New steps towards banning high-carbon advertising

By: Anna Jonsson

Last year hundreds of thousands of people signed up to support the idea of a ban on fossil fuel ads and sponsorships in the EU, such as the existing one on tobacco advertising.

The issue is now growing – several cities, including Sydney and Stockholm, have decided to ban fossil ads and there is a good chance that it will be an issue in the election to the European Parliament 2024. The question is not if fossil fuel ads and sponsorships will be banned, it is a matter of how and when.

Fossil fuel ads pollute our minds every day, influencing our wishes and dreams, normalising high-carbon lifestyles. In a short period of time environmental movements all over Europe have succeeded in making this an issue.

Last year 350,000 signatures were gathered in the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on banning fossil fuel ads and sponsorships, demanding new legislation in the EU. The ECI was initiated by Greenpeace Europe, and Silvia Pastorelli, climate and energy campaigner, describes why: “We have seen a change of tactics of fossil fuel companies from denying to delaying and deflecting. Fossil fuel companies’ social license has remained unchallenged for decades and we wanted to bring awareness to it and to start dismantling it.”

Advertising and sponsorship had already been highlighted as an issue by some parts of the movement in Europe and the UK, for example in the Badvertising campaign. Greenpeace saw the possibility of acting as a catalyser of the movement, bringing various groups together in one campaign and making it part of the mainstream discussion.

The ECI’s goal to get one million signatures was not met, but many other successes were achieved. Who could have imagined that the UN Secretary General would highlight the fossil fuel industry’s misleading PR? Or that the director of Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay, would support the idea of a fossil ad ban?

But of course, the most important part is not what is said, but what is done. From a Swedish perspective a lot of things have happened. The Swedish Advertising Ombudsman recently held a seminar on fossil fuel ads, prompting discussion within the industry on how to tackle the issue. Sweden’s two biggest cities, Stockholm and Gothenburg, have decided to ban or regulate fossil fuel ads in different ways.

There are similar initiatives all over the world, such as in Sydney and France. Most of them are described on the global website on fossil ad ban initiatives, launched in April 2023. The spokesperson for the new website and campaigner at Reclame Fossielvrij, Charlotte Braat, comments: “As can be read in the research section on our website, the IPCC found that 40–70 per cent of emission reductions for 2050 can be achieved through choices we make in our daily lives. (…) For the IPCC, this includes the regulation of advertising, high-carbon advertising in particular.”

The issue of fossil fuel companies influencing our minds is not only about ads, but also about sponsorship. There have been several initiatives to highlight this issue, such as the Bad Sports Award by the Badvertising campaign. The winner in 2022 was the Men’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar for its “unreliable carbon-neutrality claims and having oil and gas giant QatarEnergy as its main sponsor”. The issue of high carbon-sponsorship in winter sports has been scrutinised in the report The Snow Thieves. Commenting on the report, Britain’s most successful Winter Olympian, Lizzy Yarnold, said: “Having high-carbon sponsors is like winter sport nailing the lid on its own coffin, and it needs to stop.”

The legal aspect also has an important role. There have been several lawsuits during the past years – such as one filed against KLM by ClientEarth and Reclame Fossielvrij over greenwashing allegations and against Total Energies for “misleading the public over Net Zero”, by Greenpeace France, Friends of the Earth France and Notre Affaire à Tous, supported by ClientEarth.

So, what next? On a European level there is a good chance that demands for new legislation banning fossil fuels ads and sponsorships will become part of the debate before the election to the European Parliament 2024. The next step is a conference on advertisement in the EU Parliament in May, and specifically on the topic of advertising by fossil fuel companies, led by the Green MEP, David Cormand.

Another upcoming issue is whether there is really a need for new legislation, or can the existing legislation be used more effectively to end fossil fuel ads and sponsorships? The big call within ECI member organisations was for new legislation. There are now voices claiming that the existing legislation could be used, since ads affecting the climate are misleading per se. New Weather Sweden recently published a report on this issue, based on an article by Clemens Kaupa, assistant professor in EU law at Vrije Universitet in Amsterdam: Smoke gets in your eyes: misleading fossil fuel advertisement in the climate crisis.

Gunnar Lind, New Weather Sweden, says: “Surely we need new legislation to clarify, but we can already claim that fossil fuel ads are banned since they are misleading, and the current legislation is clear on that issue. The big question right now is not if fossil fuel ads will be banned, it is just a matter of how and when.”

Anna Jonsson

Earlier articles in this issue, Time to ban climate-threating advertising, Dec 2021, and Fossil advertising – halfway towards a ban, June 2022.


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