Oil company ads should carry a climate health warning, say activists

In new research published Monday, environmental law non-profit ClientEarth accused some of the world’s biggest oil firms of misrepresenting the role their businesses play in the climate crisis and overstating the speed at which they are transitioning to clean energy sources.

“The companies most responsible for catastrophically heating the planet are spending millions on advertising campaigns about how their business plans are focused on sustainability,” ClientEarth lawyer Johnny White said in a statement.

“Greenwashing is a problem because it can mislead the public about the true environmental cost of persisting with fossil fuels and twist wider public conversations on the climate emergency that stymy efforts to mitigate climate change,” he added.

ExxonMobil (XOM), Chevron (CVX), Shell (RDSA), Saudi Aramco, Total (TOT) and Norwegian state oil company Equinor are among the biggest oil companies for which ClientEarth has compiled dossiers that compare their climate pledges to their business practices. It said it is considering options for legal action against these companies.

ClientEarth commissioned investigative media outlet DeSmog to research advertising by major oil companies. It then compared claims made in ads to information published in annual reports, regulatory filings and on company websites.

The non-profit contends that firms make claims of “sustainability” while investing far more into fossil fuel exploration than into clean energy investments.

Companies claim to be addressing the climate crisis while in some cases increasing fossil fuel production or planning to rely on the large-scale use of carbon capture and “offsets,” instead of reducing emissions in absolute terms, ClientEarth added.

Chevron, Shell and Equinor told CNN Business that their emissions reductions targets are in line with the goals of the Paris agreement.

Saudi Aramco said it has taken steps to reduce the carbon intensity of its oil exploration and extraction activities, and it is investing in lower carbon solutions. “The technologies required to meet carbon emission goals are yet to reach the levels of maturity required to provide the world’s energy needs in an economically sustainable manner,” it added.

ExxonMobil and Total did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

In 2019, ClientEarth submitted a complaint against BP (BP) in the United Kingdom on the basis of OECD guidelines, which stipulate fair advertising practices for multinational enterprises. BP later pulled an advertising campaign, called Possibilities Everywhere, and re-directed the funds to support its net zero ambitions. In 2020, the company pledged to stop “corporate reputation advertising.”

Fossil fuel advertising should be regulated along the same lines as tobacco, with “health warnings” about the dangers of climate change that identify fossil fuels as the main contributor to global warming, said ClientEarth.

Companies should also be clear about how much they are spending on fossil fuels compared to low carbon businesses, and they should be banned from directly promoting fossil fuel products, it added.

Tobacco advertising has been progressively restricted since the 1970s, with some countries banning it entirely. Warnings about the health risks associated with smoking, most notably lung cancer, have been mandatory on cigarette boxes in most countries for several decades. Brand-free packaging has also been introduced in some countries, a move Big Tobacco resisted fiercely.
The Paris agreement aims to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To achieve that, fossil fuel production needs to be cut by roughly 6% every year, but current projections show an annual increase of 2%, according to the Production Gap Report.
The International Energy Agency said in a report last year that if today’s power plants, industrial plants, buildings and vehicles continue to rely on burning fossil fuels that would lock in a temperature rise of 1.65 degrees Celsius.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, without a sharp decline in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, global warming will surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius leading to “irreversible loss” of the most fragile ecosystems and ongoing climate crises for the world’s most vulnerable people.

— Ivana Kottasová contributed reporting.

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