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“Greenwashing”: a new battleground for climate misinformation

Many companies have vowed to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050, but they are advertising and pushing for more drilling and burning of the fossil fuels that heat the Earth’s surface – Copyright AFP –

Roland LLOYD PARRY

Fossil fuel companies are misleading the public about their actions to reduce greenhouse gases and curb climate change — and social media hosts ads that perpetuate this “greenwashing,” researchers say.

AFP Fact Check took an in-depth look at how this happens. The full report, including lobbying and disclosure boxes on the top 10 oil and gas companies, is available at http://u.afp.com/wDuA.

– Talking about talking –

Many companies have pledged to reach the “net zero” level of greenhouse gas emissions needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius under the Paris climate agreements, the threshold established by scientists to avoid the worst impacts.

At the same time, research shows that they are advertising and pushing for more drilling and burning of fossil fuels that heat the Earth’s surface.

Leaders and business people agree that changing the way we heat our homes and our energy industries is no simple task.

But critics say the gap between slogans and action undermines meaningful efforts to cut emissions.

In a study published by the open-access scientific journal PLOS, scientists analyzed the gap between talk and action on climate and low-carbon energy by four major oil companies: BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron.

Their green strategies “are dominated by promises rather than concrete actions,” the study concluded, led by lead author Mei Li of Tohoku University in Japan.

“Until stocks and investment behavior are aligned with the narrative, accusations of greenwashing appear to be well-founded.”

A search of the Facebook pages of major oil and gas companies and the social platform’s ad library shows that companies display green slogans while running ads urging customers to “fuel up” or win ” the equivalent of a year’s worth of gasoline.

Contacted by AFP, the companies detailed plans to develop low-carbon energy sources and measures such as carbon capture and storage – a method currently not advanced enough to be very useful, according to the report. International Energy Agency (IEA).

Spokespersons for ExxonMobil and Chevron insisted that due to energy demand, the scenarios foreseen by the Paris Agreement and the IEA mean that fossil fuels will have to play a role in the transition.

– Walk the walk –

Watchdogs also see greenwashing as eco-friendly but restrained moves by companies that activists say are diverting attention from their climate-damaging operations.

The Eco-Bot.net digital monitor monitors instances where an online post “selectively discloses company credentials or depicts token actions to create user-friendly branding.”

He pointed to advertisements and messages on the protection of silkworms (Mexican cement company Cemex), frogs (gas company TransCanada), opossums (Eletronuclear, a subsidiary of the Brazilian electricity company Eletrobras), forests (various companies, including the Spanish oil company Repsol) and one from the American giant ExxonMobil on the recycling of fishing ropes in Patagonia.

Genevieve Guenther, a New York-based greenwashing researcher, told AFP the key was to measure promises against two standards: the net zero date of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Nations 2050 and the IEA Clean Energy Transition Roadmap 2021.

The latter says that to reach the 2050 target, there should be no more “investment in new fossil fuel supply projects”. Any company planning new investment while trumpeting net-zero goals, Guenther said, is guilty of greenwashing.

– Dilatory tactics –

An analysis by London-based research group InfluenceMap showed that the five largest publicly listed oil and gas companies spent $1 billion over three years to spread misleading climate messages on Facebook.

These amounts are small compared to the billions in revenue of Big Tech and Big Oil – for the latter, the two largest American companies made combined profits of more than $38 billion in 2021.

But spreading messages via social media has an outsized impact, said Melissa Aronczyk, associate professor of communications at Rutger University and co-author of several studies on the subject.

“It’s very easy and inexpensive to produce social media ads and campaigns that can have a massive effect,” she told AFP.

Facebook says it monitors ads for misleading content, just as it does with other forms of information on its platforms.

InfluenceMap analyzed thousands of documents “to paint a very detailed picture of how big companies and industry groups are engaging in climate policy and how they are trying to influence the debate,” said the program manager, Faye Holder.

“This greenwashing is essentially a tactic to delay government regulation. It also has the potential to mislead the public, convincing them that climate action is already being taken while Big Oil continues to push behind the scenes for new oil and gas developments.

In the United States, a Democratic-led committee is harassing big oil companies for their lobbying.

“A lot of the lobbying was done indirectly, cleverly, shrewdly, cynically by industry trade groups that were formed by these companies,” Democrat Congressman John Sarbanes told the committee Feb. 8.

“It is often very difficult to disentangle the network of relationships and the sources of funding.”