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Jonathan White

21st March 2022

Fossil fuels

Why are ClientEarth joining legal action against Total? – We ask the lawyer

In March 2022, we announced that we are joining legal action against energy giant Total, along with environmental groups Greenpeace France, Friends of the Earth France and Notre Affaire à Tous, seeking to hold the company accountable over greenwashing in its advertising.

We sat down with ClientEarth's lead lawyer on the action, Johnny White, to find out more.

Why are we joining legal action against Total?

“We’re joining legal action which argues that the fossil fuel giant Total’s advertising is misleading - it tells consumers the company is on track to become carbon neutral by 2050, despite continuing to promote and sell more fossil fuels.

Total is a global top 20 climate polluter with emissions bigger than France. The claim is intended to protect the public from fossil fuel greenwashing messages – and to stop Total and the fossil fuel industry from obstructing the clean energy transition.”

What laws have Total broken?

“The claim alleges that Total’s big ‘net zero’ marketing campaign breaches European consumer law – the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. This law prohibits misleading marketing claims directed at consumers, and covers claims that are straightforwardly false, as well as those that are misleading because they leave out relevant information or convey a misleading impression. The same standards apply in the UK, and similar bans on misleading consumers are common all over the world.

The law aims for consumers to be able to trust environmental claims put forward by companies on issues like climate change which increasingly matter to people when choosing a range of products and services, including home energy providers. Regulation of this advertising is very important in ensuring consumers are properly protected, informed and supported on critical climate issues.”

Why is greenwashing a problem?

"As the window for limiting climate breakdown is narrowing, greenwashing is on the rise, and confusion and misinformation about what ‘climate transition’ actually means is growing."

If people can’t trust what companies say about their climate actions in the critical years to come, then it is hard to see how we can successfully decarbonize. Defending the integrity of the climate goal of net zero emissions by 2050 is crucial.
Johnny White, Lead lawyer
Is there a lot of greenwashing in the fossil fuel industry?

“As ClientEarth’s Greenwashing Files report shows, unfortunately, Total’s advertising is not the only fossil fuel publicity campaign where ‘net zero’ claims cover up plans to maintain - or even increase - fossil fuel production in the face of climate science. Similar ‘net zero’ claims which are not backed up by real action are a much wider problem.

Any major coal, oil or gas company which is not rapidly declining its production and, in turn, its overall emissions faces problems in claiming to be working towards net zero. There is a fundamental inconsistency in claiming to support the goals of Paris Agreement and to be aiming for net zero, while actively maintaining production of fossil fuels which are the dominant cause of climate change.”

The claim alleges that Total's ads are misleading and greenwashing
How are Total’s ads misleading?

“As a main feature of its advertisement campaign, Total claimed to be aiming for carbon neutrality (net zero) by 2050, and suggested it was becoming a major player in the energy transition. But these adverts leave out key information about the company’s deficient plans for the vast majority of its massive greenhouse gas emissions. They also omit how Total’s plans for increased fossil fuels, which will continue to be the vast majority of its investments, are in opposition to pathways to net zero 2050 which require global emissions to be halved by 2030. 

The legal case argues that Total is not, in fact, aiming for net zero by 2050. It analyses that consumers are likely to take at face value the company’s messages presenting it as a frontrunner in the energy transition and on track to meet net zero. Therefore, since Total does not have adequate plans to reduce its emissions and shift away from fossil fuels, its advertisements risk misleading the public.”

What is the ideal outcome of this claim?

"If the case is won, high-emitting companies all over Europe will have to avoid telling the public they are on track with net zero unless they can justify this with real climate action. If not, they risk breaking the law and facing accountability for doing so. We hope this will help climate-concerned consumers in deciding which businesses they want to use, free from misleading advertising.”

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