BP claims it will stop climate ads

The company says it will stop "corporate reputation advertising" as part of its pledge to become carbon neutral by 2050. But is this just more BS from BP?

For the last few months, HEATED has been collecting climate-related advertisements from fossil fuel companies on an Instagram page called @fossilfuelads. These ads—which run in newspapers, on television, on billboards, at airports, wherever—do not attempt to sell BP’s products, but its ideas: namely, that the company is working hard to save the planet, not destroy it.

The ads we’ve featured come primarily from BP’s “Possibilities Everywhere” campaign. “We see possibilities in the power of wind. In solar farms that float. In natural gas, the smart partner to renewables,” reads an extremely long billboard in the Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. These ads are in other airports, too—as well as on Twitter, on CNN, in Politico and the Economist.

HEATED has long-argued that ads like BP’s amount to propaganda. The oil industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars on climate advertising while investing trillions of dollars into extracting more fossil fuels that, if burned, will send the livable world into chaos. They also run ads these ads while spending millions funding the spread of climate denial and disinformation.

Others have started to agree. Last week, for example, the Guardian banned ads like BP’s “Possibilities Everywhere” campaign—and in an interview with HEATED, the paper’s interim chief executive Anna Bateson told HEATED said this is because oil companies are “essentially promoting an agenda—one often consistent with their lobbying.”

Now, BP seems to agree too, confirming in an email yesterday that it plans to stop the Possibilities Everywhere campaign and “corporate reputation advertising” altogether.

However, Google ads containing BP pro-climate claims were still running at the time of publication of this newsletter. So who really knows.

BP says it will go net zero by 2050 — and stop “corporate reputation” ads

On Wednesday, BP announced that it plans to eliminate carbon emissions from its operations—as well as from the oil and gas it extracts—by the year 2050. To do this, the fossil fuel giant said it would “fundamentally reorganize;” essentially dismantle its business model; and invest “trillions” in “replumbing and rewiring the world’s energy system.”

A screenshot from BP’s announcement. Source: BP.com

This first-of-its-kind climate announcement from a Big Oil company was met with both surprise and skepticism from climate experts; namely, because BP hasn’t provided many details on how, exactly, it plans to achieve such drastic emissions cuts. We’ll get to some of those reactions later in this post.

The first thing I wondered, though, was whether BP would use this announcement as a way to increase its corporate climate propaganda effort. So I sent a quick email to BP’s press team asking if the company would continue to run ads claiming to be climate-friendly.

In response, a BP spokesperson pointed me to an excerpt from the company’s announcement, claiming BP’s goals “include stopping corporate reputation advertising, like the Possibilities Everywhere campaign, and re-directing the money to promote net zero policies, ideas, actions, collaborations and our own net zero ambition.”

Put another way, BP says it will not only stop running climate propaganda, but that it will take the millions of dollars it has invested in climate propaganda and put it toward real climate action.

BP says it is “prepared to leave” American Petroleum Institute

This, of course, could just be another form of propaganda—so I also asked BP’s spokesperson if the company would remain a member of the American Petroleum Institute, the behemoth oil and gas trade group spending millions on climate propaganda and anti-climate policy lobbying.

The spokesperson said the company was re-assessing its relationships with trade associations around the world—and that it would leave those associations if they did not share their views on climate change.

“We will make the case for our views on climate change within the associations we belong to and we will be transparent where we differ,” BP’s announcement said. “And where we can't reach alignment, we will be prepared to leave. We will have more to say on this when we publish a report later this month.”

Is this a real change, or just more BS from BP?

BP’s pledge to stop climate advertising was welcomed by ClientEarth, an environmental organization that recently filed a legal complaint against BP over its “Possibilities Everywhere” campaign. The complain claimed BP’s ads were lying to the public about BP’s intention to create a low-carbon future.

“We welcome today’s announcement from oil giant BP that its current advertising campaign Possibilities Everywhere will be ceased immediately and not replaced,” ClientEarth Climate Accountability Lead Sophie Marjanac said in a statement. “With today’s announcement, BP appears to have accepted that its approach to advertising was not in line with its stated ambition of helping the world get to net zero and that it was primarily aimed at improving the company’s reputation.”

Marjanac added, however, that she was skeptical about the company’s pledges, “given the company itself acknowledges that there have been perceived inconsistencies between what it says and what it does.”

Indeed, BP has a history of claiming it will be a climate leader, then failing spectacularly to do so. Most notably, the company in 2000 launched a high-profile public relations ad campaign to rename itself “Beyond Petroleum,” in a bid to be seen as environmentally-friendly. A little more than a decade later, BP had divested from most of its renewable investments, and acknowledged the dominance of fossil fuels.

BP’s well-documented history of failing to live up to climate promises has some experts skeptical—including Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard University researcher who studies the history of oil company climate change communications. “If only [BP] were as good at realigning their business practices as they are at reinventing their image,” he said. “Unfortunately, their track record suggests otherwise.”

Indeed, BP is still running ads claiming to be climate-friendly, despite their pledge to wind those down. A quick Google search of BP on Thursday morning yielded this Google ad right at the top of the page:

A BP spokesperson did not immediately return an inquiry into whether this counted as “corporate reputation advertising.”

Climate scientists react with skepticism to BP’s net zero pledge

BP’s announcement yesterday is extensive, and much of its promise to become carbon neutral by 2050 depends on what BP decides to do in the weeks, months, and years to come. So I imagine this will be a subject HEATED continues to explore.

In the meantime, I asked a few climate scientists for some quick reactions to the plan. Here they are.

— Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies:

As an observer, the questions I have are based on the credibility of the company (we all remember beyond petroleum, right?) and whether this is a plan to get out of the fossil fuel business entirely or to capture and sequester all it’s downstream carbon emissions or just a massive amount of offsets? Perhaps a combination of the three approaches could be viable – but the proof will be in the pudding.

— Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University:

While this is good rhetoric from BP, we will need to see what they actually do. Putting out a 2050 target kicks the can pretty far down the road. We need dramatic reductions, reducing carbon emissions by at least by a factor of two over the next decade if we are to avert truly dangerous global climate impacts. What is BP doing to further that effort?

— Kate Marvel, associate research scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies:

As a regular reader of Heated I know to view announcements from BP with a healthy amount of skepticism. I’m not an expert in parsing oil companies’ plans, but I would say that the atmosphere cares about physics, not promises. And unless global co2 emissions fall drastically, physics says the planet will continue to heat up, with all the negative consequences scientists have been warning about for decades.

Climate activists react with *even more* skepticism to BP’s net zero pledge

Same deal as above, except these are reactions to BP’s climate plan from climate activists that I received in my email inbox.

— Murray Worthy, oil and gas campaign team leader at Global Witness:

There is nothing ambitious about a plan that is simply not credible. BP’s net zero pledge looks like an attempt to grab some positive headlines by a new CEO, but with little of substance to show how it will achieve these grand claims.”

The only way these plans could be considered credible is if BP immediately stops drilling for new oil and gas and until this happens they will continue to a driving force behind the climate crisis our planet faces. Positioning itself as a climate leader while labelling gas as low-carbon is just another example of why the world still cannot take BP seriously.

— Bruce Baizel, energy program director at Earthworks:

Taken at face value, BP’s promise to reach net zero climate pollution by 2050 is very welcome.

But as the 10 year anniversary of the BP Gulf spill approaches, as mainstream investors turn sour on the long term future of the oil and gas industry, the company that previously claimed it was ‘Beyond Petroleum’ needs more than just words.  It has powerful incentives to make strong claims in order to maintain its social license to operate and to avoid billions of dollars in stranded assets that cannot be extracted. BP's past performance gives us little reason to trust current promises.

— Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director at Union of Concerned Scientists:

BP’s pledge to its reach net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century, including reducing emissions from the burning of products made from the oil and gas the company extracts, is more ambitious than pledges made by Chevron, ExxonMobil, and other major fossil fuel companies.

However, the company won’t reveal its strategy and near-term plans to make good on this commitment until September. At that point, we’ll be in a better position to assess whether today’s announcement was a watershed moment or a whitewash. For example, will BP assume massive amounts of carbon capture and storage funded by taxpayers, or forest offsets of questionable quality?

Lots of questions, few answers, more newsletters to come.

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Questions or comments about today’s issue? E-mail me: emily@heated.world