20 pledges for 2020: Is this the beginning of the end of climate greenwashing?

BP’s aim of achieving net zero emissions has rightly been criticised for lacking substance, but its commitment to stop misleading adverts about its impact on the climate is a welcome start – it must be held to account on this, writes Ben Chapman

Friday 14 February 2020 15:58 GMT
In saying it will advocate for positive climate policies, BP has laid down a marker by which it can be judged not in 10 years or 20 years, but almost immediately
In saying it will advocate for positive climate policies, BP has laid down a marker by which it can be judged not in 10 years or 20 years, but almost immediately (Reuters)

Buried a couple of thousand words beneath BP’s eye-catching announcement that it aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 was an important promise that garnered much less attention.

The oil company said it would stop funding “corporate reputation advertising” which, in the context of the oil and gas industry, is more commonly known as greenwash.

This means BP will end its multimillion-pound “Possibilities Everywhere” campaign, which touted the company’s questionable green credentials. That’s a fairly rapid u-turn, given that the global campaign was only launched last year.

Perhaps BP has realised the futility of spending large sums highlighting the tiny part of its business that generates renewable energy when the company remains synonymous with fossil fuels.

Adverts on billboards, newspapers and television in the UK, US and Europe as well as on social media and online pictured green fields and windmills alongside phrases like, “working to make energy cleaner”. The ads missed out the fact that 96 per cent of BP’s capital expenditure is on oil and gas.

Thanks in part to the efforts of groups like environmental lawyers ClientEarth which launched a complaint against over the campaign, the company has been held to account.

Two decades – and billions of barrels of oil – since BP had the chutzpah to relaunch itself as “beyond petroleum”, people have seen through the facade.

“In future, any corporate advertising will be to push for progressive climate policy; communicate our net zero ambition; invite ideas; or build collaboration,” BP said.

This statement, unlike the target to go carbon neutral by 2050, can be scrutinised immediately and it will be. I will be closely watching BP’s public statements on climate change this year, as well as its advertising and involvement with groups like the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, to check that they measure up.

We can all play a part in this too. Earlier this month Ryanair was banned from claiming that it was Europe’s “lowest CO2 emissions airline”. The Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the statement couldn’t be backed up.

Anyone can make a complaint to the ASA about an issue like an misleading environmental claim, it just requires filling out a few boxes on an online form.

If this action does not stop airlines and oil companies producing dodgy ads on climate change, sterner laws must be enforced. ClientEarth’s suggestion that fossil fuel adverts should be banned unless they have a tobacco-style health warning need to be considered.

A fossil fuel company portraying itself as good for the climate is no less ridiculous, or dangerous, than the tobacco companies that in the 1950s pushed cigarettes with recommendations from friendly-looking doctors.

Companies that create misleading adverts about climate change need to face the prospect of fines, not just damage to their reputation. Currently the ASA, is self-funded by advertisers themselves and can only ban particular promotions, often months after they’ve gone out.

While advertising is an important way that large greenhouse gas emitters can use their financial clout to shift the debate in their favour, a more significant front on the climate change information war is political lobbying.

Here too, BP has laid down a marker by which it can be judged not in 10 years or 20 years, but almost immediately.

The company laid out a less aggressive approach to lobbying, stating that it would “set new expectations” for its relationships with oil industry trade associations. Where those influential groups are pushing for policies that don’t align with BP’s new approach, it will leave.

Basically, this is an admission that BP’s net-zero ambition simply has no credibility if the company remains a member of powerful lobby groups like the American Petroleum Institute which has for decades funded climate change denial in a successful effort to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. BP either has to fundamentally change the API or leave it.

The impact of a big oil industry player changing tack could be considerable but action needs to follow words. I’ll also be scrutinising other large oil industry firms about whether they will follow BP in “advocating for policies that support net zero, including carbon pricing”.

Fossil fuel lobbyists have vast budgets that allow them to shift public policy and discussion significantly towards the industry’s own interests over and above those of everyone else.

In any case, oil companies like formerly state-owned BP have frequently been pushing on open doors in the corridors of power. Seen by politicians to be of strategic national importance, oil majors have provided the vital commodity that fuels economic growth and delivers votes.

It’s fair to say the oil majors have frequently enjoyed a cosy relationship with governments sympathetic to their aims.

Vast budgets to fund misinformation and dodgy science have been key to prolonging the life of fossil fuel industry decades after oil companies knew climate change was dangerous and man-made.

Climate campaigners, who have enjoyed less privileged access to political decision-makers, have therefore been fighting a hugely asymmetric battle; but one which they may now finally be starting to win.

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