Outlawing adverts that push high-carbon products such as SUVs would be a simple win for regulators looking to take climate action, says Andrew Simms
4 May 2022
FROM the car advert urging you to enjoy a life “without restrictions” by driving an SUV with emissions 250 per cent above the EU target to the airline ad mocking people who holiday at home, why, in a warming world, are we surrounded by ads encouraging us to buy polluting, high-carbon products? Ending them would be an easy win for decision-makers looking to take rapid climate action.
Ads promoting high-carbon lifestyles and products are ubiquitous. Car firms spent an estimated $35.5 billion on advertising in major global markets in 2018. SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global carbon dioxide emissions between 2010 and 2018. Following heavy promotion by vehicle manufacturers, in less than a decade, SUVs went from being 1 in 10 of new car sales to more than 4 in 10.
Once you start to look for such ads, they are everywhere. Sport is one of the world’s biggest advertising markets. The three sponsors with courtside adverts at the 2021 Australian Open tennis tournament were an oil and gas company, an airline and a car-maker (Santos, Emirates and Kia).
Advertising wouldn’t be the multibillion industry it is if it didn’t work. One recent estimate looking at the degree to which global car and airline advertising increased demand suggests that it could have been responsible for between 202 million and 606 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 – an order of magnitude ranging from between the Netherlands’ entire emissions that year to almost twice those of Spain.
To a large degree, the advertising of high-carbon products has taken the place of once-common tobacco advertising, which ended in the UK in 2003 for health reasons. Now, with a climate crisis and an estimated 8.7 million premature deaths a year from burning fossil fuels, ads from big polluters should go the same way.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report looked at how behaviour change could complement system change in achieving rapid emissions cuts. It lists regulation of advertising as an example of a policy measure that can have a “major influence on mitigative capacity”.
The sheer incongruity of urgently needing to cut emissions while being surrounded by ads for gas-guzzling SUVs isn’t lost on the general public either, as a new poll of UK attitudes illustrates. In a nationally representative survey of 2000 people, 68 per cent of UK adults said they would restrict advertising of environmentally harmful products, while 45 per cent favour limits on ads for highly polluting cars and 33 per cent support curbing ads for air travel.
Echoing the debate that led to the ending of tobacco advertising, around half said that warnings alone wouldn’t alter their choices.
Regulators are beginning to look more at corporate “greenwash”, such as airlines promising climate-friendly flights. France is requiring car adverts to carry environmental warnings and prompts to walk, cycle or take public transport instead. Amsterdam and five other Dutch cities have banned public ads for fossil fuel products. UK councils, including Liverpool, Norwich and North Somerset, have passed similar policies. A European petition for a new EU law to ban fossil fuel ads has raised more than 200,000 signatures.
Given the heavy lifting facing other climate measures, simply removing the advertising that pushes us to consume polluting products could prove an appealing option for policy-makers.
As with tobacco, stopping ads wouldn’t prevent the harmful products from being sold, but it would reduce demand and the cultural normalisation of this damaging activity.
Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute and assistant director of Scientists for Global Responsibility
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