Car adverts 'driving climate breakdown'

What the truck?

Global ads for cars and flights responsible for up to twice as much CO2 as Spain, new research suggests.

Globally car and airline ad­vertising in 2019 could be responsible for between 202 million tonnes (Mt) and 606 Mt of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e).

Adverts around the world are pushing polluting lifestyles and speeding-up climate breakdown, according to the latest research from Advertising Climate Chaos.

It should seem obvious to any policymaker committed to meeting climate targets that advertising that increases demand for polluting commodities like cars and aviation should be controlled. But there’s little sign yet of measures to restrict such advertising becoming part of national climate plans.

Perhaps with the notable exception is the recent French initiative compelling car adverts to carry messages that encourage people to walk, cycle and use public transport instead of driving. This falls short of a ban but was still fiercely resisted by the industry.

Emissions

Part of the problem is that is has seemed too far removed, and the impact of advertising too hard to quantify.

To change that, the New Weather Institute, in partnership with Greenpeace, has for the first time produced figures that give an estimated range for the additional greenhouse gas emissions attributable to advertising for cars and flights around. The numbers are big, whether at the top or bottom of our range.

Globally car and airline ad­vertising in 2019 could be responsible for between 202 million tonnes (Mt) and 606 Mt of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e).

This rang­e falls between the Netherland’s entire emis­sions in 2019 to almost twice the amount of Spain’s total emissions for the same year.

Globally car and airline ad­vertising in 2019 could be responsible for between 202 million tonnes (Mt) and 606 Mt of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e).

The new report, titled Advertising climate chaos: how adverts for cars and flights are fuelling the climate emergency, also found that adverts for cars and airlines in 2019 in Europe alone could be responsible for as much as 122 MtCO2e. This is more than Belgium's annual emissions in 2019.

Retrofitting

A certain number of cars would be bought and driven, and flights taken, regardless of advertising. But advertising increases consumption by raising demand, which is the focus of this report.

The new figures use publicly available information and standard emissions data for the sectors. We assessed the likely impact of advertising on pushing up consumer demand by looking at how much the industry spends on adverts and then taking a range of estimates for how much the advertising is likely to increases sales.

The figures use typical, sector wide values for this because individual companies closely guard figures for their ‘return on advertising spend’. If these figures were publicly available more precise conclusions could be drawn.

But even at the bottom or top end of the range of estimates, it is clear that advertising is fanning the flames of a warming world by promoting major polluters, like the aviation and car industries, just as it once blew smoke in people’s faces by selling cigarettes.

It is also clear that the easiest way to start cutting carbon emissions – before even getting into the heavy lifting of retrofitting homes, changing diets and changing transport infrastructure - is by ending the excesses of ‘lifestyle pollution’ that only happen because adverts are pushing higher consumption.

Tool

The revelation of advertising’s impact comes amid growing international questions around the ethics of promoting purchases that are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels in the midst of a severe climate emergency.

Last month, more than 450 scientists called on major advertising and public relations firms to drop their fossil fuel clients and stop downplaying the climate crisis.

In Europe, more than 30 organisations are supporting a broader campaign to legally end fossil advertising and sponsorship in the EU, much like the long-established directive that bans tobacco sponsorships and advertisements.

If the campaign collects one million verified signatures in a year the European Commission is obliged to respond, under a mechanism known as a European Citizen’s Initiative.

At the local level the Badvertising campaign is supporting councils and community groups to introduce low carbon advertising policies and end advertising that promotes heavily polluting products and lifestyles.

As Georgia Whitaker, the Greenpeace lead campaigner for the European Fossil Free Revolution campaign says, “advertising is a very powerful tool".

Emissions

"This report shows that if we allow the unchecked advertising of high-carbon products, major polluters will succeed in boosting sales through social media, print and broadcast media channels, and on billboards, resulting in a clear increase in carbon emissions.

"Scientists have issued a code red for humanity, now it’s crucial to take away the microphone from an industry that is actively profiting from climate wrecking commodities.”

The full breakdown of the new figures from the car and aviation sectors – both of which have systematically resisted faster action on pollution - shows the potentially enormous scale of the problem.

Globally, the greenhouse gas emissions as a result of car advertising could be as high as the equivalent of 572 million tonnes of CO2. This is 27 million tonnes higher than Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.

Industry

The greenhouse gas emissions attributable to global car advertising in 2019 are at a minimum 191 MtCO2e, which is more than the annual emissions of the Netherlands in 2019.

The airline industry's additional emissions driven by advertising are lower, but still significant. Greenhouse gas emissions attributable to airline advertising globally in 2019 could be up to the equivalent of 34 million tonnes of CO2 – the same as burning 17 million tonnes of coal.

For adverts for flights in the EU alone, additional greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 could be as high as the equivalent of 9 million tonnes of CO2. This is the equivalent to burning 4,510t of coal.

Global aviation pollution was rising steadily with the expanding industry prior to the pause caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. 

Tobacco

The pre-pandemic picture for cars is the same: a relentless rise in emissions driven by the sheer numbers of vehicles sold, and a shift to larger more polluting SUVs driven by advertising, with both overwhelming any improvements in vehicle efficiency.

It’s a critical moment to stop promoting polluting forms of transport because during the pandemic people got a taste for streets less filled with cars, urban areas were re-designed to give people more space, and the popularity of cycling and active travel quickly rose.

There is a chance to achieve the wider shift towards safer, cleaner, more pleasant and less polluting ways of getting around, but getting the new habits and opportunities to stick means stopping the siren calls of advertising to go back to bad old habits.

Now that we have figures showing the size of the problem, regulators have more reason to act. We ended tobacco advertising to save lives, now it’s time to do the same for adverts by major climate polluters.

This Author

Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, author of several books on new and green economics and co-author of the original Green New Deal. He is on twitter at @AndrewSimms_uk.

The report Advertising Climate Chaos is published jointly by Greenpeace Nordic and the New Weather Institute. For more information about the European Citizens’ Initiative, Ban Fossil Fuel Advertising and Sponsorships, see www.banfossilfuelads.org

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