Greenpeace routinely blocked the Tweede Petroleumhaven in Rotterdam around nine o’clock on Monday morning. The action ship Beluga II led the way, followed by kayaks, canoes and rubber boats and a line of buoys was stretched. The media gathered in the goose dung on the quayside to film it all.
The whole blockade was beeped in a few minutes and it made a pretty picture. Only clipper Beluga II was initially the wrong way round for all cameras. In mirror image, the large banner between the masts read the purpose of the action: “Ban Fossil Fuel Advertising”.
The action kicked off an international campaign for a European ban on the advertising of fossil fuel companies and products, including transport ‘by air, road and water’. Within one year, Greenpeace and about twenty other organizations want to collect a million signatures to be able to put the proposal on the European Commission’s agenda as citizens’ initiative.
This citizens’ initiative is not limited to a ban on commercials about fat SUVs and flying at dumping prices. It also includes sponsorship by fossil fuel companies of, for example, sports clubs, art institutions, festivals, universities and scientific publications. Plus events, ‘particularly on climate, health, biodiversity, environment and environmental sustainability’.
Life and death
“Fossil companies are primarily responsible for the climate crisis,” said Faiza Oulahsen of Greenpeace. “The climate crisis is a matter of life and death – just look at flooding in Europe and air pollution. The fact that the tobacco industry is not allowed to advertise is very normal these days. We also want to remove fossil fuel companies from society and public space.”
After several warnings, the police intervened at the blockade of the Tweede Petroleumhaven around noon on Monday. 22 people were arrested for blocking the harbor and illegally entering the grounds and 32 people were ticketed, according to police.
Read the opinion article Ban advertising for the fossil fuel industry
Surprisingly, the activists were also able to climb a gigantic Shell oil tank on Monday. Shell is investing billions in wind and solar energy, hydrogen, biofuels and charging stations, the company responds in writing. “We want to help our customers switch to cleaner energy solutions. That also means that we want to let them know which low-carbon products we offer or develop, for example through advertisements.”
The Association of Advertisers (BVA), with large members such as Shell, KLM and BMW Group Netherlands, is also against a ban. “We share the concerns about climate and health,” says BVA director Henriette van Swinderen. “An advertising ban will not only speed up the energy transition, but will make it more difficult. Advertising stimulates behavioral change, employment, innovation and healthy prices through competition.”
An advertising ban will not speed up the transition
This year, assistant professor Clemens Kaupa of the VU in Amsterdam wrote a article about a total ban in the Journal of European Consumer and Market Law. “It is high time,” he says. “In advertising it seems as if it is normal that we continue to use fossil products. But if we want to achieve the Paris climate goals, if fossil products are determined to be inherently harmful, you can’t argue that.”
A lot of ‘green’ advertising from fossil fuel companies also misleads consumers, according to Kaupa. In his article, he mentions a 2019 ad campaign by the British oil company BP that was 75 percent about renewable energy – while only 2.3 percent of the investment was in renewable energy. Kaupa: „Or look at CO2 -compensation by planting forests. Companies pretend to be so carbon neutral, when no forest lasts forever. the CO2damage is certain, compensation is uncertain.”
The Greenpeace campaign – less than a month before a UN climate summit in Glasgow – does not stand alone. The municipality of Amsterdam, for example, has been banning fossil advertising in the metro since May. A handful of political parties, including GroenLinks, PvdA and ChristenUnie, are in favor of a ban.
The Guardian in Great Britain and Swedish Dagens Nyheter stop posting fossil ads.
France will be banned from advertising petrol and diesel and later the most polluting cars.
But the time does not seem right for a European ban, as Greenpeace wants. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an advisory body to employers, workers and civil society, is this month issuing an unsolicited opinion to Brussels on advertising and sustainable consumption. In the draft text, which is owned by NRC, the committee urges ‘the advertisers’ own sense of responsibility’. In other words: self-regulation.
The EESC will ‘not recommend a ban on fossil advertising’, French rapporteur Thierry Libaert confirms in an email. The committee believes that the advertising industry and media should be supported because of the corona crisis. Rather, the industry should follow a “roadmap” with “guidelines” for responsible advertising, Libaert said. “If it turns out that those guidelines are not being followed, we can propose stricter measures, first of all for fossil fuel advertisements.”
“I think it’s a typical EESC opinion in which you can see the compromises,” says Jan Dirx, one of the 329 committee members, who represents the Dutch nature and environmental organisations. If the European Citizens’ Initiative of Greenpeace, among others, is accepted, he expects a ban to go too far for most member states. “The economic interests are great. Especially in Eastern European countries such as Poland with its coal mines. They did sign the climate goals, but now that it comes to implementation, you see resistance flaring up.”