Murray Auchincloss, BP, in a retouched image (Top). Local resident during floodings in Philippines (bottom).
Murray Auchincloss, BP, in a retouched image (left). Local resident during floods in Philippines (bottom). Disclaimer: Images of CEOs used in this campaign are staged and doctored for illustrative purposes. Illustrations are created without the use of generative AI.
© Basilio Sepe / Greenpeace

As announcements by international oil companies of their annual profits roll in, beneficiaries may already be looking back smiling at 2023 whilst planning their next private-island holiday or real estate purchase. Yet the most lucrative year on record for oil and gas companies will be remembered by billions as the hottest year on record, punctuated by extreme weather events and the ever-spiralling cost of living. 

Growing up between two countries, Senegal and the Gambia, one need not be an activist or climate scientist to have first-hand knowledge of these crises. Devastating impacts are being felt in all sectors of these countries’ economies. Irregular rains cause farmers indescribable anguish, as they lose their livestock because grasslands are baking into drylands. 

Here’s why the call for polluters to stop drilling and start paying has never been more urgent, and will keep getting louder.

Major oil and gas companies are responsible for climate breakdown

The climate crisis is a leading driver of desertification – a rapidly growing threat to water and food sovereignty – which pushes proud and self-sustaining communities into poverty. As a last resort, some are even pushed out of their homes and consider migration, risking their lives and exposing themselves to social and political tensions at home and abroad. 

The answer to all climate-related weather events is two-fold: avoid further emissions of planet-heating gases and invest in local solutions. The annual profits of just six major oil and gas companies – BP, Chevron, Equinor, Exxonmobil, Shell, and Total – which collectively scooped up almost $140 billion, are made from our collective loss. 

Not only does their business cause destructive climate change and land degradation, but their profits are hardly invested into  addressing these impacts. These companies must be made to pay for the damage they cause and for a pathway out of the climate crisis. They need to stop drilling and start paying. 

And then there’s the moral question: Is it right for just a single company to earn off pollution in one year as much as it would cost for Senegal to address land degradation impacts for decades, not to mention a host of other climate disasters? Anyone who isn’t lining their pockets will say no. Despite media framing around the economic wins of these international oil companies, there is another more critical story to tell. Ordinary people everywhere are being penalised for the financial gain of the oil and gas industry and its backers – from soaring energy bills to climate-related loss and damage – it’s clear that Big Oil’s profits are our loss. 

Polluters have known for decades

Consider these stark contrasts: The oil and gas industry’s cumulative profits for 2023 far exceed the economic cost of weather and climate events that year. Payouts are similarly expected to smash record levels – just the six companies mentioned above (BP, Chevron, Equinor, Exxonmobil, Shell, and Total) have already distributed over $127 billion to their shareholders. This surpasses a global goal of $100 billion in climate finance which rich governments have committed to, and have still to deliver on. 

Some of these costs – like the loss of loved ones, memories, cultural assets, connection to home, and ancestral ties that bind communities together – cannot be measured in numbers. 

Polluters will never voluntarily stop drilling and start paying for the energy transition and the damage they have caused, so we need governments to step up to force accountability and deliver justice. 

The fossil fuel industry knew of its climate impacts for decades, but has deliberately hidden or ignored the truth, discredited scientific evidence, and recent decades are rife with examples of broken laws in pursuit of its dirty business and enormous profits. Furthermore, the industry’s profits are overwhelmingly pumped into new fossil fuel projects and maximising shareholder profits; not invested in the just transition to renewable energy sources.

We need governments to take urgent action and make polluters pay

Governments need to deliver a rapid and fair phaseout of all fossil fuels, and levy taxes on the fossil fuel industry for the costs associated with surviving the climate crisis. As a start, introducing a permanent excess profits tax on oil and gas producers and redirecting subsidies could generate substantial finance for climate action. The climate crisis is as global as the oil and gas companies who caused it; our solutions should be global too. 

There’s an urgent need for international consensus on the application of the polluter pays principle. COP29 must deliver an ambitious needs-based global finance goal supported by rich countries, going beyond the previous $100 billion goal. The goal must also mark a turning point in expectations on the world’s largest polluting sectors, not least the fossil fuel industry, to pay towards the costs of climate action in developing countries.

To turn such grand promises into reality, we know that politicians need to feel the heat. In 2023, hundreds of thousands of people marched worldwide – from Nairobi to Norway, from the Philippines to New York – calling for a fast and fair fossil fuel phase out. 2024 will be the year when the oil and gas industry starts losing and we all start winning; when they stop drilling and start paying. Just as Italy’s Eni announced its own annual profits, Greenpeace Italy, together with Italian NGO ReCommon and twelve Italian citizens, had its first day in court with the fossil fuel giant that is being sued  for its contribution to the climate crisis and human rights violations in Italy. 

All around the world, Greenpeace is here to further fuel the resistance and stand with those most impacted by the climate crisis.

Abdoulaye Diallo is an International Climate Campaigner with Greenpeace Africa based in Dakar, Senegal.

A version of this blog was originally published on Common Dreams on 22 February, 2024.