Fossil fuel advertising on London’s transport network ‘undermining mayor’s net zero goals’

UN Secretary-General António Guterres in June urged every country to ban advertising from fossil fuel companies, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

credit GLA

More than 200 advertising campaigns for major oil and gas companies have been displayed across London’s public transport network since Sadiq Khan set out his plan to make the capital a “zero carbon city”.

The mayor said in his 2018 environment strategy that he was “passionate about taking the lead and using the powers at my disposal to boost London’s green economy and deliver sustainable growth”.

But campaigners at Friends of the Earth say that since the publication of that strategy, the number of ads placed by fossil fuel companies across the Transport for London (TfL) estate is “undermining” his environmental policies.

According to data obtained through Freedom of Information requests by climate news service DeSmog, some 237 advertising campaigns for oil and gas giants BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Equinor were displayed across the TfL estate since April 2018.

The figures come after UN Secretary-General António Guterres in June urged every country to ban advertising from fossil fuel companies, likening it to the restrictions placed in many nations on ads for “products that harm human health, like tobacco”.

TfL said it reviews adverts on a “case-by-case basis” and that all comply with guidance issued by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

A large majority of the ads were placed by BP, with TfL displaying 168 campaigns from the company during the 2019/20 financial year alone.

Each campaign ranged from between one and 20 posters, TfL said, meaning that the full set of campaigns contained within the FOI data likely amounted to thousands of posters.

Jamie Peters, climate coordinator at Friends of the Earth, said that by running the adverts, TfL is “undermining the London mayor’s progressive zero carbon goals”.

He said: “You can’t claim to champion green action while offering the companies responsible for driving climate breakdown such a vast platform to push their greenwashing campaigns. Enabling such activity is what has delayed vital progress to date and led to the increasing weather extremes we’re now seeing worldwide.

“Many of London’s most prominent institutions are breaking ties with the fossil fuel sector, which clings on for dear life and to their good names – TfL must follow suit and get fully behind the green transition.”

Responding, a TfL spokesperson said: “All advertising copy on our network is reviewed on a case-by-case basis against TfL’s published advertising policy which also requires advertisers to comply with ASA Guidance and Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) Codes.

“Advertising copy pertaining to fossil fuel extraction, or copy submitted for brands affiliated with fossil fuel extraction, must meet the environmental guidance of the advertising industry regulators.”

Khan vowed following his re-election in May to “double down” in his efforts to achieve net zero carbon emissions in London. He has said that he wants the capital to reach net zero in 2030 – a full two decades ahead of the government’s UK-wide target of 2050.

The world’s largest oil and gas companies have all rejected accusations that they are guilty of ‘greenwashing’ and insist they are taking critical steps to reduce their environmental impacts.

BP aims “to be a net zero company by 2050 or sooner” and says it wants “to help the world get to net zero”, with Shell setting a similar target and promising to provide “more and cleaner energy solutions in a responsible way”.

ExxonMobil says it is “committed to creating sustainable solutions that improve quality of life and meet society’s evolving needs”, while Equinor has said it “supports the Paris Agreement” and is transitioning into “a broader energy company, reducing the carbon intensity of our products in the process”.

It is understood that many of the adverts included in the FOI data were promoting the companies’ investments in developing clean energy technologies.

However, according to the International Energy Agency, the oil and gas industry globally invested around $20billion in clean energy in 2022, which is only about 2.5% of its total capital spending.

TfL is itself aiming by 2030 to have a zero-emission bus fleet, and to power the whole of its operations – including the tube system – entirely with renewable energy.

Since February 2019, TfL has imposed a ban on the advertising of junk food – generally comprising foods high in calories from sugar or fat, or high in salt. Khan said the measure was introduced in an attempt to combat child obesity.

Over the last year, the ban has resulted in the removal of a poster for a West End theatre play because it included an image of a wedding cake, and another poster for a show by the comedian Ed Gamble, because it featured a hot dog.

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