The Shell Sky Scenario: Our Need To Critically Assess Sponsored Corporate Content

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In the first part of this series, we looked at the recent Shell-sponsored Great Energy Debate in Singapore and the way a senior Shell representative framed how fossil fuel companies can “seduce” consumers to switch to renewable energy. Research that went into that article also uncovered other sponsorship mechanisms that Royal Dutch Shell has used this year to create a positive brand image. In 2018, the company released the most recent segment of its New Lens Scenarios — Sky (i.e. “The Sky’s the Limit”) — which builds on the previous Mountains and Oceans Scenarios.

In this second part of our series on fossil fuel companies, we examine two important texts: a MIT white paper on which the Shell Sky scenario is grounded and a Shell sponsored blog post in the New York Times. We discuss implications to the public when highly influential, for-profit companies pay to guide climate change narratives, worldviews, and conclusions.

Sky scenario
Graphic retrieved from Shell Sky scenario leaflet

What is the Energy Mix Described in the 2018 Shell Sky Scenario?

Scenarios are a way to test the effect of possible outcomes, often used by companies like Shell to help decide what direction their company needs to take to stay viable. The Shell Sky scenario considers major changes in the energy industry environment and differential impacts on various sectors of the industry.

Here is the decade-by-decade breakout of our 21st century energy future as described in the Shell Sky scenario.

  • 2020-2030: Carbon capture, reforestation, liquid fuel demand for cars declines, carbon-pricing mechanisms become common around the world
  • 2030-2040: Full global carbon pricing, electricity demand at an all-time high, investments in low-carbon energy, solar and wind capacity quadruples, CO2 storage at all time high
  • 2040-2050: A few countries begin to reach net-zero emissions, first hydrogen intercontinental flight
  • 2050-2060: Solar PV passes oil as world’s largest energy source
  • 2060-2080: Net deforestation ends, all regions reach net-zero emissions, majority of trucks are powered by electricity or hydrogen, wind turbines surge, biofuels overtake oil as liquid fuel components, annual CO2 storage reaches all-time high
  • 2080-beyond: The last few countries achieve net-zero emissions, hydrogen reaches 10% of final energy, and many major cities achieve circular economies (waste, emissions, and energy are minimized due to reductions and reuse).

Sky scenario

MIT Joint Program: Global Change

Sky scenario
MIT Joint Program: Global Change sponsors

The Shell Sky scenario refers specifically to research conducted by MIT under the designation MIT Joint Program: Global Change. The resulting paper is titled, “Meeting the Goals of the Paris Agreement: Temperature Implications of the Shell Sky Scenario.”

The summary of this white paper begins with a discussion how the Paris Agreement makes long-term energy and climate projections. Those projections are important because of the goal to switch to a radically different energy system, a transition which presents challenges for energy companies as they try to anticipate the types of energy and fuels that will be required to meet environmental as well as profitability requirements. The authors then turn to the newest Shell Sky scenario, which examines a net-zero CO2 emissions world by 2070. Using the MIT Integrated Global System Modeling (IGSM) framework, the authors simulate a “400-member ensemble, reflecting uncertainty in Earth system response of global temperature change associated with the Sky scenario by 2100.”

The findings indicate that the Sky scenario produces a global surface temperature increase by 2100 which is 1.75°C above the pre-industrial levels with an 85% probability of remaining below 2°C. The model points to a geographic distribution of the temperature change with stronger warming in Polar regions. The authors add that significant global reforestation with median climate parameters could produce a 1.5°C temperature increase above pre-industrial levels.

Shell is one of the sponsors of the MIT Joint Program: Global Change. Sponsors receive “exclusive benefits” that include direct interaction with the researchers through visits and webinars and early access to research publications.

We at CleanTechnica contacted the author group of “Meeting the Goals of the Paris Agreement: Temperature Implications of the Shell Sky Scenario” for comments about the following questions.

  • Who funded your research for this white paper?
  • To what degree was anyone employed by Shell in any capacity part of the research or writing?
  • Was the white paper reviewed by anyone outside the author group cited on the paper prior to its publication? If so, who, and what was their interest in conducting such a pre-publication review?

In response, Sergey Paltsev, deputy director, MIT Joint Program on Science & Policy of Global Change, pointed us to the Acknowledgements section of the paper, which is also known in shorthand as 330.

A development of the IGSM framework used in the analysis is supported by the by an international consortium of government, industry, and foundation sponsors of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and  Policy of Global Change. For a complete list, see  Shell participated actively in this study, supplying the background data behind their scenarios. MIT remain responsible for all analysis and conclusions. Shell provided a gift of USD 100,000 to the MIT Joint Program, to defray costs related to this research. Martin Haigh represents the Scenarios Team at Shell International Ltd. The paper also benefited from comments from David Hone and John Reilly.

What inferences can we draw from this research and this Acknowledgment?

  • Shell had insider status to the research as it was in progress, participating “actively” and “supplying background data.”
  • Shell provided $100,000 to the MIT Joint Program “to defray costs related to this research.” The “gift,” in all likelihood, assured the researchers of adequate staffing, up-to-date technology, and status in a way that other researchers around the world at the time did not have.
  • Martin Haigh has been working for Shell for 14 years and has been a member of the Shell Scenarios Team for the last 12. He speaks the language of Shell and would have shared the company’s perspectives with the MIT research team.
  • David Hone is Shell’s Chief Climate Change Adviser. Since 2008 he has written a weekly blog, through Shell, about energy and climate change issues, from the personal perspective of somebody working in the oil and gas industry. His perspectives about climate change are framed by his employment by Shell.
  • John Reilly is a co-director of the MIT Joint Program and an energy, environmental, and agricultural economist. As a secondary level author of the recent white paper, “Modeling Uncertainty in Integrated Assessment of Climate Change: A Multimodel Comparison,” Reilly contributed to findings that “parametric uncertainty is more important than uncertainty in model structure.” It could be argued that these findings — in which quantification of uncertainties in system outputs from uncertain outputs take precedence over model structure — are at odds with the Sky scenario, which focuses on model structure.

Sponsored Posts, Shell, and the New York Times

Through the power of content marketing, companies build awareness for their brand and products within a medium that is familiar to them in today’s internet age — the blog post. For those of you who do not blog (our CleanTechnica site is, actually, a blog platform), there is a mechanism to keep a post at the top of the queue. That setting means when a potential reader/viewer does a search with keywords consistent with a company’s blog post central topic, that post will come up at the top of the queue. Date of publication becomes irrelevant until the blog host removes the top-of-the-queue command.

Perhaps that sounds too technical, too nerdy to be of importance, but when a company writes its own blog post narrative and affixes parameters for publication so that the post comes up at the top of an internet search, over and over, the impact on the intended audience is swift and efficacious.

After all, we don’t really have time to scroll down the queue, right, and see a variety of content options, do we? We don’t really spend much time figuring out who wrote the article and why, do we? We don’t really make the conscious effort to step back from the content and techniques to mine the text’s interpretations for messages and meanings, do we? We take for granted that representations and reality are the same in stylized online texts, don’t we?

Shell sponsored post

(Editorial disclaimer: We at CleanTechnica accept sponsored posts that relate to our clean technology mission. You can identify our sponsored posts by the designated sponsor signature in the author line.)

A summary of the Shell Sky scenario was published in the New York Times as a sponsored post, and it’s undated (it was released in early March, 2018). Why are these 2 concepts important to consider when assessing the authenticity and reliability of Shell messaging?

Sponsored content expands a company’s reach, in this case to the New York Times’ target reader: college educated, often with advanced degrees; affluent; and, interested in the range of global and national topics, often within a progressive editorial ideology. Isn’t a Shell sponsored post a conflict of interest when it comes to the purported goals of a progressive publication?

Most people learn about a brand through content and context. When fossil fuel corporations like Shell find a voice in a progressive publication, they’re increasingly seen as part of the solution. The creeping influence of corporations over the last 2 decades of climate negotiations has made diplomats overly sensitive to business-friendly solutions. But the freedom of speech inherent in journalism allows all kinds of climate change and renewable energy messaging to trickle in, and that can benefit fossil fuel companies due to their slow pace and insidious nature.

A sponsored post is a lot more informational than a traditional ad, and it carries extra weight because it’s coming from a social influencer.  So the messages that emerge in sponsored posts like Shell’s in the New York Times seem witty, thoughtful, far-reaching, entertaining, and educational.

Final Thoughts

“Oil capital,” writes cultural studies scholar Imre Szeman in Energy Humanities, “seems to represent a stage that neither capital nor its opponents can think beyond.” Oil and gas companies like Shell function within an order that is premised on well-functioning markets and the capacity of free, profit-seeking individuals to generate economic growth. Controlling the source of all this energy translates into geopolitical power.

Global warming poses a powerful challenge to the idea that the free pursuit of individual interests always leads to the general good. It is clear that the fossil fuel industry’s profitability agenda is at odds with the public good, no matter what kind of happy face the industry pastes on with sponsored research and blog posts. Shell is one of the globe’s largest publicly traded oil companies and produced 3.7 million barrels of oil equivalent per day last year. Yes, in October, 2017, Shell purchased NewMotion, an electric-vehicle charging company. But the Shell Sky scenario depicts a world that relies heavily on carbon capture and storage (CCS) and negative-emissions technologies to take greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere. These technologies are needed because of a continued reliance on fossil fuel extraction in some form and for some purpose, which justifies the current billions of dollars of investment by Shell in risky oil and gas projects such as deep-sea drilling and shale gas.

Indeed, the Shell Sky scenario 10 page infographic says that the company recognizes that a “simple extension of current efforts is insufficient. The relevant transformations in the energy and natural systems require the deployment of disruptive new technologies at mass scale within government policy environments that strongly incentivize investment and innovation. Sky relies on a complex combination of mutually reinforcing drivers being rapidly accelerated by society, markets, and governments.” The push is on for Shell and other fossil fuel companies to stay financially viable, and that means reconciling its current business model of continued drilling and fracking to perpetuate existing business practices while also reinventing those practices in a way that can be perceived as forward-thinking and protecting the earth.

Shell as a climate change visionary? That moniker is a bit much for anyone who’s in the least bit familiar with the company’s history of climate change information suppression and policies to “seduce” consumers to rely on fossil fuels as a nearly exclusive energy source. We must continue to step back and gain critical distance from sponsored messages by Shell and other fossil fuel companies so we are not so caught up in the style that we miss the substance.

Sky scenario

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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