Insights from Reclaim Finance’s director Lucie Pinson, following the shareholder vote in support of Total’s so-called “climate” plan

Two weeks ago, a large majority of Total’s shareholders put themselves on the wrong side of history by voting in support of Total’s bogus climate plan. At least now we know which (few) investors are serious about climate change and (the many) that are all talk and no action. Some will say my analysis is too black-and-white but it’s time for brutal honesty. If Total’s plan is the new benchmark for “good enough” on climate, then we can say goodbye to our hopes of a livable future.

Total ignores the IEA’s stop sign

We have less than nine years to fundamentally transform our energy production model and even the International Energy Agency (IEA) admitted last month what climate scientists have been hammering home for several years: achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and limiting global warming below 1.5 ° C means no more investment in new coal, oil and gas supply. In the light of the IEA’s new net-zero scenario, any shareholder committed to the climate should have voted against Total’s climate plan on May 28. Unfortunately, not enough investors are voting according to what climate science requires.

And Total’s “climate” plan is far off the mark. The oil and gas major has no intention of significantly reducing its oil production or of giving up on its 30% increase in gas production by 2030. Total’s climate plan includes:

  • the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) that will destroy local ecosystems and hundreds of villages;
  • the Tilenga oil project which will allow the opening of an untapped oil basin in East Africa;
  • gas projects in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising three times faster than anywhere else on the planet and melting ice sheets are opening up an oil and gas highway;
  • further controversial expansion plans such as an LNG terminal in Papua New Guinea.

A droplet of green in an oil and gas spill

Total has rebranded itself TotalEnergies. With an “s” to remind the world that Total is massively developing renewable energy. But a makeover can’t hide the fact that in 2030 Total will still be directing 80% of its investment spending to fossil fuels, and that in 2050 renewables will only represent 4% of Total’s energy production. Hardly a “transition”. And yet, the “s” was enough for 82% of shareholders to justify their vote in favor of the so-called climate plan. And in turn, shareholder support for the climate plan was duly reported as signifying that Total was shifting to green.

Make no mistake: investors are not climate scientists. Most shareholders are guided by short-term interests. Dividends come first, the climate comes second. In CEO Patrick Pouyanné’s words after adopting the resolutions on dividends, “it appears my shareholders would rather protect their dividends than let me invest too much in renewables”. It is true that Total is the most generous dividend-paying company in the CAC 40, but this comment says a lot about how the CEO feels about the energy transition.

A “radical” IEA scenario and “activist” shareholders 

Patrick Pouyanné does not like criticism which might jeopardize his strategy. He described the IEA scenario calling for no more investments in new oil and gas projects as too “radical”. He also showed contempt for the 18% (abstentions included) of shareholders who did not support resolution 14. As if Total only consulted its shareholders on condition that they would fully endorse the strategy, not question it.

Those investors which did not endorse the climate plan were branded “activists”. Pouyanné was also proud to have stifled a “rebellion against the company.” It’s worth noting that the “activists” and “rebels” include Meeschaert, Federated Hermes EOS and MN, the three investors responsible for leading the shareholder dialogue with Total on behalf of the CA100+ coalition. This coalition, which brings together 575 investors managing more than $54 trillion, has in the past been strongly criticized for its timid positions. But still, today, Total fails all but one of nine metrics in their net zero company benchmark.

These investors and others (Ircantec – also on the CA100+ steering committee – as well as Banque Postale AM, Legal & General, Sycomore, La Française and Edmond de Rothschild (1)) have shown consistency by voting against Total’s “climate” plan.

Inconsistent voting strategies 

Conversely, investors like AXA and BNP Paribas supported the climate plan despite their commitments to align with carbon neutrality and the conclusions of the IEA scenario. It’s ironic that not so long ago, BNP Paribas AM called on the IEA to publish such a scenario in order to guide its investments.

Investors gave Total’s climate plan a green light only a week after 34 CA100+ investors – including AXA and Amundi – signed a declaration pointing out its many limitations and inadequacies. The verdict was clear: Total’s efforts are clearly not enough to respond to the climate emergency and meet its own commitment to carbon neutrality. AXA and Amundi therefore voted in support of Total’s plan in full knowledge that it is incompatible with a 1.5°C scenario.

Votes that are not science-based

Amundi, Total’s 1st biggest investor, voted in favor of the climate plan to celebrate the fact that Total was consulting its shareholders and that part of the management’s revenues would be based on meeting their climate goals. But Total did not commit to regularly consult its shareholders. Furthermore, creating economic incentives for management to meet climate goals does not mean the climate goals are sufficient. In fact these goals are far below what is needed: carbon intensity must be reduced by much more than 20% by 2030 to stay on a 1.5°C or even 2°C pathway. Like that of many investors, Amundi’s voting policy is not science-based.

AXA’s position is even more incoherent than that of Amundi: the insurer released a statement announcing that, in the name of its commitment to carbon neutrality, it would vote for a plan that did not meet this objective of neutrality – and which it had criticized the previous week. It must be pointed out that the statement, signed by AXA’s chief economist failed to mention the IEA’s net zero pathway or even the words “science” or “climate scenarios”.

AXA’s position is comparable to that of BlackRock, which argued in its voting statement that it supported Total’s plan because it “appears to be consistent with the Paris Agreement“. Goodbye science and goodbye hard facts. Unfortunately, climate change impacts don’t just appear to be severe, they actually are.

We weren’t expecting a revolution at Total’s AGM this year. But the fact that so many investors pledged to act on climate before supporting Total’s climate plan undermines the credibility of ‘green finance’. In the eyes of the investor community, Total is “best in class” when compared to the rest of Big Oil. But the climate doesn’t care about such metrics, only the scientific reality of absolute emissions. Unfortunately, if they don’t start acting according to the latter, investors’ category error might just cost us the earth.

Notes:

(1) Edmond de Rothschild told Reclaim Finance that it had voted against Resolution 14 related to Total’s climate plan, and agreed to the release of the information.

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