Climate Change

BP and British media must stop green-washing

All promises of climate action must come with estimates of costs and emissions mitigated

By Kapil Subramanian
Published: Monday 24 February 2020

BP Plc’s recent statement on attaining net-zero emissions by 2050 drew predictable criticism for being yet another example of corporate green-washing and for trying to achieve too little, too late. Although the company’s decision to stop “corporate reputation advertising” — a measure perceived as being key to green-washing — is noteworthy.

Such advertising played a key role in manufacturing and sustaining doubt against scientific consensus on issues such as tobacco, as well as on human-induced climate change. Outside powerful quarters including the White House, outright climate change denial may be dying.

But climate-scepticism is now expressing itself in new ways, which acknowledge human-induced climate change, but push inadequate and inappropriate solutions. A key example is Exxon Mobil Corp’s Energy Factor, advertised on many Indian platforms.

Struggling independent media operations in poor countries with advertising supplied by Google may not be able to easily curb such advertising. In any case, so sceptical is the public to environmental information delivered by fossil-fuel giants that such advertising may prove to be counter-productive, especially to the readership of publications like The Guardian, who highlight a significant climate emergency.

Indeed, weeks before BP’s announcement, the newspaper announced that it would no longer accept fossil-fuel advertising, adding to their growing suite of pledges on climate emergency.

Like any climate action, The Guardian’s decision to “renounce fossil fuel advertising” must be measured in emissions avoided and cost. As the newspaper noted, BP’s plan provided “no concrete details”.

The precise impact on emissions of banning fossil fuel advertising is hard to estimate. Though it may be substantial, it is unlikely to be particularly high in the case of The Guardian, which is perceived to be Left-leaning. How much the fossil fuel industry invests in advertising in The Guardian is unknown: from The Guardian’s pledge, the Guardian Media Group’s reports or from Google searches.

In its statement, The Guardian explicitly said it has resisted pressure from readers to curtail advertising of a broader range of carbon intensive goods and services (such as cars), as it would impact bottom lines too greatly. But the impact on bottom lines is currently the best measure — however inadequate — of the sincerity of corporate climate action.

Given the leading role it has played in shaping eco-friendly personal consumer choices over the years, curtailing consumer-focused advertising of carbon-intensive products could well make for a greater contribution by The Guardian to climate emergency, compared to curtailing corporate public image building that ultimately supports that business-to-business or business-to-government sales.

Most notably, Guardian Holidays will continue to sell cut-price carbon intensive holidays without offering any options within its list of destinations in Britain. This, when well-researched blogs such as Around Britain Without a Plane have been offering the same for nearly two decades now.

The Guardian, a rich-world service-sector company whose print operations are small even by its own country’s standards (The Times, Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail all have four times the circulation of The Guardian’s, while the Sun sells 10 times as many copies) also recently announced plans to attain net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.

This target may be measured against those set by Indian Railways, one of the largest people-and-material transport operations in the world, which consumes a significant proportion of all diesel and electricity produced in a poor country.

The world’s second-largest railway announced a net-zero target for the same year (2030) as the Guardian. Even this target is not ambitious enough, given studies have estimated that not only is a net-zero railway cost effective, but also that a 2020 target would save the government even more money.

Beyond lack of ambition and lack of a plan, it is notable that the Guardian Media Group’s sustainability data is not publicly available: we don’t know what current emissions are. In the pages of the Guardian itself, the data was last published in 2010.

For a company with over £224 million in revenues, the publication of such data, even if not required legally must be voluntarily undertaken, perhaps in compliance with corporate-backed standards like the Global Reporting Initiative. In India, such reporting — over-and-above statutory requirements — has been taken up even by much-reviled tobacco, cement, steel and paper companies.

But the group’s actions give little cause for hope. With 56 per cent of revenue coming from digital operations, it has led the world in that transition. It has nevertheless made wasteful and carbon footprint-lengthening investments in print. To keep up with consumer preferences, all titles of the stable moved to the tabloid format in 2018.

This meant that its Berliner printing presses had to abandoned, despite being relatively new as capital goods go, having been installed only in 2005, also to keep up with competition from the British tabloid press.

The moves were primarily about cost-effectiveness, despite marginal environmental benefits. But as in the case of oil pipelines, each investment locked into a printing press will unnecessarily extend the time such carbon intensive goods are in use.

These actions fit into a new kind of green-washing: It has become rampant across Britain since The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) landmark special report. The Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018) allowed obfuscation, recommending the world as a whole turn a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050. But it was limited in its remit in not being able to add “but developed countries need to do so much sooner”.

The country promptly passed a ‘net-zero by 2050’ law, after the official Committee on Climate change estimated that the new target would cost no more than Britain’s existing long term of 80-95 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2050.

The UK’s CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan is now pushing net-zero as the only “science-based target” for climate mitigation. But the only “science base” for the claim that Britain’s target is compliant with the Paris Agreement’s temperature targets, is an obscure and dodgy report with recommendations that make for a world dystopian in its iniquity. It was actively disseminated by the Guardian through eye-catching infographics.

As a timber-guzzling corporation, The Guardian, also has an interest in other obfuscating CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan mantras, such as “nature-based solutions” and Nature Exchange; phrases newly minted to green-wash the terrible image forestry-based carbon credits had gained for corrupting global climate action under the Kyoto Protocol.

The British government, its cities, state and businesses, its media as well as the general public need to be vigilant to the new kinds of green washing now emerging, even as baby steps are being belatedly taken to curb crude old-school corporate climate denialism.

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