Opinion: False advertising must never again sabotage climate action

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Opinion: “We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing.” Governments must prioritize enforcement against misleading ads, and add vastly higher fines.

Published Apr 22, 2023  •  Last updated 13 hours ago  •  4 minute read

A man jumps on a skimboard while riding on tidal pools at Spanish Banks as smoke from wildfires hangs over Vancouver’s downtown core on Oct. 6, 2022. Photo by DARRYL DYCK /THE CANADIAN PRESS

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“We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing … Using bogus net-zero pledges to cover up massive fossil-fuel expansion is reprehensible. It is rank deception. This toxic coverup could push our world over the climate cliff. The sham must end.”

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— UN Secretary-General António Guterres

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The federal government has declared a national climate emergency as Canadians find themselves in a frightening new era of heat domes, atmospheric rivers, mega-wildfires and record hurricanes.

One thing is certain. If governments had only regulated greenhouse gases a quarter century ago, our future would be far less grim. The tragedy is that the fossil-fuel industry used false advertising and biased industry-funded science to kill proposed regulations at that time.

When the 1992 UN Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro took place, a bipartisan consensus of 88 per cent of Americans agreed that climate change was a serious problem. Strong action on climate was imminent.

However, industry responded with sweeping PR campaigns — and industry-funded research — to deny climate change was happening, and deny a link to fossil fuels. Public concern sharply declined, and the U.S. withdrew its commitment to the Kyoto climate treaty and other measures. Similar climate stalling occurred in Canada.

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Recent events have exposed the cynicism behind the historic PR campaigns. Corporate documents have surfaced showing that from 1959 on, industry scientists had actually been warning companies that their fossil fuels would likely trigger catastrophic climate change.

Responding to this revelation, many U.S. states and local governments are now suing oil, coal and gas companies for deceiving the public about the risks of their products. For example, 16 Puerto Rican towns allege conspiracy to commit consumer fraud — and seek compensation for the 2017 hurricane season that devastated their communities.

But today we face a new generation of deceptive ads. No longer able to deny plausibly that climate change is happening, industry’s new approach is to claim industry already has climate change under control. The implicit message — once again — is that government need not regulate.

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For example, new ads claim that companies are “reducing greenhouse gases” or will be “net zero by 2050,” “carbon neutral” or “in alignment with the Paris Agreement.” Yet many of these climate-washing ads are deceptive too.

For example, European regulators have already ruled against ads that boast natural gas is a “clean” fuel. A New Zealand tribunal ordered removal of a “going zero carbon” ad, because the gas company’s “zero” projection was based on unproven future technology. Many Canadian oil companies advertise that their operations will be “net-zero by 2050” — but don’t mention that this rosy calculation fails to count greenhouse gases from end-use of the oil and gas.

Government is now rewriting the Competition Act, and reform is urgently needed to better regulate climate deception in advertising. Among other things, the reformed Act needs to:

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• Require companies making climate claims to publicly release substantiating details, as France now does;

• Set specific standards that climate claims must meet. For example, the European Union is developing standard accounting rules for calculating carbon offsets when judging “net-zero” claims;

• Create a new criminal conspiracy offence for collaborating to intentionally deceive consumers about climate impacts of products;

• Prioritize enforcement against greenwashing, and add vastly higher fines;

• Empower private citizens to sue for climate washing. Although government estimates 40 per cent of all environmental claims may be misleading, only a small handful of penalties have ever been issued for greenwashing ads. To deter widespread climate deception, private citizens need the full right to sue lawbreakers.

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The University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre recently submitted a comprehensive law reform proposal to Minister Champagne on this topic: Reforming the Competition Act to Defend Climate: The Need to Regulate Deceptive Ads.

Don’t get us wrong. It’s highly desirable for companies to advertise good environmental performance — but only when that performance is verifiably true.

There is no doubt that careful consumer choices can be a powerful force for sustainability. When informed consumers discriminate between green products and others, they strengthen sustainable businesses, make it less profitable to pollute and reduce environmental harms.

However, misleading ads make it impossible for consumers to distinguish between beneficial and harmful products. That is why regulating such advertising serves both conscientious consumers and sustainable companies. It might also help save the planet.

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Lisa Harris is an articled student and Calvin Sandborn KC is senior counsel at the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre. Matt Hulse is an Ecojustice lawyer. Dr. Leah Temper advocates for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

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