silly priest (ohitsgood) wrote,
silly priest

If you were the chief executive of an oil company hoping to defend your
business against environmental campaigners, there are several ways you might
go about it. The most direct approach, as adopted by ExxonMobil, would be to
fund groups that claim climate change isn't happening and urge the White
House to remove the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But you wouldn't do this if you had any sense: Exxon's tactics, while
successful in the short term, have backfired spectacularly, confirming many
people's impressions that the oil industry is a threat to life on Earth. If
you were smart, you would follow BP and Shell's tactics. Rather than denying
that climate change is happening, they have repositioned themselves as
friends of the environment. Their new advertisements (including ones in this
magazine) seek to persuade us that they have left the bad old days behind.

They do this by emphasising their investments in low-carbon energy: wind,
solar and hydrogen. BP is now promoting carbon offset schemes, assuring its
customers that "it is now possible to drive in neutral". Other companies
have followed suit. Total promotes its investments in wind power and
biofuels, while Chevron claims that by exploiting Canada's tar sands it is
saving the world from another problem: the threat that global oil production
will soon peak.

Have they left the bad old days behind? Quite the opposite. By repositioning
themselves in this way as environmentally responsible, I believe these
companies have become far more dangerous than ExxonMobil. They have created
the impression that a large and growing oil industry is compatible with
preventing runaway climate change. BP in particular now looks more like an
environmental pressure group than an oil company.

The whole tenor of these companies' adverts, like BP's slogan "Beyond
petroleum", is misleading. It overlooks the fact that an oil company's share
price depends on the current and future value of its assets, and to sustain
this value it will aim to replace whatever oil it produces with new
discoveries and production. While Shell is struggling to keep up, BP has so
far managed to meet this target. In other words, it will continue in the
future to pump as much oil as it does today, regardless of what it spends on
alternative technologies.

Indeed, BP's carbon offset campaign is designed to allow sales of oil
products to increase, persuading customers that they can buy them with a
clear conscience. But growing oil sales are impossible to reconcile with
action on climate change, however many biodigesters and low-energy light
bulbs are installed to mop up their effects. The adverts, in other words,
all appear to be examples of greenwash: companies attempting to distract
attention from the environmental impacts of their activities.

It is not just oil companies that are guilty of this. Car manufacturers have
started to join in. Volkswagen has recently been promoting its Golf GT with
the slogan "High performance. Low emissions". Yet read the small print and
you'll find that the GT produces 175 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre,
compared with the national average for new cars in the UK of 170 grams.

Similarly, Toyota's new adverts are headlined "aim: zero emissions" and
claim that the company is seeking to preserve "the delicate balance between
man and nature". This is news to anyone who has bought one of its
planet-eating 4×4s. Even its famously efficient hybrid, the Prius, is less
impressive than the ads suggest. On the highway it manages, according to the
US Environmental Protection Agency, 51 miles per gallon. In 1983, the
standard Peugeot 205 made 72.

I have been unable to find any major company whose green claims stand up to
scrutiny. The big firm with the best environmental reputation in the UK is
the home improvement retailer B&Q. It has recently been promoting solar
panels and micro wind turbines, and maintains that "environmental and
ethical responsibility... is an integral part of the way we think about
ourselves and our business". This is hard to reconcile with its promotions
this summer. It knocked 15 per cent off the price of patio heaters and 20
per cent off air-conditioning units, helping customers to save money while
frying the planet. It sells a huge range of light bulbs, but few are

There's nothing wrong with companies advertising their green credentials. If
these are exaggerated, however, busy consumers have no means of
distinguishing between good firms and bad ones, and are easily led into
doing things they believe are helping the environment but in fact are
damaging it. The examples I have given suggest that we need stiffer rules
about the green claims made in advertisements, as well as mandatory
"sustainability" standards. Until then, I would advise you not to believe
anything a company tells you about its environmental performance.
From issue 2583 of New Scientist magazine, 23 December 2006, page 25
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