Photo: © Robert Kneschke /

Fossil advertising – halfway towards a ban

A campaign that is calling for a ban on fossil advertising at EU level is well underway. Its main objective is to achieve an EU ban on fossil advertising through a citizens’ initiative that is currently collecting signatures throughout the EU. Just over 200,000 people have already signed the petition and a total of one million signatures are needed by 4 October 2022 to require the Commission to consider the matter. About 30 European organisations are behind the campaign, including Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth Europe, ActionAid and ClientEarth.

The campaign has clearly succeeded in putting fossil advertising on the agenda in a totally new way. One of the clearest examples was possibly when Adam McKay, director of the international film hit Don’t Look Up, tweeted in favour of a ban on fossil advertising: “We need to make fossil fuel advertising illegal the same way we did with cigarettes. One kills people, the other will kill most people.” In Sweden, Minister for the Climate and Environment Annika Strandhäll commented that she is “cautiously positive” towards a fossil fuel ban.

Fresh facts have been brought to the table in the form of calculations showing the extent of emissions that arise from fossil advertising. Estimates from Greenpeace and the New Weather Institute show that the global climate impact of automotive and air travel advertising may have led to 606 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 – about twice the level of Spain’s emissions in the same year. Advertisements for cars and air travel in Europe in 2019 may have contributed 122 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, more than Belgium’s greenhouse gas emissions in the same year.

Another persuasive argument for a ban on fossil advertising is its effects on people’s health. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels causes approximately 8.7 million early deaths each year – more than those who die from tobacco-related illness. Tobacco advertising has been banned in the EU for a long time, so why is there free licence to advertise products and companies whose core business leads to so many early deaths and is accelerating the climate crisis? Fossil advertising is simply life-threatening.

Swedish author Sven Lindqvist wrote a book in 1957 with a similar title: Advertising is Lethal. He described how, even back then, the power of advertising was difficult to defend against. It affects the way we think and our values:

“Everyone knows that advertising is consumption-driven. But even more importantly, it governs the way we think, our emotions and our living habits.”

This is perhaps the biggest issue. How can we make the transition to a zero-emission society when the very lifestyles that are driving the combustion of fossil fuels are made out to be the norm and the ideal way of life? It is becoming increasingly clear that we need to change norms and change the way we think. Fossil advertising is an obstacle to that process because it preserves lifestyles that are dependent on high emissions

Another side of the campaign involves scrutinising and calling into question oil companies and other fossil advertisers for the misleading advertising and greenwashing they engage in. One recent example took place in France when a number of environmental organisations sued the transnational oil company TotalEnergies for misleading the public on the alleged environmental benefits of fossil gas and biofuels through its “Reinventing energy” campaign.

In this wide-reaching marketing campaign the company claims that it is “a major player in the energy transition” and that the company will achieve “carbon neutrality” (net zero) by 2050. But in reality its plans would mean a massive increase in fossil fuels, partly through increased use of fossil gas. The company also fails to present any actual emission reductions from its operations or its products for the years up to 2030.

However, TotalEnergies is far from alone in using greenwashing even though it is increasingly obvious that fossil fuels and fossil-based lifestyles have reached the end of the road. One of the larger organisations that is still clinging on to the seemingly endless claims of “net zero 2050” is the global travel association, IATA. They have launched a campaign under the banner “Fly Net Zero”.

IATA’s plans have been examined by New Weather in a report titled Pie in the Sky. The trade association has the vision that air travel should continue to grow rapidly, doubling in size by 2050. Up until 2035 the rising emissions of carbon dioxide will be “compensated for” through investments in climate projects. Several studies, as well as statements from senior executives in the aviation industry, show that the main effect of this compensation is to reassure passengers and the public. There is no major climate benefit. In most cases climate compensation is, by definition, greenwashing, since the whole concept is based on perpetuating emissions and attempting to explain them away.

In the longer term, by 2050, IATA envisions that the entire air travel fleet (which will then be twice its current size) will be converted to biofuels. Fuelling these flying giants would, according to IATA, require three times as much biofuel as is produced globally for all industrial use today. It is unclear where this fuel will come from, but even trying to implement this entails a great risk to biodiversity on a global scale.

Despite the claims it would still not reduce the climate impact of aviation, since high-altitude effects, which have similar climate-warming effects as carbon dioxide emissions, will be twice as great. Under IATA’s plan, air travel would at best have the same impact as today and by the year 2050 would consume over 15 per cent of the entire carbon budget for the Earth this century. But IATA still insists that the plan is in line with the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Agreement.

New Weather is now reporting IATA to the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman1 for misleading information and is urging the aviation industry to develop a plan that is truly in line with the Paris Agreement. This would mean limiting air travel to what can be achieved with electric or hydrogen-powered small aircraft, over short distances, where there are no reasonable alternatives. Anyone who thinks this seems unreasonable might like to consider that before the pandemic only 2–4 per cent of the global population flew at all during a year and that one per cent of the population accounted for half of air travel’s global climate impact.

In Sweden, another greenwasher, Arla, has been resisting the efforts of the Swedish Consumer Agency to end its campaign for organic dairy products. At the end of 2019 the authority called on Arla to stop using the phrase “net zero climate footprint”, because it is misleading. For two years Arla continued to use the phrase on its packaging, until it was sued by the Consumer Ombudsman in November 2021. Now the packaging is finally on its way out, but by ignoring the authority’s call for two years, the company succeeded in squeezing out an estimated one billion cartons with messages that misled consumers.

It is quite obvious that oil companies, the air travel industry and other large companies will not voluntarily adapt their operations or advertising to the emergency we are in. Their marketing sends one message, while their operations and actual plans send another. What is needed now is regulation of these companies and their marketing, which are driving increased emissions and exacerbating the climate crisis.

There is also popular support. A recent opinion poll in the UK shows that 68 per cent of people support restrictions on advertising environmentally harmful products. An opinion poll in Sweden shows that 52.4 per cent support a ban on fossil advertising.

As usual, it is citizens and popular movements that need to make demands and show that there is support for action. And this needs to happen soon. Or as Sven Lindqvist puts it in his book: “Those who advertise cannot stop. That is why it is up to us.”

Gunnar Lind & Anna Jonsson

1 The Swedish Advertising Ombudsman is a self-regulatory organisation, financed by the advertisers, advertising producers and media. Their main task is to review commercial advertising and make sure advertising standards are kept high by self-regulating the industry.


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