There once was a time when you couldn’t switch on your TV, take a walk through a town or watch your favourite sports team without seeing huge images telling you to buy cigarettes. In 2021, the idea feels both absurd and grotesque. What changed is people woke up to the link between the glossy PR pushed by the tobacco industry, the policies and regulation of government and the disastrous health impacts of those policies.
And thank goodness that happened. But it’s now time to extend the same principle to another industry, one that is responsible for toxifying not just our lungs – but our entire planet; the fossil fuel industry. That’s why we’ve joined with a coalition of European NGOs in launching a new European Citizens Initiative (ECI), calling on the European Commission to introduce a legal ban on fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship – and we want you to join us!
At the start of 2021, a study at University College London sent shockwaves around the world, showing that air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for 8.7 million deaths globally in 2018. Incredibly that is one in five of all people who died that year. There is absolutely no escaping that fossil fuel consumption is driving a global health crisis.
And that doesn’t even begin to address the climate crisis that right now threatens to cause huge damage to humanity, and all other life on the planet. At the heart of this problem sits a group of powerful global fossil fuel companies. Just 20 such companies are responsible for one third of all carbon emissions since 1965.
Until very recently, in the face of this reality, these companies denied climate change was even real, to justify their ongoing toxic activities. Whilst some still do, the scrutiny brought on by a vibrant global climate movement has meant these companies need to find more creative tools and techniques to maintain their deadly status quo. Enter fossil fuel advertising – or to call it what it is – propaganda.
The industry has spent huge sums of money trying to convince us they are not responsible for the climate crisis – in fact it's more likely you and I for not recycling enough. To be clear, there is of course a role for all of us in tackling climate change but there is something very perverse about an industry so overwhelmingly responsible for this situation trying to shift the blame onto the individual.
As well as denying their responsibility, these companies use advertising to distort the public debate, portray themselves as the good guys on environmental issues (this is what we call greenwashing) and to create a ‘social licence’ for themselves – effectively build an aura of respectability around their activities that masks the true nature of the disastrous role they play. It’s exactly what the tobacco industry once did.
But the fossil fuel industry, that thrives on the status quo, doesn’t want change. For years they have wanted us to think they are the ones driving humanity forward, progressing all of our innovations. But nothing could be further from the truth, when it is they who are now trying to hold back progress and keeping us reliant on an outdated form of energy. We need to move to a fossil free future and that means dismantling the fossil fuel industry.
And this is where the question of fossil fuel advertising is so crucial. There is a clear link between propaganda and policy. The industry uses its public persona to influence politicians. All over the world you will see Government events sponsored by the fossil fuel industry. You will even see roundtables on climate change hosted or supported by big oil and gas companies. It’s like asking for health advice from a tobacco company; beyond irony.
If we are truly to end the toxic practices of the fossil fuel industry, we have to start by removing their social licence, and this means fighting for a ban on all fossil fuel advertising. Our European Citizens’ Initiative call is unequivocal: ban fossil fuel ads from print media, TV, billboards or radio, as well as social media. Let’s kick them out of our sports clubs and competitions, remove their presence in culture like museum and theatre sponsorship, and expel them from our universities and other academic institutions.
But to do this we need your help. If we can reach one million signatures the European Commission will be legally obliged to respond, and may even consider putting this call straight into law. These companies are powerful and rich but uniting across the continent we can make a difference. Please do visit here and sign the petition. And if you see a fossil fuel ad out in the wild, why not take a picture, tag us on Twitter or Instagram and upload it. And show those harming both people and planet, we will fight back.