'Greenwashing': new climate misinformation battleground
Big companies are misleading the public about their efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and curb deadly climate change, campaigners and analysts say, flagging this "greenwashing" as a new battleground in the fight against climate misinformation.
AFP Fact Check took an in-depth look at greenwashing claims and drew up communications and lobbying profiles of 10 big fossil fuel companies around the world, featured at the end of this report.
Unlike regular AFP Fact Check stories, this special report does not debunk particular claims. It includes illustrative screen grabs of online posts and ads by companies and lobbyists.
Beyond 'fake news'
Critics say greenwashing makes companies look more climate-friendly than they really are. The term has been used for decades - but the practice has surged as climate fears have mounted in recent years. It proliferates in traditional as well as social media.
"Greenwashing is the new climate denial," Laurence Tubiana, head of the European Climate Foundation philanthropic group and, as France's top negotiator, a main architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement, told AFP last year.
Detailed research shows that companies' actions on social media platforms don't always match up with their commitments on climate change.
Not necessarily factually incorrect or illegal -- although they have sparked several lawsuits -- these communications fall outside regular fact-checking efforts by the likes of Facebook, which like Google has vowed to tackle climate disinformation.
"Greenwashing is a much more complex form of 'fake news' than just checking if something is 'true' or 'false'," said Melissa Aronczyk, an associate communications professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who has co-authored several studies on the subject.
Fill 'er up
Businesspeople, leaders and researchers agree that changing how we warm our homes and power the industries that feed, clothe and transport us - and provide millions of jobs - is a huge, hard task with challenging social and economic consequences. Scientists say the harm from unchecked climate change would be worse.
Many companies have vowed to reach the "net zero" level of greenhouse gas emissions needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius under the 2016 Paris climate deal.
At the same time, researchers say firms are promoting more drilling and burning of the fossil fuels that scientists agree are heating the Earth. Some of the new fossil fuel projects are cited, with links, in the ratings section below.
"Greening companies… can help the world meet the Paris goals faster," said British energy firm BP on Facebook.
"Fill up your tank and watch it fill up your pocket," said an advert for BP's points scheme in South Africa that ran in April 2022, visible on the platform's Ad Library.
French oil firm TotalEnergies said in one Facebook post in February 2022 that it is "contributing to decarbonize road transport". Separately in an ad the same month, it offered customers the chance to win "a year's worth of petrol".
Contacted for this article, TotalEnergies pointed to a speech by its CEO Patrick Pouyanné at an annual shareholder meeting in May 2022 in which he detailed the company's plan for net-zero emissions by 2050.
"This vision is not an illusion or greenwashing: it is rooted in quantifiable aims for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions," he said.
TotalEnergies also pointed to its decision to give customers in France a 10-cent discount per liter of petrol to ease the sting of recent high prices. Like other companies, it has also announced a plan to plant lots of trees.
BP did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
For most people it may not be surprising that fossil fuel companies continue to drill for oil and gas or dig for coal. "Greenwashing", says New York-based researcher Genevieve Guenther, kicks in when they pursue such projects while claiming to be committed to net zero targets.
Critics say that pushing feel-good environmental slogans and climate plans of limited helpfulness undermines the work that needs to be done to mitigate climate change.
For some, this includes communications that may look beyond reproach, such as the numerous initiatives that companies advertise to protect wildlife and local communities.
Greenpeace points to "bold claims, nature-inspired imagery or green buzzwords" and "token gestures… promoting one 'green' feature, while ignoring other more important environmental issues".
The World Economic Forum warns against "claims that draw attention to minor issues without any accompanying meaningful action".
In these screen shots, Brazilian oil firm Petrobras (above) posts about helping ailing penguins, while (below) Russia gas giant Gazprom works with walruses and Chinese state company Sinopec says egrets are thriving near one of its refineries, "thanks to excellent sewage purification".
Eco-Bot.net, a digital monitoring site set up with the aim of "exposing climate change disinformation and corporate greenwashing" during the COP26 climate summit in 2021, tracked millions of dollars in advertising spending by companies.
It flagged cases where an online post related to the environment or climate "selectively discloses the company's credentials or portrays symbolic actions to build a friendly brand image."
These included ads and posts on protecting silkworms (Mexican cement firm Cemex), frogs (gas firm TransCanada), possums (Eletronuclear, subsidiary of Brazilian power firm Eletrobras), forests (various companies, including Spanish oil company Repsol and Malaysia's Petronas) and one by US giant ExxonMobil on recycling fishing ropes in Patagonia.
The amounts cited are small compared to the billions in revenues of Big Tech and Big Oil -- for the latter, four of the biggest companies swung into combined profits of over $66 billion in 2021.
But pushing messages for millions of dollars via social media has an outsize impact, communications professor Aronczyk told AFP.
"It is very easy and inexpensive to produce ads and campaigns for social media that can have a massive effect," she said, "as we learned from the 2016 US presidential election."
Campaigners have been talking about greenwashing for decades. Researchers have documented what they say are efforts to mislead the public about climate change dating at least to the 1970s, notably in the "Exxon Knew" campaign targeting ExxonMobil -- the biggest non-state oil firm in the world.
Nowadays, in the world of online information, researchers say outright climate-change denial has shifted to the margins.
"Misinformation that simply denies the existence of human-caused climate change does not seem as visible today as it used to be," said Emmanuel Vincent, founder of the fact-checking portal Climate Feedback.
Greenwashing, meanwhile, is a "gray area" with messages that "do not directly come under the remit of fact checkers," he told AFP.
Fact-checkers cannot call out misleading corporate messages in the same way that they flag up outright false climate information.
The very nature of "greenwashing" claims -- unsubstantiated, unaudited or unverifiable -- makes them "hard to spot," Aronczyk said.
"It's hard to measure the outcome of certain kinds of environmental commitments, especially if they are long-term and ongoing," she added, citing several vague claims by major firms.
"If a company says it is 'making progress toward Net Zero,'... or 'fighting climate change' with electric cars… or 'we advanced lower carbon businesses in renewable fuels and products' how could a person investigate or counter this?"
For policy people such as Tubiana, quoted at the start of this article, and for some activists, this has become the real battleground over climate-related misinformation.
One Greenpeace campaigner, quoted in a report by the investigative website DeSmog in October 2021, said greenwashing is "allowing companies responsible for the climate crisis to hide in plain sight."
Talking the talk
In a study published in February by the open-access science journal PLOS One, scientists analyzed the gap between words and deeds on climate change and low-carbon energy by four big fossil fuel firms: BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron.
Although they are talking more and more about green strategies, "these are dominated by pledges rather than concrete actions," concluded the study, under lead author Mei Li of Tohoku University in Japan.
"Until actions and investment behavior are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded."
Contacted by AFP to comment for this article, the companies detailed their climate efforts. These include various alternative energy sources as well as measures such as carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) -- trapping the CO2 given off by industry and then reusing it or storing it underground.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) and UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say carbon capture has an important role to play but at current capacity is not enough to meet the required targets.
ExxonMobil and Chevron pointed to their reports on their climate measures. Shell stressed its net-zero target and transition policies. It said advertising was important for telling customers about low-carbon solutions. BP did not respond to emailed requests to comment. It has published a detailed climate strategy.
Further comments from these and other energy companies are included in the ratings section below, with details of their publicly-disclosed spending on lobbying in two major jurisdictions.
Walking the walk
For the US greenwashing researcher Guenther, big fossil fuel companies are too smart to get caught pushing outright untruths. "They have equivocation down to a science," she says.
The key to identifying "greenwashing," she told AFP, is to measure the gap between the actions the companies are trumpeting and the standards that scientists say are needed to actually lower emissions.
To do this, scientists point to two yardsticks.
The IPCC, based on analysis by hundreds of scientists in scores of countries, says greenhouse gas emissions must hit net zero by 2050 to meet the 1.5C target - a threshold for avoiding the worst impacts.
Complementing this, the IEA in 2021 published a roadmap of how to make the transition to non-fossil fuel energy sources meet this target.
"These include, from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects," it said.
Despite this, big banks - many of whom have signed up to net zero pledges - have been pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into companies expanding oil and gas extraction, according to an analysis by the ethical investment watchdog ShareAction.
Contacted by AFP for this article, ExxonMobil and Chevron insisted the scenarios foreseen by the Paris deal and the IEA mean that fossil fuels will have to play a part in the transition, alongside new renewable energy sources.
Some companies' strategies have evolved in favor of low-carbon energy. Shell says its oil production peaked in 2019. BP says it has poured billions into low-carbon sources.
Companies such as TotalEnergies have shifted a share of production to gas -- condemned by campaigners but proposed as a means to bridge the transition from fossil fuels since it emits less greenhouse gas than coal or oil when burned.
In spite of their pledges, numerous companies have been targeted by "greenwashing" lawsuits in recent years.
TotalEnergies' moves to shrink oil and gas production helped make it one of the few firms to be classified as aligned with Paris goals by monitors such as the investor-oriented Transition Pathway Initiative -- but some campaigners reject the latter's calculations.
NGOs meanwhile launched a lawsuit against the French firm, accusing it of misleading consumers by the way it publicized its products. The court filing, seen by AFP, cited the group's posts and ads on social media about its net-zero pledges.
In the United States, the city of New York in 2021 filed a similar suit against ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and the American Petroleum Institute (API), a powerful lobby group.
Campaigners accuse social media platforms of letting fossil fuel companies get away with greenwashing in return for millions of dollars in advertising.
Think tank InfluenceMap publishes details of companies' membership of lobbying groups and assesses the groups' divergence from climate goals.
The London-based group says it uses data in order to analyse "how business and finance are impacting the climate crisis". It has analyzed thousands of documents to assess energy companies' public messaging on social media and compared it to their actions.
"We've seen how big oil companies use different public messaging strategies to try to ease concerns about their links to climate change, by suggesting that they share the goal of a net zero future," said InfluenceMap 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 on climate while Big Oil continues to lobby behind the scenes for new oil and gas development."
In a study published in 2021, US sociologists analyzed how public relations firms spin fossil fuel companies' climate messages through "information and influence campaigns" (IICs).
"All PR firms examined both acquired paid media placements and created social media campaigns. These are core activities of modern day IICs," the report said.
"The PR firm can engage in aggressive promotion of a given viewpoint, amplified by trolls and bots… as well as paid participation in online chat rooms and other forums to promulgate the narrative and attack individuals advocating for other narratives."
In one survey by InfluenceMap, oil and gas companies spent nearly $10 million on more than 25,000 Facebook ads promoting continued use of fossil fuels.
Detailed figures for spending on advertising and PR for the companies are not made public. One 2018 study estimated "corporate promotional spending for the five major oil companies in the USA averaged $120 million per year."
For comparison, the giant drinks multinational Coca-Cola reportedly spends some $4 billion a year on marketing.
In another snapshot, Eco-Bot.net calculated that Facebook and Instagram earned some $5 million in revenues from "greenwashing" ads on social media during the COP26 summit in November 2021.
It further identified ads placed on social media by lobbying groups -- they generated more than 32 million views.
It said the posts included various forms of manipulation which "misleads consumers about the green credentials of a product or service, or about the environmental performance of the company."
Facebook 'rejects' false ads
Facebook says it monitors ads for misleading content just as it does with other forms of information on its platforms. The platform outsources fact-checking of false information to third-party media organizations, including AFP.
"While ads like these run across many platforms, including television, Facebook offers an extra layer of transparency by requiring them to be available to the public in our Ad Library for up to seven years after publication," a spokesperson for Facebook's parent company Meta said in an emailed response to AFP for this article.
"We reject ads when one of our independent fact-checking partners rates them as false or misleading and take action against pages, groups, accounts, and websites that repeatedly share content rated as false."
Several watchdogs however have accused Facebook of not doing enough to curb climate disinformation, including online activist network Avaaz in this survey.
Google Ads and their sources cannot be analyzed so transparently. But an analysis by InfluenceMap and The Guardian published in January 2022 showed that fossil fuel companies and firms linked to them were among the biggest spenders on ads for carbon-emitting products that were designed to look like Google search results.
"We do not currently have a blanket ban on advertising of such products," a Google spokesperson told AFP. "Our policy development considers a wide range of factors… We are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating our ads and publisher policies."
They added that Google has begun surfacing reliable information from the UN at the top of search results for queries about climate change.
Scope to improve
When it comes to big energy companies, "some actions contradict pledges," scientists wrote in the PLOS One study. "This especially concerns intentions to curb the production of fossil fuels as well as reduce exploration and new developments."
A close look at their pledges in many cases also reveals that carbon-cutting targets do not measure up because they do not include so-called "scope 3" or indirect upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions.
A company that only counts emissions from operating its oil wells (scope 1) or powering its offices (scope 2) but not from the millions of cars burning the gasoline made from its oil and the home-heaters burning its gas (scope 3) - ignores the biggest share of its emissions.
If it then actively boasts about cutting scope 1 and scope 2, it lays itself open to charges of greenwashing.
A study of 25 major heavy-emitting companies in various sectors by the NewClimate Institute for Climate Policy and Global Sustainability, a German research group, said most of them were vague on whether they were addressing the crucial "scope 3" emissions.
"Eight of the 25 companies set net-zero or carbon neutrality targets that cover only their direct operational emissions (scope 1 and 2), although upstream and downstream emissions in the value chain (scope 3) account for on average 87% of the companies' emissions," it said.
"These nuances are not always transparent and may mislead consumers, shareholders, regulators and observers to misinterpret the integrity of the target."
Lobbying, front groups
Key to the messaging, watch dogs say, are companies' ties to lobbying groups. The monitors warn these can be a sign of bad faith when it comes to companies' public messages about energy and climate change.
One analysis by InfluenceMap showed the five biggest listed oil and gas companies spent $1 billion to promote climate misinformation through "branding and lobbying" in the three years following the Paris agreement.
The London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in June 2022 published a major report on climate disinformation, including advertising by oil firms and lobby groups on social media.
In the United States, a Democrat-led committee has been hounding the big oil firms over their climate-related lobbying, demanding that their bosses come to testify.
"On the one hand they're acting like they're going along with these important climate change objectives that we've set forth. On the other hand they're standing up these front groups to basically message in a way that's completely counter to that," Democrat Congressman John Sarbanes told a hearing of the committee on February 8.
"Much of the lobbying has been indirectly done, cleverly, skilfully, cynically done by industry trade groups that have been formed by these companies," Sarbanes told the committee.
"One insidious thing about the work of fossil fuel front groups is that it is often very hard to disentangle the web of relationships and the sources of funding."
One of the best-known lobby groups is the API. It lists numerous oil and gas majors among its members. While firms tout alternative means such as carbon-capture, API backstops their hydrocarbon extraction with lobbying and ads.
"Affordable, reliable energy solutions are made in America. See the benefits of American natural gas and oil production," said one ad run by API on Facebook in September and October 2021, ahead of the COP26 climate summit.
"We can tackle climate change and meet essential energy needs by working together," claimed another API ad from April-May 2021.
The ISD report said API ran ads that "contained both greenwashing content, and misleading information relating to fossil fuels, CO2 reduction and climate change".
The report also identified three proxy entities it says API used for influence campaigns on Facebook and Instagram: "Energy Citizens", "Energy For Progress", and "Power Past Impossible".
In an report aired by Britain's Channel 4 News in 2021, a lobbyist who had worked for ExxonMobil was filmed admitting in an interview with Greenpeace activists posing as head-hunters that he did "aggressively fight against some of the science" and joined "shadow groups", which he said was not illegal.
"We were looking out for our investments," he said. "We were looking out for our shareholders."
As quoted in the Channel 4 report, ExxonMobil responded: "Greenpeace and others have distorted our position on climate science and our support for effective policy solutions."
On lobbying, it added: "ExxonMobil transparently engages with a variety of trade associations, think tanks and coalitions in order to promote informed dialogue and sound public policy in areas pertinent to the Corporation's interests."
The sums spent by various fossil fuel groups on federal lobbying in the US and lobbying of EU institutions in Brussels are given in the report-card section below.
These publicly-declared amounts are dwarfed by the overall sums the companies are estimated to spend on advertising, public relations and other forms of influence, in studies by researchers such as Aronczyk and her co-authors.
The United Nations last month launched a task force to pressure businesses to keep their emissions-cutting promises instead of masking their progress.
"Some government and business leaders are saying one thing but doing another," said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, launching the institution's latest major climate change report on April 4, 2022.
"Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic."
AFP compiled climate-messaging rating factboxes for 10 major energy companies. They include what AFP has termed here a "lobbying score": a rating assigned by InfluenceMap to measure how far a company's lobbying activities align with climate goals on a scale of 0 (fully opposed) to 100 (fully supportive).
For the "Paris targets" alignment score, one company, TotalEnergies, has a mixed rating: it was rated as aligned by one monitor (TPI) and as not-aligned by another (CTI).
Full sourcing details for the criteria used here are given at the end.
Alternatives proposed: carbon capture; hydrogen; blue ammonia
New projects: Expanding Marja, Berri oilfields
Alternatives proposed: bioenergy; electric vehicle charging; hydrogen; wind; solar
New projects: Oil exploration plans in Angola, North Sea
Alternatives proposed: gas; biofuels; hydrogen; carbon capture
New projects: Deepwater oil exploration in Gulf of Mexico and Indonesia
Alternatives proposed: solar; wind; biofuels; hydrogen; carbon capture
New projects: Joint oil field discovery in Barents Sea
Alternatives proposed: hydrogen; biofuels; carbon capture
New projects: Guyana offshore oilfield
Alternatives proposed: energy efficiency; solar- and wind-powered plants; hydrogen
New projects: Vostochno-Messoyakhskoye oil and gas field, Western Siberia
Alternatives proposed: reduce gas flaring; carbon capture, energy efficiency
New projects: Developing Itapu offshore unit
Alternatives proposed: gas; wind; solar; hydrogen; biofels; carbon capture; natural sinks
New projects: Jointly developing Burrup Hub gas field, Western Australia
Alternatives proposed: gas, carbon capture, solar-powered gas stations, hydrogen
New projects: Gendalo-Gehem gas field; Fedorovsky oil and gas unit
Paris targets: Aligned, per TPI. Not aligned, per CTI.
Alternatives proposed: gas; solar; wind; biofuels; biogas; hydrogen; e-fuels; carbon capture
New projects: Lake Albert oil project in Uganda
These profiles use declarations, data and analysis from publicly available sources and include the following indicators:
- Online messages and advertisements. Source: Facebook and Facebook Ad library
- Alignment with Paris emissions reduction targets. Sources: Transition Pathway Initiative and Carbon Tracker Initiative.
- Percent score for how far lobbying positions align with Paris goals; InfluenceMap rating for this position (ratings range from "obstructive" to "mixed" to "supportive"). Source: InfluenceMap
- Spending on lobbying in EU and US. Sources: EU Transparency Register and Opensecrets.org. Amounts are for 2021 unless otherwise stated
- Companies' proposed alternative means of energy and measures to curb emissions. Source: company statements
- Share of revenues that comes from Fossil fuels. Sources: Global Oil and Gas Exit List, companies; media reports
- New fossil fuel exploration projects. Sources: Global Energy Monitor, Global Oil and Gas Exit List; companies; media reports