Actions vs. Words: A Look at Fossil Fuel Greenwashing
It’s no secret that fossil fuel companies have cast doubt on climate science for decades. What’s more, it should be no surprise that they’ve spent billions lobbying against any serious regulation of their emissions.
What might be less well known, however, is the extent of their greenwashing: the tactic oil, coal, and gas companies have increasingly turned to as public sentiment against their products has grown.
What exactly is greenwashing, you may ask?
It’s a form of deceptive marketing in which a company, product, or business practice is falsely or excessively promoted as being environmentally friendly.
Taking a close look at a few case studies makes one thing clear: fossil fuel ads often fail to provide a transparent, full picture of companies’ real actions.
WHAT THE FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY IS DOING
First things first. What is the fossil fuel industry actually doing today amid an escalating climate crisis?
For context, last year, the UN released an alarming report showing humanity has to cut emissions at least 7.6 percent each year to have any hope of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoiding a future of climate-catastrophe-as-the-new-normal. Meanwhile, carbon emissions reached a record high in 2019, underlining the challenge ahead.
You’d think the fossil fuel industry would’ve at least pretended to listen, given all the sustainability talk coming through its advertising recently.
But according to a new report by the Global Gas and Oil Network, between 2020 and 2024, the industry as a whole is set to invest $1.4 trillion globally into new extraction projects — a move that would drive global oil and gas production up by 7 percent by 2024. For comparison, that’d be equal to running a whopping 1,200 new US coal-fired power plants.
Ultimately, this rise in fossil fuel use would release approximately 148 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050, making the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius drastically less attainable.
The fact that one industry can have such a large impact is shocking, but what’s truly staggering is realizing how small a fraction of all companies is responsible.
As the report describes, “25 companies are responsible for nearly 50 percent of the production to 2050 from investment sanctioned in the next five years.”
That’s right. The primary force pushing forward oil and gas expansion — even given our current climate circumstances — is major companies owned by the public. So, knowing what they’re truly doing, let’s see what they’re saying.
As you might guess, many of their ads don’t tell the full story.
GREENWASHING IN ACTION
When it comes to greenwashing, Exxon Mobil is as good a company to start with as any.
This oil giant, whose own scientists warned of the “catastrophic events” fossil fuel use would cause since at least the 1980s, has painted a particularly rosy picture of its response to the climate crisis.
Take its widespread algae-biofuel campaign, for example. This collection of ads shows how, using high-tech algae farms, the company is unlocking an abundant, clean new source of energy. These ads tout that by 2025 Exxon could be producing 10,000 barrels of this biofuel a day — a number that could easily convince most people that the company is taking meaningful strides to reduce its impact.
What these ads don’t disclose, however, is that those 10,000 barrels — five years away from now, mind you — would only equate to 0.2 percent of the company’s current refinery capacity. As an Influence Map report describes, this widely-publicized fuel amounts to “essentially a rounding error” when compared to the amount of oil Exxon extracts.
Additionally, this biofuel marketing blitz clouds the fact that Exxon is only spending about half of 1 percent of its revenue on developing clean energy. And that the company is expected to increase production of fossil fuels by a staggering 35 percent between 2018 and 2030.
Remember that the science is clear here: We need to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 to have a shot at keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Ultimately, it’s hard not to see this campaign largely as a renewable facade to show a public that increasingly recognizes the damage that fossil fuels – Exxon’s core products – are doing to the planet.
That’s not just our opinion, though.
The fact of the matter is that several lawsuits have called out Exxon for what many believe to be misleading ads.
Take the state of Massachusetts, for example. As a press release from the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy describes:
“[T]he company violates Massachusetts law through a deceptive ‘greenwashing’ marketing campaign that misleadingly presents Exxon as a leader in cutting-edge clean energy research and climate action… Exxon’s advertisements and related marketing target consumers with deceptive messaging about Exxon as a good environmental steward and of its products as ‘green’ while the company is massively ramping up fossil fuel production”
Exxon is far from being alone, though. BP (British Petroleum) has also been touting its green credentials – and now, it’s taking heat for the move.
ClientEarth, a nonprofit now suing the petroleum giant, clearly explained why it’s taking BP to court:
“BP is spending millions on an advertising campaign to give the impression that it’s racing to renewables, that its gas is cleaner, and that it is part of the climate solution. This is a smokescreen. While BP’s advertising focuses on clean energy, in reality, more than 96% of the company’s annual capital expenditure is on oil and gas. According to its own figures, BP is spending less than four pounds in every hundred on low-carbon investments each year. The rest is fueling the climate crisis.”
It’s true – BP’s ads tend to overexpose a relatively small portfolio of renewable-energy initiatives when really it is projected to ramp up fossil fuel production by 20 percent from 2018 to 2030.
BP and Exxon are just two examples, but across the fossil fuel industry the same trend has become clear. Greenwashing is the new denial.
For decades, the industry funded misinformation campaigns clouding public perceptions of climate science. Today, oil, gas and coal ads are keeping people in the dark on what the industry is doing by misrepresenting its progress on reducing emissions.
"Trust us", they effectively say, "We’re as concerned as you about climate change and are doing everything we can to change our business and fight global warming."
Well, maybe not quite everything.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit largely focused on fighting scientific misinformation, recently provided an update on a 2016 scorecard to hold eight of the world’s leading fossil fuel companies accountable for taking climate action. Of those eight, three received “egregious” misinformation scores. The other five? “Poor” — the second-worst option.
It gets worse. More and more, fossil fuel companies have seen traditional trusted media giants like the New York Times and Washington Post scrambling for new revenue streams as an opportunity.
If you read these papers, you’ve probably seen the results: “native content” produced in partnership with in-house design teams that – on first glance – looks almost just like standard editorial content. Only it rebrands companies like BP as thoughtful global citizens and the climate-changing fossil fuels they sell as integral to socially responsible development worldwide.
We’re not buying it. In the midst of a rapidly worsening climate crisis, rampant greenwashing simply can’t continue to be the norm.
IT’S TIME FOR REAL CLIMATE ACTION
Fossil fuel companies have misled the public and have undermined real action for far too long. Now more than ever, scientists have made it clear that we have no time to waste if we want to avoid truly devastating warming.
We can, we must, and we will solve the climate crisis, but first, we must spread the truth about what fossil fuels are doing to our planet.
This is where you come in. At a time when many of our friends and family members don’t know who to trust on the issues that matter, they know they can trust us for the truth.
Do you want to share the truth about the climate crisis and its solutions and inspire communities to act? Then consider training as a Climate Reality Leader! You'll gain the tools, network, and know-how to push forward practical climate solutions around the world and around the block.
Learn more at https://www.climaterealityproject.org/training.
By Diego Rojas