Fossil fuel companies are deceiving the public about their moves to reduce greenhouse gases and curb climate change — and social media are hosting ads that perpetuate this “greenwashing,” researchers say.
AFP Fact Check has delved deeply into how this happens. The full report, including lobbying and communications fact boxes on 10 leading oil and gas companies, is available at http://u.afp.com/wDuA.
– talk the conversation –
Many companies have vowed to achieve the “net-zero” level of greenhouse gas emissions needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold set by scientists to avoid the worst, under the Paris climate agreement Effects.
At the same time, the research shows, they are promoting and lobbying for more drilling and burning of the fossil fuels that are heating the Earth’s surface.
Executives and business people agree that changing the way we heat our homes and energy industries is no easy task.
But critics say the gap between slogans and action undermines meaningful efforts to reduce emissions.
In a study published by the open-access scholarly journal PLOS, scientists analyzed the gap between talk and action on climate and low-carbon energy at four major oil companies: BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron.
Their green strategies “are characterized by promises rather than concrete actions,” concluded the study, led by lead author Mei Li of Tohoku University in Japan.
“As long as actions and investment behavior are not reconciled with the discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear justified.”
A search of the Facebook pages of major oil and gas companies and the social platform’s ad library shows companies posting green slogans while also running ads asking customers to “fill up your tank” or “win gas for a year.” .
Contacted by AFP, the companies presented detailed plans to develop lower-carbon energy sources and measures such as carbon capture and storage — a practice that the International Energy Agency (IEA) says is currently not advanced enough to be very helpful.
ExxonMobil and Chevron spokesmen insisted that due to energy demand, the scenarios envisaged by the Paris Agreement and the IEA mean that fossil fuels will have a role to play in the transition.
– To go for a walk –
Watchdogs also see greenwashing in pro-environmental but limited gestures by companies, which activists say divert attention from their climate-damaging activities.
The digital monitor Eco-Bot.net monitors instances where an online post “selectively reveals the company’s credentials or depicts symbolic actions to build a friendly brand image.”
It flagged ads and posts protecting silkworms (Mexican cement company Cemex), frogs (gas company TransCanada), possums (Eletronuclear, subsidiary of Brazilian energy company Eletrobras), forests (various companies including Spanish oil company Repsol) and one of US giant ExxonMobil recycling fishing lines in Patagonia.
New York-based greenwashing researcher Genevieve Guenther told AFP the key is measuring commitments against two standards: the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) net-zero date in 2050 and the IEA’s roadmap for a clean energy transition by 2021.
The latter says that in order to meet the 2050 target, “no investments in new fossil fuel supply projects” would need to be made from now on. Any company that is planning new investments and at the same time propagating net-zero targets is guilty of greenwashing, said Günther.
– delaying tactics –
Analysis by London-based research group InfluenceMap showed that the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies spent $1 billion over three years spreading misleading climate messages on Facebook.
Such amounts are small compared to the billions in revenues of Big Tech and Big Oil – for the latter, the two largest US companies reported combined profits of over $38 billion in 2021.
But breaking the news through social media has an outsized impact, said Melissa Aronczyk, an associate professor of communications at Rutger University who has co-authored several studies on the topic.
“It’s very easy and inexpensive to produce social media ads and campaigns that can have a huge impact,” she told AFP.
Facebook says it monitors ads for misleading content, just like it does other forms of information on its platforms.
InfluenceMap analyzed thousands of documents “to get a very detailed picture of how large corporations and industry groups are engaging in climate policy and how they are trying to influence the debate,” said program manager Faye Holder.
“This greenwashing is essentially a tactic to delay government regulation. It also has the potential to mislead the public by convincing them that action is already being taken to address climate change while Big Oil continues to lobby behind the scenes for the development of new oil and gas wells.”
In the United States, a Democrat-led committee has been going after big oil companies for lobbying.
“Much of the lobbying has been done indirectly, cunningly, adroitly, and cynically by industry groups formed by these companies,” Democratic Congressman John Sarbanes told the committee Feb. 8.
“It is often very difficult to unravel the network of relationships and sources of funding.”
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