Fossil fuel greenwash | Global Witness

Shell’s ads raise concerns about the company’s advertising strategy on the platform, as it has consistently run environmental ads in the UK without declaring their political content. The library data suggests the company can get away with it: about 80% of the archived ads from the first seven months of 2022 ran for more than 3 days (on average 14 days; some for as long as 37 days) before being taken down. Several were subsequently relaunched, again without a disclaimer, to run for further lengths of time.  

For example, in June 2022 Shell launched a 16-second video with the title text, ‘In the UK, 1.4 million households use 100% certified renewable electricity from Shell Energy.’ This initially ran from June 16 to June 22, when it was presumably flagged for not carrying a disclaimer and removed. The very same video appeared a further two times, running for 12 and 37 days, in each case without the disclaimer for political issues.

As Meta does not archive old ads which have not been declared as being of a political nature and has known imprecision with detecting political ads, it is probable Shell has run more political ads than the library has captured.   In other words, Shell has likely avoided Meta’s transparency measures and therefore accountability for its paid communications.

Meta’s platform problems

Meta has failed to detect
Shell’s environmental ads as being of a political nature, even when the
same ad content has previously been flagged and removed.

polluting industries are responsible for their emissions and
environmental claims, other actors facilitate greenwashing by helping
craft and disseminate their public communications. The ads in this study
all ran on Facebook and Instagram – platforms that are therefore
enabling and profiting from BP and Shell’s misleading messaging. While
Meta’s provision of the Ad Library and ad labels are important steps
towards greater transparency, their omissions prevent meaningful

This study found that Meta repeatedly failed to
detect ads by Shell containing environmental messaging covered by the
platform’s UK issue category of ‘environmental politics’ that should
have been launched with the required disclaimer. The platform later
removed Shell ads that had been flagged or reviewed, then in three cases
allowed the same videos to run as new ads when reposted after a period
of days. The process repeated a second time, illustrating major
shortcomings in Meta’s political ad detection system.  

research offers wider evidence of imprecision or failings in the ad
detection system.  An academic study found the platform misses close to
60% more ads than it detects worldwide, and that detection performance
is uneven across countries.  Global Witness has found the company’s
advertising system has failed to detect hate speech and disinformation
in various countries; and moreover, that its algorithms tend to drive
climate-sceptic users toward extreme climate denial content.  

failing to detect political or banned content, the platform does a
disservice to users.  Advertisers like Shell and Chevron have been able
to repeatedly run political ads without declaring them.  They appear to
do so without repercussion as they have been allowed to republish
political ads despite not abiding by Meta’s ad policy. Meta’s policy
does allow for further enforcement actions such as restricting ad
accounts, which appear not to have been taken.  

Facebook says it
prohibits misleading claims on its site, but continues to allow fossil
fuel companies to greenwash their image through ads.  Regardless of
label requirements, Meta and other advertising platforms should not be
profiting from the promotion of polluting industries.

The fossil fuel industry’s insidious record of greenwashing

and BP are not the only companies promoting an alternative account of
their environmental record. A 2021 study found that close to two thirds
of social media posts by six major European fossil fuel and energy
companies between December 2019 and April 2021 are greenwashing.  

is also no stranger to regulatory action over misleading environmental
claims. In September 2021, the Netherlands’ advertising watchdog ruled
that the company’s claim of carbon neutral driving is greenwashing.  The
watchdog again ruled in June 2022 that a Shell ad campaign about its
efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is misleading and must be

The public mood is hardening against advertisements
for commodities that negatively impact the environment. In an April 2022
poll on attitudes to advertising more than two thirds of UK adults said
they wanted curbs on advertising for products that are harmful to the

Conclusions and recommendations

One year on from the UK
Competition and Markets Authority’s warning to clean up misleading
environmental claims, fossil fuel majors BP and Shell have continued to
put out greenwashing material in the UK on Facebook, Instagram, and
Twitter. The 2022 advertising campaigns of Shell and BP on Facebook and
Instagram in the UK and their images posted on Twitter offer a rosy
picture of their climate action. They present narratives of the
companies’ commitment to a green agenda, depicting plans for the
construction of electric vehicle infrastructure, wind farms, and low
carbon projects.

While the two companies are investing in these areas,
the scale and proportion of investment are dwarfed by ongoing and
planned spending on fossil fuel exploitation, at levels that are not
compliant with the Paris Agreement. Crucially, the companies’ overall
business activity remains markedly different to the green image they are
promoting – despite the CMA’s guidance against selective storytelling,
omission of information, and inaccurate impressions of environmental

Rather than investing in our future, as their
messaging suggests, these companies continue to drive fossil fuel use
that heralds a future of deadly heat, mass displacement, and the
devastation of natural life. In May 2022, Oil Change International
assessed the companies’ climate plans with respect to ambition and
integrity and found that both Shell and BP were ‘grossly insufficient’. 
Shell’s plan was criticised for 2030 targets that do not align with the
Paris Agreement, risky and potentially misleading metrics, and heavy
reliance on offsets rather than emissions cuts.

BP’s plan is criticised
for allowing new exploration in the more than 60 countries where it
already operates, framing fossil gas production as low carbon, and for
reliance on speculative Carbon Capture and Storage to meet emissions
targets.  These assessments paint a dire picture of the companies’
overall climate action, and call into question their advertised stances
as aiding the green transition.

With time running out to limit
the rise in global temperatures, the oil and gas and other highly
polluting industries must urgently make drastic emissions cuts if we are
to avert climate catastrophe. Greenwashing their public reputations in
their digital advertisements is a dangerous diversion from the impact of
these companies’ activities on the climate, and engenders a false
optimism about the changes they are making to their business models.

We call on the UK government to:

  • Investigate the green claims of BP, Shell, and other fossil fuel companies under consumer law and take appropriate action.
  • Strengthen
    the powers of the CMA and other regulators to hold companies to account
    for greenwashing, including through fines for breaching consumer law or
    promises to regulators. 
  • Accelerate a low carbon future through
    comprehensive investment in renewable energy, low carbon
    infrastructure, insulation and energy efficiency. 

We call on Shell, BP, and other oil and gas companies to:

  • Stop greenwashing their business activities. Companies should be transparent about their advertising activity and spending. 
  • Prioritise rapid decarbonisation and investment in renewable energy. 

We call on social media and advertising platforms including Facebook and Instagram to:

  • Stop publishing ads from polluting industries. 
  • Improve detection of prohibited content. 
  • Archive
    all ads in a publicly available library, not just ones that advertisers
    self-declare or Meta detects as being about social issues.
  • Identify and suspend repeat violators of their advertising rules from advertising on their sites.


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