Press release: 19 April 2021

Fossil fuel advertising misleading on climate: lawyers

LONDON, UK – Lawyers from ClientEarth have today released the Greenwashing Files, which includes new evidence and analysis showing that some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies have used advertising to ‘greenwash’ their continuing contribution to climate change.

The environmental law organisation’s research compares the adverts of major polluters – ExxonMobil, Aramco, Chevron, Shell, Equinor, Total, RWE, Drax and Ineos – to the realities of their carbon-intensive operations and products, overall climate impact and progress in transitioning to business models that do not endanger people and planet.

In 2019, ClientEarth lawyers submitted a complaint against BP’s greenwashing before the oil major withdrew its clean energy advertising. Now ClientEarth is putting other fossil fuel companies on notice for adverts that mislead the public, as well as calling on policymakers to introduce tobacco-style advertising bans and health warnings to curb deceptive fossil fuel marketing.

Lawyers are also urging institutional investors and shareholders to use the online Greenwashing Files analysis in the upcoming AGM season, to assess climate risk and to examine companies’ net zero or climate strategies.

ClientEarth lawyer Johnny White said: “We’re currently witnessing a great deception, where the companies most responsible for catastrophically heating the planet are spending millions on advertising campaigns about how their business plans are focused on sustainability.

“Scientists could not be clearer about the need for oil, gas, coal and biomass companies to urgently and significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions they’re responsible for. We need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. But instead of leading a low-carbon transition, these companies are putting out advertising which distracts the public and launders their image.

“Up until now it has been difficult for the public, shareholders and investors to be confident that such advertising is in fact misleading and amounts to greenwashing. By showing advertising claims alongside the reality of their activities, our research shows these adverts are misrepresenting the true nature of companies’ businesses, of their contribution to climate change, and of their transition plans.

“We cannot underestimate the real world impact this advertising has on the pace of change.  For decades, some companies’ efforts to refute climate science delayed meaningful climate action and protected ‘business as usual’ profits. Today, how can we hope to transition society away from the use of catastrophically damaging fossil fuel products when they and their producers are constantly advertised and normalised?”

ClientEarth’s analysis shows that companies’ publicity routinely misrepresented the sustainability of their activities and avoided companies’ total greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint, overrepresented clean energy investments and promoted commercially unproven ‘solutions’ – such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) – to ongoing fossil fuel production.

The Greenwashing Files detail:

  • ExxonMobil advertising suggests its experimental algae biofuels could one day reduce transport emissions, meanwhile it has no company-wide net-zero target and its 2025 emission reduction targets have been rejected as woefully inadequate for ignoring the vast majority of emissions caused by its products – in 2019 these were 730 million tons of GHGs, roughly equivalent to Canada’s entire emissions.
  • Aramco claims it conducts business “in a way that addresses the climate challenge” yet it is the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitter and plans to continue exploring for and pumping more oil and gas, despite amassing reserves much greater than those of Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP and Total combined.
  • Chevron claims it is “part of the solution” to climate change yet it does not have a net-zero commitment or a strategy aligned with the Paris Agreement. Chevron plans to rely on CCS to reduce GHG emissions by nearly 5 million tonnes per year. In comparison, in 2019 its annual GHG emissions were almost 700 million tonnes.
  • Shell claims it is part of the “greatest push for renewable energy the world has ever seen” yet its plan for net zero relies on CCS and planting trees to enable continued fossil fuel production. Shell has earmarked $2-3 billion for each year for low-carbon businesses, compared to $17 billion on fossil fuels operations.
  • Total’s advertising says that CCS is key for the company to meet its Paris Agreement goals, but the company’s current CCS plans only extend to capturing 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, a fraction of Total’s 2019 GHG emissions of 469 million tonnes.
  • Equinor has talked of growing renewable capacity tenfold by 2026, but renewables are only planned to be 4% of its energy by this date. Meanwhile, in 2020 it opened the largest oil field in Western Europe.
  • RWE’s advertising says that it is necessary for energy to be “renewable and clean” despite its plans to carry on burning hugely polluting brown coal over 15 years into the future. RWE’s biggest energy generation source is fossil fuel gas, which the company actually wants to expand. It also wants to become Europe’s leading wholesale gas trader.
  • Drax claims to be a renewable energy company that has reduced its reported emissions by more than 85% since 2012, yet this is based on a problematic carbon accounting quirk where the emissions from burning biomass for energy (which can be higher than from coal energy) are counted as ‘zero’.
  • Ineos’ advertising claims the company is “really focussing” on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, however it does not disclose the overall emissions its highly carbon intensive business is responsible for, and it has not set any business-wide targets to reduce emissions. One of the company’s 2025 pledges to use recycled plastic was outweighed by its increase in production last year alone.

“These companies need to stop suggesting they are part of the solution in their advertising, otherwise they leave themselves open to challenge,” White added.

The Files also make clear the need for greater regulation, with ClientEarth calling for all fossil fuel company ads to be banned unless they come with tobacco-style health warnings about the risks to people and planet.

Lawyers say the warnings should inform the public about the dangers of climate change and state that fossil fuel products are the main cause of global warming, quoting the leading science from the IPCC.

Fossil fuel companies must also be transparent in their advertising about how much they are spending on fossil fuels versus their genuinely low-carbon businesses. Finally, companies should be banned from promoting fossil fuels themselves, as there is simply no case for increasing the demand for fossil fuels.

“Greenwashing is currently endemic and deceptive. To give society a chance of tackling a climate and public health disaster that business as usual presents, the public needs accurate and full information – all fossil fuel company advertising must come with tobacco-style health warnings.”


Notes to editors:
  • The full company dossiers can be accessed at
  • A media pack with videos, images and a Q&A is available here.
  • ClientEarth worked with environmental investigators DeSmog to conduct the analysis
About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.