ExxonMobil pledged Tuesday to reach "net zero" greenhouse gas emissions in its operations by 2050, but stopped short of extending the promise to products it sells throughout the global economy.

The petroleum giant's promise covers "Scope 1" and "Scope 2" emissions, which account for carbon emissions from ExxonMobil operations, as well as emissions associated with the purchase of heating or cooling at its facilities, according to a company press release.

But the US oil giant, which has long been criticized by environmentalists over its climate record, avoided targets on "Scope 3" emissions, which are those from products sold, such as the gasoline consumers buy.

Some European companies such as Total have pledged to cut those emissions as well.

Environmental activists have argued that oil needs to be phased out if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change, and immediate plans are necessary to reduce "Scope 3" emissions.

The move comes on the heels of ExxonMobil's earlier announcements that boost spending on lower-emissions technologies, including through major carbon capture and storage projects.

The company also cited programs to reduce routine flaring of gases and employ more renewable energy and lower-emission power sources throughout company operations.

ExxonMobil pledged to reach "net zero" emissions at company operations, but did not release targets for "Scope 3" emissions that cover the energy it sells to customers
ExxonMobil pledged to reach "net zero" emissions at company operations, but did not release targets for "Scope 3" emissions that cover the energy it sells to customers AFP / Logan Cyrus

ExxonMobil will release "detailed roadmaps" addressing 90 percent of operations-related greenhouse gas emission by the end of 2022, with the remainder in 2023, according to a press release.

Chief Executive Darren Woods cited the company's work in the Permian Basin, a major oil-producing region in the United States, as a spot where superior technology has enabled it to grow production while mitigating the risk of climate change.

"If you look over the next several years, our production coming out of the Permian is growing, and yet at the same time, we're lowering emissions and we've made a commitment to have a Permian operations at net-zero carbon by 2030," Woods told CNBC.

"And so those two can go hand in hand if you're thoughtful about how best to achieve that."

Mark Brownstein, senior vice president at Environmental Defense Fund, said ExxonMobil's announcement was evidence of progress at the oil giant after shareholders in 2021 elected three board members favored by environmentalists over the company's opposition.

"Measures addressing Scope One and Scope Two emissions are certainly necessary. But they're not sufficient," said Brownstein. "When talking about oil and gas, the vast majority of emissions are associated with the products that these companies sell."

More critical was Sierra Club Senior Director of Energy Campaigns Kelly Sheehan, who said oil and gas expansion efforts must be curtailed "immediately."

"Without a commitment to limit the activities that are driving the climate crisis, Exxon's climate plan is just another bid to appease its shareholders and the public without changing its dangerous business practices," Sheehan said.