Should there be a ban on fossil fuel advertising?

Jun 23, 2024 | Clean energy

Likening the burning of fossil fuels to cigarette smoking, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for a ban on fossil fuel advertising.

Is a ban on this advertising necessary? Just as importantly: would it be effective?

The reasoning behind a ban is twofold. Firstly, the burning of fossil fuels contributes to local air pollution, especially through petrol-driven cars. In the home, the use of gas appliances is an acknowledged source of pollution. The use of fossil fuels is a key driver of climate change through an increase in carbon in the atmosphere. Second, advertising fossil fuels potentially encourages greater use of fossil fuels.

There is no dispute that the burning of fossil fuels is a serious health issue, with over 4.5 million premature deaths a year attributed to this cause, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

We are also familiar with the impact of burning these fuels on global climate change and the commitments governments and councils, including Banyule City Council, have made to reducing carbon emissions. Banyule council has set a target of carbon neutrality by 2040.

The purpose of advertising is to increase the use of consumer products. Companies of every description spend millions of dollars encouraging us to spend. Privately-owned companies that sell fossil fuels in their various forms – coal, petrol, oil, gas and generated electricity – treat them as consumer products. It follows that the advertising of these energy sources is intended to increase their use and the profits of those companies. If as a society we agree that using less fossil energy is our goal, then advertising makes no sense. As a rule, we agree that the advertising of harmful products should be banned.

According to the Fossil Ad Ban campaign, fossil fuel industries use mainstream media in a variety of ways to delay climate action, counter (and even discredit), scientific findings and make it appear acceptable to continue the use of fossil fuels. Greenwashing, astroturfing and blame-shifting (making the consumer responsible, for example) are some of the tricks used. There is every reason to think that fossil fuel advertising is having an effect, because over $200 million every year is spent on it in Australia alone.

Since there is an acceptance worldwide of the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels, a ban on their advertising seems to be the only sane conclusion.

But would a ban on advertising be effective? We have some historical evidence to support the effectiveness of bans. Bans on advertisements for tobacco since the 1970s are linked to the huge decline in smoking among adults in Australia compared to previous decades when smoking was virtually universal. Perhaps we don’t need detailed data to prove the point. We may simply need to consider the huge sums of money involved in fossil fuel advertising to accept that a ban would be effective. Few companies spend large sums of money unless there is a return in increased consumption.

Companies will likely make the argument that a ban on advertising is an attack on free speech. In a democracy such as ours, we accept there are limits on free speech, especially where there is likely harm from the advertised product.

It is important to remember that a ban on advertising is not a ban on the use of fossil fuels. Given the urgency of the fight to stem climate change, and the impact on local pollution, a ban on advertising fossil fuels is a very reasonable step to take.

Written by Paul Gale-Baker

Further reading
Fossil Ad Ban
If you are interested in registering your support of a ban on fossil fuel advertising or simply read more on this, you can go to:

The Age: UN wants tobacco style ban on fossil fuel advertising

The Guardian: Channel Ten running ‘premium’ ads for gas lobby that appear to be part of news bulletin, senators told

The Conversation: The UN Chief has called for a ban on fossil fuel advertising – is the NZ industry listening

Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility: Advertising tricks of the fossil fuel sector

Tobacco in Australia: The merits of banning tobacco advertising