Fossil fuel companies and companies that work closely with them are among the biggest users on ads designed to look like Google’s search results, in what advocates say is an example of “endemic greenwashing.”
The Guardian analyzed ads displayed on Google’s search results for 78 climate-related terms in collaboration with InfluenceMap, a think tank that tracks lobbying efforts from polluting industries.
The results show that over one in five ads seen in the survey – more than 1,600 in total – were placed by companies with significant interests in fossil fuels.
Advertisers pay for their ads to appear on the search engine when a user asks questions about specific terms. The ads appeal to businesses because they look very similar to search results: more than half of users in a 2020 survey reported that they could not tell the difference between a paid listing and a normal Google result.
ExxonMobil, Shell, Aramco, McKinsey and Goldman Sachs were among the top 20 advertisers on the search terms, while a number of other fossil fuel manufacturers and their financiers also placed ads.
Jake Carbone, senior data analyst at InfluenceMap, said: “Google lets groups with a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels pay to influence the resources people receive when trying to educate themselves.
“The oil and gas sector has moved away from contesting the science of climate change and is now seeking instead to influence public discussions on decarbonisation in its favor.”
Oil Major Shell’s ads – 153 were counted in total – appeared on 86% of searches for “net zero”. Many promoted their promise to become a net zero company by 2050 and adapt to a 1.5C warming target.
However, Shell’s net zero strategy is heavily dependent on carbon capture and compensation, according to a Carbon Brief analysis, which states: “Despite its ‘very ambitious’ framework … Shell’s vision of a continued role for oil, gas and coal until the end of the century remains largely the same. “
A spokesman for Shell said: “Shell’s goal is to become a net zero-emission energy company by 2050 in step with society. Our short-, medium- and long-term intensity and absolute goals are in line with the more ambitious 1.5C of the Paris Agreement. Goal.”
Goldman Sachs, which facilitated nearly $ 19 billion. USD in lending to the fossil fuel industry in 2020, had the third highest number of ads. The bank’s ads appeared on almost six out of 10 searches for “renewable energy”, many of which underlined its “continued commitment to sustainable financing”.
The consulting firm McKinsey’s ads appeared on more than eight out of 10 searches for “energy transition” and four out of 10 searches for “climate hazards”. Its ads said, “McKinsey works with customers on innovation and growth that promotes sustainability.”
In parallel with its work on sustainable investments, the company receives significant revenue from customers with fossil fuels. In recent years, McKinsey has advised 43 out of the world’s 100 most polluting companies, according to the New York Times.
A spokesman for McKinsey pointed to a statement written by a managing partner of the company, which states: “There is no way to deliver emission reductions without working with these industries for a rapid transition.”
Aramco, the state-owned Saudi oil company, which is the world’s largest oil exporter, had 114 ads on the keywords “carbon storage”, “carbon capture” and “energy transition”. A number of their ads claimed that the company “alienated biodiversity” and “protected the planet”.
Melissa Aronczyk, an associate professor at Rutgers University, said: “Since at least the 1980s in the United States, there has been a highly coordinated effort by public relations agents to help polluting companies develop strategies to ‘go green’ while maintaining business as usual.
“Many of the initiatives companies are taking are very piecemeal and will not constitute any kind of long-term or systemic change.”
Johnny White, a lawyer at environmental charity ClientEarth, called for stronger regulation of advertising placed by polluting industries. “Fossil fuel companies spend millions on incredibly sophisticated advertising campaigns, so it can be very difficult for the public to sort facts from fiction.
“Harmful greenwashing has become endemic – to eradicate it we need to legislate banning all advertising for fossil fuels, just like what happened to tobacco.”
The analysis also looked at “snippets”, which are not paid for, but are chosen by Google’s algorithm as the most relevant result. The Guardian found the extract selected for “fracking” linked to the website of an oil and gas lobby group, the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
In response to the question: “Is fracking a threat to public health?”, The IPAA page writes: “No. In fact, there is ample evidence that increased natural gas consumption… has improved public health by dramatically improving air quality in recent years.”
A year-long piece of research from the US Environmental Protection Agency concluded in 2016 that fracking in some cases had damaged the drinking water supply.
Unlike Facebook, Google does not have a publicly available ad library, which means that it is difficult to analyze advertising on the platform. In the EU and the UK, Google only provides comprehensive data on ads that directly mention politicians or a political party, or those that contain a referendum question.
A Google spokesman said: “We recently launched a new policy that will explicitly ban ads that promote denial of climate change. This policy applies to all advertisers, including energy companies and financial institutions, and we will block or remove ads that contain offensive content. “
A spokesman for ExxonMobil said: “ExxonMobil has contributed to the development of climate science for decades and has made its work publicly available. And as the scientific community’s understanding of climate change evolved, ExxonMobil responded accordingly.”
Aramco and Goldman Sachs did not respond to requests for comment.