Shell need to do more. They need to change as a company and become a driving force for the industry changes that need to happen. The only way for them to connect with their customers and allay some of their concerns is to present the facts. And right now, the facts of this campaign do Shell no favours. With proactive investment and a greater focus on clean energy, Shell can perhaps begin to deliver a service and a product that can sit easily with the modern consumer. And no longer will they have to hide behind a greenwashed quick fix that in the modern day, nobody is going to buy.