Green group turns up the heat on big oil advertising

What’s happening? Climate campaigners are challenging ExxonMobil over its claims its algal biofuels have the potential to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. The oil firm spent 0.14% of its annual capital expenditure, around $30m a year, on biofuels, but $56m on environmental marketing, according to ClientEarth. The law firm wants other fossil fuel company advertisements to be banned if they don’t contain warnings. ClientEarth has won multiple lawsuits against large corporations and governments, including a ruling ordering the UK government to advance its plans to combat air pollution. (The Times)

Why does this matter? Fossil-fuel companies’ advertising is increasingly being targeted by environmental groups as a way to hold such firms accountable for their climate impacts.

ExxonMobil is one oil major seen as lagging in its efforts to tackle climate change. It recently pledged a 2025 target to reduce its emissions intensity in oilfield operations by 15% to 20% compared to 2016 levels as a result of pressure from investors and campaigners. The company, however, is still lacking a firm-wide emissions reduction commitment – and investors are pushing for more.

Sounds familiar ­– ClientEarth’s approach to ExxonMobil’s biofuels advertising mirrors a similar move against bp in 2019. The group filed a formal complaint against bp’s “Possibilities Everywhere” campaign, which focused on its public reputation. ClientEarth argued bp misled consumers about the firm’s role in the transition to low-carbon energy while the company was using  96% of its annual spend on oil and gas. CEO Bernard Looney later announced the campaign would be retracted and not replaced as a result.

Catching on – New York City recently has also recently sued ExxonMobil, as well as Shell, bp and the American Petroleum Institute, over their advertising campaigns. New York states the firms’ advertising of products as emissions-reducing and cleaner is deceptive, and that they are intentionally concealing information around their contributions to climate change. The suit follows a failed attempt to sue oil and gas firms over the climate damage caused by their emissions. Elsewhere, the French government has introduced a legal sanction against firms that are considered to use “greenwashing” in promotional campaigns to advertise products or services.

Marketing from other high-emitting sectors, including aviation, has also been scrutinised. Last year, advertisements for Ryanair claiming the airline had the lowest carbon emissions of any major airline were banned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, which stated the airline was using decade-old data. The airline’s claims were based on the newness and fuel efficiency of its fleet of planes, and its high volume of passengers lowering the emissions per km travelled per passenger.


Katie Chan

Sustainability Curator

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