Fossil fuel companies and the companies that work closely with them are among the biggest spenders on ads designed to look like Google search results, in what activists say is an example of “endemic greenwashing.”
The Guardian analyzed ads posted in Google search results for 78 weather-related terms, in collaboration with InfluenceMap, a think tank that tracks lobbying efforts by polluting industries.
The results show that more than one in five ads seen in the study, more than 1,600 in all, were placed by companies with significant interests in fossil fuels.
Advertisers pay for their ads to appear in the search engine when a user views certain terms. Ads are attractive to businesses because they are very similar in appearance to search results: more than half of users in a 2020 survey reported that they couldn’t tell the difference between a paid list and a normal Google result.
ExxonMobil, Shell, Aramco, McKinsey and Goldman Sachs were in the top 20 advertisers in search terms, while several other fossil fuel producers and their funders also placed ads.
Jake Carbone, Senior Data Analyst at InfluenceMap, said: “Google is allowing groups with vested interests in the continued use of fossil fuels to pay to influence the resources that people receive when they try to educate themselves.
“The oil and gas sector has moved away from questioning the science of climate change and now instead seeks to sway public discussions about decarbonization in its favor.”
Ads by Shell, from the major oil company, numbered 153 in total, appearing in 86% of “net zero” searches. Many promoted their commitment to becoming a net zero company by 2050 and aligning themselves with a 1.5 ° C warming target.
However, Shell’s net zero strategy relies heavily on carbon capture and offset, according to a Carbon Brief Analysis, which reads: “Despite its ‘highly ambitious’ framework … Shell’s vision of a continuing role for oil, gas and coal until the end of the century remains essentially the same.”
A Shell spokesperson said: “Shell’s goal is to become a zero-emission net energy business by 2050, in tune with society. Our absolute and intensity targets in the short, medium and long term are consistent with the more ambitious 1.5 ° C target of the Paris agreement. “
Goldman Sachs, which facilitated almost $ 19 billion of loans to the fossil fuel industry in 2020, had the third-highest number of ads. The bank’s ads appeared in nearly six out of 10 searches for “renewable energy,” with many emphasizing its “continued commitment to sustainable finance.”
The McKinsey consultancy ads appeared in more than eight out of 10 searches for “energy transition” and four out of 10 searches for “climate hazards.” Their ads read: “McKinsey works with customers on innovation and growth that promotes sustainability.”
In addition to its work on sustainable investments, the company receives significant income from fossil fuel customers. In recent years, McKinsey has advised 43 of the 100 most polluting companies in the world, according to the New York Times.
A McKinsey spokesperson noted a opinion piece written by a managing partner of the company, which says: “There is no way to achieve emission reductions without working with these industries to make a rapid transition.”
Aramco, the Saudi state oil company, which is the world’s largest oil exporter, had 114 ads on the keywords “carbon storage,” “carbon capture,” and “energy transition.” Several of its advertisements claimed that the company “promoted biodiversity” and “protected the planet.”
Melissa Aronczyk, associate professor at Rutgers University, said: “Since at least the 1980s in the US, there has been a very concerted effort by public relations agents to help polluting companies develop strategies to ‘go green’ while maintaining business as usual.
“Many of the initiatives that companies are taking are very fragmented and will not involve any kind of systemic or long-term change.”
Johnny White, a lawyer for the environmental charity ClientEarth, called for stricter regulation of ads placed by polluting industries. “Fossil fuel companies spend millions on incredibly sophisticated ad campaigns, so separating fact from fiction can be really difficult for audiences.
“Damaging greenwashing has become endemic; to eradicate it, we must legislate a ban on all fossil fuel advertisements, just like tobacco did.”
The analysis also analyzed the “fragments”, which are not paid, but are chosen by Google’s algorithm as the most relevant result. The Guardian found the fragment chosen for “fracking” linked to the website of an oil and gas lobby, the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
In response to the question, “Is fracking a threat to public health?”, The IPAA page says, “No. In fact, there is ample evidence that increased use of natural gas … has improved public health by dramatically improving air quality in recent years ”.
TO multi-year research The US Environmental Protection Agency concluded in 2016 that, in some cases, fracking had damaged drinking water supplies.
Unlike Facebook, Google does not have a publicly accessible ad library, which means that it is difficult to analyze advertising on the platform. In the EU and UK, only Google provides complete data in ads that directly mention politicians or a political party, or those that include a referendum question.
A Google spokesperson said: “We recently launched a new policy that will explicitly ban ads that promote climate change denial. This policy applies to all advertisers, including energy companies and financial institutions, and we will block or remove any ads that contain infringing content. “
An ExxonMobil spokesperson said: “ExxonMobil has contributed to the development of climate science for decades and has made its work available to the public. And as the scientific community’s understanding of climate change developed, ExxonMobil responded accordingly. “
Aramco and Goldman Sachs did not respond to requests for comment.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism