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Investor pressure drives Royal Dutch Shell to take action on climate change

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Royal Dutch Shell becomes first energy giant to set short-term greenhouse gas reduction targets; western Hudson Bay's population of polar bears has dropped by more than 30 per cent over past four decades.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

The Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer is towed toward a dock in Seattle in May 2015. The company announced Monday that it is setting short-term greenhouse gas reduction targets, and will link them to executive pay. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Royal Dutch Shell becomes first energy giant to set short-term greenhouse gas reduction targets, linking them to executive pay.
  • The western Hudson Bay population of polar bears has dropped by more than 30 per cent over the past four decades.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Climate change

Three years after 195 nations banded together in Paris to forge an agreement on fighting climate change, real progress has been hard to find.

Carbon emissions have hit a record high. Leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil's newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro are threatening to withdraw from the deal as soon as they can. And the UN is warning that even the agreed-upon goal of limiting warming to two degrees since pre-industrial times will be too-little, too-late, ensuring a future of rising seas, droughts, famines and devastating storms.

But where politicians are failing, the market has delivered an important sign of success. Royal Dutch Shell today announced that it will become the first energy giant to set short-term greenhouse gas reduction targets, and will link them to executive pay.

Oil drums are seen at a Royal Dutch Shell Plc lubricants blending plant. The company has agreed to change its lobbying practices and ensure that its membership in oil trade associations 'does not undermine its support for the objectives of the Paris Agreement.' (Reuters)

The move is a direct result of investor pressure.

The Anglo-Dutch firm has been one of the principal targets of Climate Action 100+, a green-minded coalition of 310 global investors that control more than $32 trillion US in assets.

Shell was already a leader among oil companies, making a promise last year to cut its net carbon emissions by half by 2050, taking the full cycle of oil — from extraction to end use — into account.

However, the new deal, announced jointly with Climate 100+, goes much further. It commits the company to concrete, three- to five-year goals updated on an annual basis, with the results reported transparently.

And to add a sense of urgency, the need to hit those targets will soon be tied to the compensation of as many as 1,300 senior Shell employees, from the CEO on down.

"Meeting the challenge of tackling climate change requires unprecedented collaboration, and this is demonstrated by our engagements with investors," Ben van Beurden, Shell's chief executive officer, said in a statement. "We are taking important steps towards turning our net carbon footprint ambition into reality by setting shorter-term targets."

Shell chief executive officer Ben van Beurden, seen here in a June 2016 file photo, said Monday that, 'We are taking important steps towards turning our net carbon footprint ambition into reality by setting shorter-term targets.' (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

The agreement also requires Shell to change its lobbying practices and ensure that its membership in oil trade associations "does not undermine its support for the objectives of the Paris Agreement."

It's a sharp reversal from just seven months ago, when Shell's shareholders voted 94 per cent against a resolution that would have committed the company to firm carbon reduction targets.

Climate Action 100+, which launched last December, is a five-year initiative that seeks to systematically mobilize large institutional investors to pressure major greenhouse gas producing companies to modify their behaviour. Shell had already begun to invest in solar energy projects and charging station networks for electric vehicles, but major shareholders like the Church of England Pension Board and Robeco, a Dutch asset manager, publicly complained that the company wasn't doing nearly enough.

The list of the pressure group's targets is long and filled with globally known firms like Airbus, Bayer AG, Exxon Mobil, Honda, Nestlé, Rio Tinto and Procter & Gamble.

Steam and smoke rise from the Belchatow Power Station as the adjacent open-pit coal mine feeds the station on Nov. 29 in Rogowiec, Poland. The Belchatow station is the world's largest lignite coal-fired power station, emitting approximately 30 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Poland is hosting the COP24 conference this week. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Several prominent Canadian firms are on the hit list, including Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Imperial Oil and Teck Resources Ltd.

As of this past summer, the investors had already succeeded in getting 22 per cent of their 161 initial selections to agree to set science-based targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

Suncor Energy Inc., Canada's largest oil company, has said that it expects to "engage" with the group at some point in the coming year. Steve Williams, Suncor's president and CEO, made headlines this past summer by attacking climate change deniers and the politicians who cater to them.

Suncor Energy Inc. president and CEO Steve Williams has taken issue with climate change deniers. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

"It is a matter of profound disappointment to me that science and economics have taken on some strange political ownership. Why the science of the left-wing is different than the science of the right-wing. Why it's not possible for, certainly within Canada, for conservatives to take a conversation about, 'Hey, it's just a fact. Let's get some facts out on the table,'" he said during a June event in Calgary.

The type of environmentally conscious investing championed by Climate Action 100+ is quickly become a force in the global market.

A recent report from the non-profit Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment found that the sector had grown by 38 per cent over the past two years, with $12 trillion US at play in the United States, and many of the country's biggest public pension funds committed to green-first investing.

For example, CalPERS, which manages the $344 billion US pension fund of California's public employees, is a founding member of the Climate Action group.

Anne Simpson, the fund's investment director, issued a statement today praising Shell's new commitments.

"The engagement shows the value of dialogue and global partnership to deliver on the goals of the Paris agreement on climate change. Shell is setting the pace, and we look forward to other major companies following their lead."

Polar bears in peril

Reporter Duncan McCue travelled to northern Manitoba to talk to researchers about the health of the region's polar bear population.

Have you ever heard a polar bear snore?

The National  cameraman Dave Rae recorded that unusual noise on the tundra of Cape Churchill in northern Manitoba, while we interviewed scientists about the iconic polar bears they're researching.

The 320-kilogram snoring bear in question sounded a bit like Grandpa, sprawled in an easy chair after an epic Thanksgiving dinner. He was one of five polar bears caught and released by biologist Nick Lunn and his team the day we joined them.

Biologist Nick Lunn, centre, explains to CBC's Duncan McCue how data collected from these two tranquilized bears will be used in the Polar Bear Research Program. (CBC)

It was an extraordinary trip: scouring the shoreline of Hudson Bay for polar bears from a helicopter cockpit, the pilot deftly maneuvering so the bears could be tranquilized from the air.

Soon we were kneeling next to these massive animals, now sedated for 45 minutes or so, as two biologists quickly measured everything from incisor teeth to fat samples.

For me, it was astonishing to touch the coarse, white fur of a polar bear, then look straight into his eyes as he dopily observed the scientists poking and prodding and evaluating him.

For Lunn, it was just business as usual.

He figures he's been involved in more than 4,000 polar bear captures during his nearly 40-year career with the Polar Bear Research Program, operating out of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

The long-term data tells a troubling story: longer ice-free periods in Hudson Bay are leading to lighter bears, fewer cubs and more mortality. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

Polar bears have long gathered in October and November near Churchill as they begin to move from their summer habitat on the tundra back to seal-hunting territory — the pack ice of Hudson Bay.

The bears' proximity to Churchill makes them the most studied polar bears in the world. Unfortunately, that extensive long-term data tells a troubling story.

The western Hudson Bay population of polar bears has dropped by more than 30 per cent over the past four decades.

"At some point down the road, if it continues, it won't be a viable population. They'll be gone," Lunn says.

The biologists measure everything from the bears' paws, to incisor teeth, to fat samples. The western Hudson Bay population of polar bears is down more than 30 per cent since research began in the 1980s. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

Tonight on The National, I'll take you along for an inside peek at the world-renowned work of Dr. Nick Lunn and his research team, and explain why he believes the Churchill-area polar bears act as a sentinel for the changing climate around us.

If that sounds disheartening, though, here's a treat for you: the sound of a polar bear snoring:

This peacefully snoring bear was tranquillized near Churchill, Man., as part of research on the health of the bear population by Dr. Nick Lunn and his team. 0:06
  • WATCH: Duncan McCue's story about Churchill's polar bears tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

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A few words on ... 

A rather awkward proposal.

Quote of the moment

"Right now we are facing a manmade disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don't take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon."

- Naturalist and TV host Sir David Attenborough opens the COP24 UN climate change summit in Poland with a dire warning.

World-renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough delivers the 'People’s Seat' address during the opening of the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, on Monday. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

What The National is reading

  • Why Bush wanted Trump at his funeral (CNN)
  • Michael Ignatieff-led university 'forced out' of Hungary (CBC)
  • Fuel supplies, schools hit as 'yellow jacket' protests enter third week (France 24)
  • Nigerian president denies dying and being replaced by a clone (Telegraph)
  • Woman set on fire in India after telling police about attempted assault (Reuters)
  • Want to go camping on Sable Island? Parks Canada is considering it (CBC)
  • New Mexican president sells predecessor's luxury plane (Al Jazeera)
  • NW China hit by apocalypse-like sandstorms, black snow (Asia Times)
  • Pensioner who feels 20 years younger can't change age, court rules (Sky News)

Today in history

Canada welcomed 104,111 immigrants in 1960, but Annette Toft got the biggest reception. The 16-year-old Dane was the two millionth person to arrive in the country since the end of the Second World War. She was given a beauty-queen-style sash and the cameras were waiting dockside in Quebec City to capture her reunion with her father who had emigrated two months before the rest of his family. The Tofts had been trying to get to Canada for 20 years.

Annette Toft, formerly of Denmark, becomes Canada's two millionth immigrant since the Second World War. 0:28

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.