Evaluating Ambitions and Omissions in BP’s 2020 Sustainability Report (Shortened)
Updated: Dec 19, 2022
A prominent leader of the oil and gas industry, BP is just one of many major corporations that has recently begun to be scrutinized for its contributions to modern environmental issues. Responsible for decades worth of emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels and one of history’s most devastating oil spills at Deepwater Horizon, the company is known largely for the harmful – even irreversible – ways in which it has altered the natural world. However, the acceleration of climate change, combined with pressures from an increasingly worried public, has encouraged BP to pursue a radically different path – one that appears to prioritize the environment above all else. Through current initiatives to transition to renewable energy and limit company waste, as well as a detailed list of aims for a cleaner future, BP highlights in its 2020 Sustainability Report its newfound commitment to shifting its business in a positive direction. But despite the feasibility of several of its goals and the strides that it has already made in reducing its environmental impact, the company neglects to adequately address several key components of sustainability and continues to remain a leader in the nonrenewable energy sector. Readers and skeptics alike, thus, are inevitably left with a burning question: Is BP really as green as it seems, or is it still the oil-hungry – and more so, money-hungry, company that it has arguably always been?
Throughout its 2020 Sustainability Report, BP makes it clear that it hopes to bring positive change to people’s health, financial security, and communities. In fact, the phrases “improve people’s lives” or “improving people’s lives” are mentioned at least 19 times in the report, perhaps in an attempt to emphasize a strong set of core company values to an unconvinced audience. BP’s aim to hit net zero across all operations by 2050 only begins to scratch the surface of this pledge to improve lives. The company certainly does seem to have made substantial reductions in its emissions over the past decade, having lowered its overall emissions and methane intensity earlier than planned and subsequently creating even more ambitious goals for emissions reductions (31). Despite how admirable these goals may be, however, their plausibility is questionable. Based on BP’s current trajectory, it seems unlikely for the company to hit net zero by 2050: By 2030, for example, the company aims to be only 30% to 35% of the way to net zero operations and 35% to 40% of the way to net zero oil and gas (33). Given that the company wants to eliminate its net greenhouse gas consumption by 2050, this would mean that within only twenty years it would have to transform its operations significantly to reach the 100% mark. The same rationale applies to BP’s transition to renewable energy: Its goal is “to have developed 50GW of net renewable generating capacity by 2030, with around 20GW of that achieved by 2025” (51). This once again requires that BP significantly increase both its investment in and its construction of renewable energy facilities, which may be difficult to achieve in a mere five years. With that being said, it is commendable that BP has already invested heavily in wind and solar power, and its partnerships with both Equinor and EnBW show promise in expanding access to renewable energy for people in New York and in the United Kingdom, respectively.
Another of BP’s major aims is to halve the carbon intensity of its products by 2050 at the latest. The process outlined to achieve this goal is quite thorough, as it involves not only utilizing biogas and bioenergy but also expanding use of green hydrogen and developing new carbon storage technologies. As the company has already researched these methods and would therefore not have to start from scratch, the goal of significantly reducing carbon intensity seems on the surface to be feasible. However, published data on BP’s performance in 2019 and 2020 tells a less optimistic story, as the average emissions intensity of almost all of BP’s products hardly fell at all, and the emissions intensity of its gas products remained the same (37). While such short-term data can be misleading, it is worth considering simply because the majority of BP’s report features this kind of data – for example, measurements collected over the span of two or three years – to show the company’s improvement over a very short period of time. In the case of carbon emissions intensity, BP clearly acknowledged that any changes from 2019 to 2020 were “largely a result of the reduction in sales of refined products, due to the COVID-19 pandemic” (37). The company failed to mention, though, what it expects to happen following the pandemic, once sales return to their normal levels. These information gaps together leave readers questioning whether carbon emissions intensity really will decrease later on, as well as why BP chose to exclude this valuable information from its report.
BP’s description of its treatment of oil spills has a similar mix of perks and pitfalls. Its commitment to decrease the number of oil spills is evident, and following the Deepwater Horizon accident the company has begun to take malfunctions more seriously. The company claims to use the Root Cause Analysis logic tree when investigating spills, and it also has a strategy in place (though not fully articulated in the report) to minimize risks of future spills. However, though BP’s total spills decreased from 152 to 121 from 2019 to 2020, both numbers are still relatively large (17). This could be indicative of a disconnect between executives and workers or a flaw in the design of the oil rigs, among other issues. And because numbers are once again only provided for two years, we cannot be certain that oil spills will continue to decrease in the future: The use of short-term data may be “noise” designed to distract us from a much more important signal. Is BP really reducing its oil spills over time, or was that just the case for this two-year period? Is the company avoiding improving conditions at oil rigs to save money for something – or someone – else?
BP’s aim to unlock circularity is likewise intriguing. The company has done a praiseworthy job reducing its hazardous wastes from 2018 to 2020, and its waste-focused goals – to reduce single-use plastics and to package products with entirely biodegradable packaging – seem plausible, especially because it has the financial means to invest in more eco-friendly products (73, 74). To enhance its waste management profile further, BP could have also included plans to expand its commercial composting program beyond its current scope (it is currently only in Auckland), as well as a more thorough description of the energy required to actually handle hazardous and non-hazardous wastes. As food waste and certain forms of energy both contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, prioritizing these issues would arguably be worthwhile.
Some of the strengths of BP’s report lie in the realm of equal rights for humans in and out of the workplace. The company displays a strong commitment to maintaining and improving its employees’ workplace rights, as well as to increasing minority representation across the board. In fact, BP has already created several thousand jobs in developing countries in Africa and aims to fill at least 30% of senior level leader jobs with women – both essential steps in encouraging people of a variety of backgrounds to join its increasingly diverse community (58, 61). Also within the realm of human empowerment is BPs fifteenth aim, which is to improve the wellbeing of all of its employees and associated workers. BP has several feasible goals in this arena, including to train all of its leaders on how to address mental health issues and to encourage employees to actively take care of their personal hygiene (63). These goals are neither financially challenging nor logistically challenging, as their primary focus is education rather than development of new technologies. However, while the report does mention initiatives to treat office workers, it fails to list ways in which BP will provide mental health support to the oil rig workers themselves. As these workers often must contend with the added difficulties of unpleasant weather or smells, backbreaking labor, and potentially even stress following oil spills, BP should be doing more to give them the mental health support they might need. Thus, even in the area of human rights and workplace equality, BP does show room for improvement.
The other major strengths of BP’s sustainability report lie in the biological sphere. In fact, one of BP’s twenty major aims is to enhance biodiversity – a goal that it hopes to achieve by starting new projects, improving existing ones, and supporting other projects that aren’t directly associated with the company. Within the next several years, BP hopes to use its partnership with Flora & Fauna International to have a net positive impact on biodiversity, whether by implementing conservation areas for marine wildlife or by making urban environments habitable for a wider range of species (67). Already, BP appears to have made strides in biodiversity management through not only its collaboration with organizations such as the UK Business & Biodiversity Forum but also its own environmental restoration efforts. Lightsource BP, for instance, has been “planting wildflowers to support bees and other pollinator species, creating bird and bat shelters, and providing habitats for reptiles and amphibians” (68). Despite that BP could have more clearly articulated its specific plans to preserve biodiversity and natural resources, overall it does a good job of demonstrating interest and activity in both without making grandiose promises that it may fail to keep.
Although BP has not yet put its oil and gas operations to rest, the twenty goals highlighted in its 2020 Sustainability Report indicate that the company is beginning to take a turn for the better. However, the lack of sufficient detail in the report, as well as the company’s failure to address the potentially negative consequences of some of its ongoing environmental initiatives, does raise concern about just how sustainable BP really is. As large corporations have historically had a tremendously negative impact on the communities surrounding them, it is imperative that they finally choose to look inwards and form goals that are actionable. After all, it is ultimately the behaviors of a company that prevail over its words. One can only hope that BP – a longstanding symbol of nonrenewable resource depletion and environmental degradation – agrees.
“Reimagining energy for people and our planet: bp sustainability report 2020.” bp, https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/sustainability/group-reports/bp-sustainability-report-2020.pdf.