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ClientEarth Communications

28th April 2021


How to spot fossil fuel greenwashing

Greenwashing is when companies use advertising techniques to appear more socially responsible than they really are.

It has never been more urgent for companies everywhere to be more environmentally sustainable and respond to global climate goals.

Yet the advertising of those companies most responsible for climate change and environmental damage is misleading the public about their climate progress. .

Fossil fuel companies should not be able to buy a good reputation for their climate-damaging products.

How to spot greenwashing by fossil fuel companies? We've explored five common greenwashing claims to help you recognise when advertising might not match up to reality:

Greenwashing claim 1: Natural gas is clean

Many fossil fuel companies make questionable claims about the sustainability of fossil fuel 'natural' gas, frequently marketed as ‘the cleanest-burning’ fossil fuel. Burning gas may produce less CO2 than burning coal or oil, but it is still carbon intensive, and not a viable long-term energy source – unlike renewable energy. Climate goals mean that gas use must be reduced, not increased.

On a full ‘lifecycle’ basis – that is through production transport and use – generating electricity by burning gas produces on average more than 10 times the emissions of real low-carbon electricity sources like solar, and more than 40 times the emissions from wind power. As well as emitting significant CO2 when burnt, extracting, transporting and storing fossil fuel gas also leaks methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. How much is leaked is critical - if leakage isn’t kept to low enough levels, the overall climate impact of gas can be worse than coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Measuring leakage is challenging, and significant advancements in reducing leakage are needed.

Greenwashing claim 2: Natural gas is backup for renewable energy

Currently, gas power is not typically limited to a ‘backup’ function when variable wind and solar renewable energy drops off. Instead, gas is a significant source of regular electricity generation globally, providing electricity that could be replaced by increasingly cheaper renewables. Meanwhile, investments in new gas infrastructure with decades-long operating lifetimes are set to 'lock in' unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenwashing claim 3: We can rely on carbon capture technology

Analysis shows that reaching climate targets whilst continuing with today’s oil and gas projects would require a rapid and massive acceleration in carbon capture and storage (CCS). Despite long-running talk of big plans for CCS, companies have never operated it at anything like sufficient scale.

Today, global operational CCS capacity accounts for about 0.1% of global fossil fuel emissions, and the technology cannot capture 100% of emissions. Some companies plan to use, rather than store, captured CO2, often to extract yet more oil.

CCS also does not avoid methane emissions ‘upstream’, which are the emissions from extraction, transport and processing before the gas is burned. These emissions may actually increase due to the additional energy required to run CCS technology.

There is a history of repeated failures to scale-up CCS, and plans for economically viable CCS have been called ‘wishful thinking’. Experts highlight numerous problems and barriers to its short-term deployment, and consider that any future development of CCS will now be too little, too late for urgent pathways to a safe climate.

Greenwashing claim 4: Carbon offsetting is the answer to fossil fuels

Companies’ climate plans increasingly rely on vague talk of huge ‘offsets’ or ‘nature-based solutions’ instead of near-term reductions in fossil fuel production. These plans, even if costed and scalable, can in practice often involve large commercial monoculture tree plantations, which can cause negative impacts on biodiversity and communities, and struggle to guarantee carbon storage for the hundreds of years that fossil fuel emissions will remain in the atmosphere.

Some companies plan to claim carbon ‘credits’ from existing forests by relying on questionable claims that these corporate offset schemes are the only way to stop deforestation.

Carbon removals and offsetting schemes like this can be a part of tackling climate change.  But they are not an alternative to prioritising cutting emissions for any sector, let alone for the fossil fuel industry.

Greenwashing claim 5: Biomass is a ‘sustainable’ solution

Some companies are now turning from fossil fuels to forest biomass energy. Wood biomass is treated as ‘renewable’ under EU and UK law, based on a carbon accounting rule where the GHG emissions from burning biomass are counted as ‘zero’.

However, in reality burning wood biomass can produce even more CO2 emissions than burning fossil fuels.  Sourcing the fuel for biomass through logging is also linked to deforestation – degrading the natural carbon sinks we need for a safe climate.

The carbon accounting rule is highly controversial, and does not mean that biomass is in reality ‘low-carbon’ or ‘carbon-neutral’. Because of this, scientists warn that burning wood biomass for energy creates a double climate problem – because it is a false solution to climate change that is replacing real solutions.

Greenwashing, uncovered

These five claims are found across fossil fuel companies’ adverts and paint a glossy and reassuring picture of their activities.  But the claims are often misleading.

Advertisements by fossil fuel companies most responsible for environmental damage and climate change should be scrutinised. We hope this guide makes it easier for the public to spot greenwashing in action.

Visit our Greenwashing Files for more examples of fossil fuel greenwashing >