A “systematic deceptive marketing campaign designed to interfere with the solution necessary to respond to the climate emergency: stopping fossil fuel production.”
The following is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in DeSmog and is run with permission.
Nearly two-thirds of social media posts of six major European fossil fuel and energy companies since the end of 2019 present a “green” image of the company, despite the majority of their business activity remaining in polluting fossil fuels, a new analysis by DeSmog reveals.
The findings add to concerns that fossil fuel companies are promoting a misleading image of their business models as the need to decarbonize the economy becomes increasingly urgent.
DeSmog’s investigation shows a disproportionate focus on green or environmental efforts by the companies — including highlighting their net zero targets — compared to the share of their business devoted to clean energy.
Available figures compiled from public corporate reports suggest that on average 80% of the businesses’ operations remain in oil and gas and, in one case, coal. The remaining 20% represents investments outside of fossil fuels, in areas such as renewables, carbon capture and storage, and research into new green technologies.
The analysis, however, found that 63% of the more than 3,000 online posts and videos posted on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook by Royal Dutch Shell, TotalEnergies, Repsol, Eni, Fortum and Preem between December 2019 and April 2021 presented the energy companies as “green.” Among these posts, 18% were publicly designated as advertisements as they appeared on Facebook Ad Library; the number of paid adverts analyzed is likely higher overall but YouTube and Twitter do not publicly disclose this information.
Only 16% of all online posts and promotions focussed on the companies’ fossil fuel activities, the research found, such as arguing for the need for fossil fuels to ensure energy supplies remain stable and arguing for their benefits to the economy in developing countries.
“This is greenwashing 101, and it’s utterly misleading,” said Geoffrey Supran, research associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, reacting to DeSmog’s findings. “Indeed, it’s the very epitome of greenwashing: act dirty, talk green.”
“Greenwashing is the new climate denial.”
Greenwashing is defined as an umbrella term for the various misleading communications and other corporate practices that “intentionally, or not, induce false-positive perceptions of an organization’s environmental performance.”
“That is indisputably what these oil and gas companies are doing when they publicly disguise their fossil fuel-based operations behind a green marketing sheen,” said Supran, who is also director of climate accountability communication at the Climate Social Science Network.
Half of the companies analyzed dedicated over 80% of their posts to highlighting their involvement in green and climate-friendly work such as building up more renewable energy capacity. Green investments, however, make up just 12% of these companies’ portfolios on average based on publicly available figures.
The companies with the highest share of green promos were Swedish fuels company, Preem, Finnish power company, Fortum, and Europe’s largest oil company, Shell, all of which presented involvement in what they deemed to be green activities in an average 81% of their posts.
“There is a yawning gap between the marketing claims of fossil fuel companies and the reality of their businesses,” said Jonathan White, a lawyer at ClientEarth. “The simple fact is that they are not reducing their polluting activities by the significant amount required to limit the worst impacts of global warming.”
“Just like the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry uses advertisements and promotions to deflect attention away from their harmful business models, deceive the public and politicians with false solutions and ultimately delay climate action,” said Georgia Whitaker, lead campaigner for Fossil Free Revolution at Greenpeace Netherlands. (Note: this research was commissioned by Greenpeace.) “Greenwashing is the new climate denial, and it’s allowing companies responsible for the climate crisis to hide in plain sight.”
The revelations come after several recent rulings against fossil fuel companies’ green ad campaigns for misleading claims about their businesses’ efforts to tackle climate change.
Of all the companies analyzed, Swedish oil company Preem had the highest discrepancy between the number of online messages promoting a “green” image and the reality of its energy portfolio.
While more than 80% of Preem’s posts promoted a green image or highlighted the use of green technology, only 2% of the company’s business is outside of fossil fuels, according to figures provided to DeSmog.
A Preem spokesperson said: “We believe that it is relevant and important that we communicate about the strategic decisions that set us apart from others in our industry … even though we are fully aware that we have a long way to go.”
The discrepancy between “green” posts, as identified in the study, and the share of companies’ fossil fuel portfolios according to publicly available figures. Credit: DeSmog
Shell, which was identified as the second-worst offender in the study, currently channels 90% of its long-term investments into fossil fuels, according to a recent analysis, and between 2010 and 2018, it was reported to have dedicated just 1% of its investments to sources of low-carbon energy such as wind and solar.
But 13% of Shell’s posts focused specifically on renewable energies such as wind, solar and hydropower. The company also had the largest share of promos focusing on hydrogen, which made up 11% of its total output.
A spokesperson from Shell told DeSmog that while the company invests “billions” in “lower-carbon” energy, “the world will still need oil and gas for many years to come. Investment in them will ensure we can supply the energy people will still have to rely on, while lower-carbon alternatives are scaled up.”
The third worst offender in the analysis, Finnish energy company Fortum, generates 54% of its energy from fossil fuels, including 9% from coal and brown coal (also known as lignite). Coal is the world’s most polluting fossil fuel, and brown coal is the most polluting form of coal, producing up to a third more greenhouse gas emissions per ton than conventional black coal when burnt.
Yet, nearly half, 47%, of Fortum’s ads and posts focussed on climate-related plans and initiatives, including posts focusing on carbon neutrality and efforts to introduce sustainable heating for homes.
Fortum did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
The fossil fuel industry has now begun “positioning itself, astoundingly, as a climate leader.”
Among the green-focused social media posts, Desmog found that the fossil fuel companies were most likely to talk about their climate plans and initiatives including a large focus on “net zero” targets, which the six companies have introduced recently.
Net zero targets, however, have been increasingly criticized as an example of “greenwashing” over their potential to mislead the public of the extent of the emissions reductions that some energy companies have promised.
Preem, which is the largest fossil fuel company in Sweden, announced in 2019 its plans to become carbon neutral by 2045. Its efforts to decarbonize rely on increasing its use of biofuels and carbon capture and storage — both of which have been labeled as “false solutions” by campaigners because they still allow for the use of fossil fuels or for emissions to be released.
Pointing to investments in bioenergy, electrification, and carbon capture, a Preem spokesperson said: “The measures we focus on have support in research and national and international regulations and have a positive effect on climate change.”
Shell’s strategy to reach net zero by 2050, which the company announced this February, includes only modest reductions to the company’s oil business, as well as plans to expand its gas business by over 20% in the coming years.
The target also relies heavily on offsetting schemes which have been heavily criticized by campaigners who have questioned the effectiveness of carbon credits or forest offsets. Guidance on offsetting best practices published by the University of Oxford last year argues that companies should instead “prioritize reducing your own emissions first.”
Eni, Repsol and TotalEnergies also all aim to become net zero by 2050. French oil giant TotalEnergies, however, plans to increase its fossil gas sales from 33% of its sales in 2019 to 50% in 2030. Net zero targets for TotalEnergies and Eni, which announced its plans to reach net zero in April 2021, also rely significantly on offsets and carbon capture and storage technology, with Eni arguing it will capture around 90 million tonnes of CO2 by 2050.
TotalEnergies did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.
In December 2020, Fortum committed to net zero European power generation by 2035, which includes a pledge to increase its solar and wind capacity. However the company has vocally defended the opening of a new German coal plant by its new subsidiary, Uniper, and has publicly endorsed Uniper following legal action taken by the company against a 2030 Netherlands coal phase-out date.
Moving away from promoting climate denial as the industry did in the past, the fossil fuel industry has now begun “positioning itself, astoundingly, as a climate leader,” said Karen Sokol, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, reacting to DeSmog’s findings.
“It is a systematic deceptive marketing campaign designed to interfere with the solution that is necessary to respond to the climate emergency: stopping fossil fuel production,” Sokol said.
After net zero targets, posts focusing specifically on renewable energy were the second most prevalent theme among the companies’ “green” online messages, making up 11% of all promos analyzed overall. Of posts that focused specifically on one type of renewable energy, companies were most likely to promote their involvement in solar projects.
“The millions spent on sophisticated marketing and advertising campaigns are about shaping public opinion and maintaining demand for fossil fuels,” White said. “The harmful impact this has on the pace of change — at a time when the need to transition could not be clearer — cannot be underestimated.”
Other themes identified across the green promos included those highlighting efforts to move to low carbon transport and electrification, and reducing and recycling waste (3% of posts or 98 promos in total). And 54 promos in total (1% of all posts) showcased companies engaging positively with legislators and other policymakers on climate change.
Meanwhile, posts that focused narrowly and specifically on reducing fossil fuels made up 3% of all posts analyzed.
“Silver-bullet techno-fixes … are consistent with BAU for oil and gas companies.”
A significant number of the green-focused social posts were about technologies and fuel sources which, although presented as green and climate-friendly by companies, have been the subject of significant concerns from scientists and activists over their potential to contribute to global emissions.
These technologies, several of which have been labeled as “false solutions” by environmental campaigners, made up 12% of promos overall.
“The fossil fuel industry loves pushing technological fixes to the climate crisis that mean that they don’t have to stop using fossil fuels,” said Global Witness’s Pace. “They are nearly always decades away, are vastly expensive or just simply don’t work.”
The most recurring of these posts (making up a total of 4% of all posts) was natural gas, which, despite being a fossil fuel, has a history of being presented as a bridge fuel towards a cleaner future due to the fact it produces fewer emissions than other conventional fuels when burnt.
Gas, however, still releases methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and its extraction leads to further emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane, which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after being released into the atmosphere. In a blow to the industry, the world’s leading energy analysts recently warned the use of natural gas must be drastically curtailed to meet climate goals.
Eni told DeSmog that gas will “in the long term” account for more than 90% of the company’s hydrocarbon production and “will be an important support for intermittent sources in the energy transition.”
A spokesperson for Eni added the company “strongly believe[s] that technology is the only key to face this big challenge, which requires pragmatism in using all the industrial and technological solutions available to set up ad hoc strategies for each country and company’s needs.”
Online posts in this category also included attempts by companies to absorb greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere, either through man-made technologies, which made up 2% of posts, or through so-called “nature-based solutions,” most commonly made up of tree-planting initiatives, which made up 1% of promos overall.
While carbon capture and storage (CCS) — either through natural or manmade means — has been highlighted as an important solution in addressing climate change, companies have been criticized for using these technologies to justify the continued use of fossil fuels. There are also doubts over the feasibility of rolling out these projects on a large scale.
The risk with well-intentioned technologies like CCS, however, he said, is that fossil fuel interests may try to “co-opt” these technologies to “avoid, first and foremost, scaling down fossil fuel production.”
The challenge with companies marketing carbon capture technologies as green, said Supran, is that it risks promoting these options as “silver-bullet techno-fixes that aren’t yet commercially viable and [are usually] approaches consistent with business-as-usual for oil and gas companies.”
Ultimately, this then allows for the industry to create a “‘Fossil Fuel Savior’ framing of the climate crisis that helps defend the status quo,” he said.
This point was echoed by Sokol, who said: “All technologies that involve continued fossil fuel production — including carbon capture and so-called blue or gray hydrogen — are not merely false solutions. They would accelerate the climate crisis, perpetuate existing and create new harms that disproportionately impact communities who have long been on the frontlines of fossil fuel infrastructure.”
“This industry has a proven track record of acting in bad faith on the climate crisis, and so the onus must be on them to show they are serious about reforming their business practices rather than their propaganda,” said Supran. “This means putting their money where their mouths are.”
Research by Nadia Feldkircher, Ines Emprin, Charlotta Lahnalahti, Ingvild Deila, Mariangela Castillo, Katherine Besenyei, Bo Frohlich and Kate McMahon.