You need to know about the Shell game

Ketan Joshi
Published in
8 min readFeb 19, 2021


The phrase ‘shell game’ originates from a dazzling trick involving walnut shells and a pea. You put a pea under one of three, whizz them around, and then ask your watcher to nominate the shell with the pea under it. Of course, you’ve done some sleight of hand to misdirect your mark — they think they’re looking in the right spot, but they never win the game. The mark always loses.

When it comes to protecting the Earth from the impacts of fossil fuels, we’re still struggling to see past the ruse. It’s understandable: there hasn’t been a climate change before. But the main driver is an intentional effort to confuse, befuddle and misdirect the public by the companies that are worsening the problem: those that sell and burn fossil fuels.

A nice example of this is an announcement or a plan that sounds like an ambitious morsel of climate action, but either does nothing or actively worsens the problem. It’s nicely illustrated by fossil fuel companies, countries and lobby groups establishing targets to reduce emissions to zero by 2050, while also working to expand their extraction of fossil fuels:

“APPEA” = the Australian Petroleum ,Production and Exploration Association, Australia’s gas lobby. Via Energy News Bulletin, hat tip to Tim Baxter

There are many ways that this happens, and the magic trick of the Shell Game only fails to work when the marks are educated about the sleight of hand. With that in mind, let’s dig into the two main tactics behind fake climate action.

Backloading (aka — the plump kitty)

Part of how this happens is by ‘backloading’ the effort of change to the very last moments of the deadline. It’s a very common tactic but not yet commonly recognised for its harm; slow action results in a far greater quantity of total emissions up to 2050, and it’s the total that matters, as I wrote here.

(I call this the ‘plump kitty’, because the delayed curve looks like a very big cat. The name hasn’t stuck, but I will never stop trying to make it a thing)

This ‘backloading’ is how you get fossil fuel companies and countries claiming they’ve got their eyes set on 2050, but also aggressively expanding the production and/or burning of fossil fuels, and headlines like the ones shown above.

There’s a nice example of this out in the wild buried in the documents for a new gas-fired power station in the Pilbara, in Western Australia, as part of a Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) project, which I’ve outlined here.

There’s another gambit contained within net zero targets that serves essentially the same function (justifying the continued extraction and/or burning of fossil fuels in the next 10–15 years). It’s important, but the trickery is deeper and slightly more complicated.

Removal promises (aka: the ultra-sponge)

Recently, Dutch oil and gas company Shell announced an update of their climate plans. As with many of their plans in the past, this one relies on promises to remove carbon far into the future, rather than plans to rapidly reduce the supply of fossil fuels today and tomorrow.

It is roughly equivalent to pouring a cup of coffee, noticing that you’re about to overflow past the brim of the cup, and simply telling onlookers that you’re going to invest in some amazing sponge technology as you tilt the coffee pot downwards and accelerate the flow of coffee. To illustrate it, it looks something like this:

I’ve dived into this in detail here. In essence, Shell has proclaimed to the world that they’re ramping up their climate ambition, publishing a new scenario that targets a 1.5C world instead of a 2C one.

Except, the scenario outlines exactly the boundaries they’ve drawn around the realms of possibility, because it doesn’t involve any reduction in fossil fuel usage, compared to their 2C scenario. The reduction in emissions comes from wildly ramping up the planting of trees and leaning even more heavily on assumptions about emissions captured through as-yet uninvested technologies.

As Josh Gabbatiss writes at Carbon Brief, “the energy pathways identified in both [old and new] scenarios shows that, apart from accounting for the Covid-related dip in the early 2020s, they are essentially the same”, with fossil fuels still widely used in 2100.

This is the Shell Game happening in real time. The company is proclaiming that their own CO2 emissions and global oil production have ‘peaked’, which sounds pretty reassuring, right? Except, their models adhere to an extremely slow decline; so slow that the company have to keep creating new oil and gas fields to replace the depleting old ones, even in their ‘strong climate action’ Sky 1.5 scenario:

Justifying a massive ongoing supply of fossil fuels today by using promises of carbon removal in the distant future is, ultimately, a marketing tactic more than anything else. Carbon removals are deemed ‘necessary’, but that phrase intentionally papers over the fact that much more rapid action is required now.

The reasonable possibility of deploying tested, mature technologies — like renewables, storage, batteries, EVs and heat pumps — much faster than we think is dismissed as unreasonable. The ludicrous possibility of planting trees more than double the land area of Brazil (they badly overestimate even their wild assumptions, in their scenarios) is presented as not just reasonable, but unavoidable.

Do you know where the pea is? Are you sure?

Carbon intensity (Aka, The Door To The Wiggle Room)

Shell’s climate plans go slightly further than most other fossil fuel companies, and that probably seems reassuring. They have what seems to be a real target of net zero emissions by 2050, including the emissions impact of the product they sell.

Their climate targets are set around the ‘intensity’ of their emissions — that is, how much emissions per unit of energy. It isn’t linked to the absolute emissions — that is, what is the total quantity of emissions released due to the making and use of their products? Exxon do a similar thing, but don’t set their intensity target around all of their emissions like Shell does.

The criticism is relatively simple: if you reduce your intensity a bit, but increase your production of fossil fuels a lot, then the absolute emissions go up — and it’s the absolute number that counts towards climate change.

Shell counter this by saying “Shell’s target is to become a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050, in step with society. Reducing the carbon intensity of the energy products we sell to net zero is equivalent to reducing our absolute emissions to net zero”. Technically, that is correct: in 2050, a 0% intensity target and a 0 emissions target are the same thing.

Their target is called a “Net Carbon Footprint”, and it’s defined as grams of CO2-e per megajoule of energy sold by Shell. They plan to reduce it by “6–8% by 2023, 20% by 2030, 45% by 2035 and 100% by 2050, using a baseline of 2016”. That plan looks like this:

Of course, this isn’t an emissions target: it’s an ‘efficiency’ target. It’s flattening two numbers: the amount of energy sold, and and the amount of emissions resulting from those actions. So let’s play with some numbers — what happens if Shell either shrinks or grows its business, by either 2% of 5? This is what the changes in total energy sold looks like:

These are made up numbers, of course. But keeping the company’s current climate targets in place, we can see how different the absolute emissions are through changes in the company’s growth, even as they adhere to their own promises:

With the same carbon intensity targets, you can increase emissions by a third, just by growing the sale of fossil fuels as you decrease the total intensity of the products. The amount of climate harm caused varies wildly: carbon intensity is the end point, with plenty of swapping and sleight of hand that happens prior to the end date. Still watching the pea?

If the goal was to reduce emissions, the target would be an emissions reduction target, not an intensity reduction target. There is only one clear explanation about why this indirect proxy for the problem is all the rage in the fossil fuel industry: it allows a huge amount of wiggle room.

Thankfully, we know that Shell plans to immediately reduce their sales of fossil energy, as we can see in recent headlines:

Oh wait, that says the exact opposite! “The company said its oil production reached a peak in 2019, and would continue to fall by 1–2%. But it will expand its capacity to export 33.3m tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) a year, by another 7m tonnes a year by the middle of the decade”.

Climate plans have become, in a perverse way, the core battleground for worsening the climate problem, or delaying its resolution to preserve the bottom lines of the companies making it worse. The Shell Game is happening fast — blindingly, before your eyes. It’s designed to be deceptive, and you’re designed to lose. The only way to win: know what you’re looking for.



Ketan Joshi

Anecdata analysis, research, writing, caffeine. Science, tech and data communications professional in Sydney.