What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a tactic typically used by powerful entities to cover up their environmentally detrimental practices by claiming they are sustainable, eco-friendly, and low carbon in an effort to deceive people about climate action. In practice, fossil fuel companies, airlines, and car brands employ misleading labels or advertising campaigns to show a faux commitment to net-zero ambitions and to depict themselves as being climate conscious without transforming their business models, which caused the climate crisis in the first place. This creates the false impression that everything has changed without actually changing anything at all. There are multiple practices and mechanisms for greenwashing; however, this article will focus on the most prominent and commonly used ones by big polluters and provide examples of greenwashing practices in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Advocating for techno-fixes while maintaining “business as usual”

For big polluters, climate change can be addressed through technological fixes and the environment is viewed as an externality — something that is valued in monetary terms and thus can be bought and sold in a way that allows them to continue doing “business as usual” with little real impact on their carbon emissions. For instance, big polluters and the fossil fuel industry are making use of carbon trading schemes to conceal the contradiction between climate pledges and business as usual practices. Carbon trading is based on turning carbon emissions into units that can be tracked and traded, which opens the door for greenwashing, particularly when corporations and governments can continue emitting CO2 as long as they have the cash to buy carbon permits from those with excess carbon credits. Another technological innovation that is increasingly advocated by big polluters is carbon capture technology. For instance, the UAE — OPEC's third-largest oil producer and responsible for about 3% of the world market — has a plan to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050. However, the UAE’s 2050 energy strategy suggests that 12% of energy will come from “clean coal,” whose emissions will be captured. In this way the UAE, relying on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, will extend the lifespan of fossil fuel infrastructure, instead of putting an end to it. Similarly, Saudi Arabia — the world's largest exporter of crude oil — has been accused of pressuring the U.N. to emphasize the use of carbon capture technologies, which remain unproven at commercial scale, to contain emissions; such technologies would allow oil and gas companies to continue doing business as usual.

Spreading misinformation and misleading ad campaigns

In addition to embracing techno-fixes, big polluters are making net-zero promises and falsely presenting themselves as embracing “sustainable” solutions to gloss over their decades of environmental pollution and destruction. According to Global Witness and Oil Change International, at a time where the world should phase out fossil fuel and accelerate a green transition toward 100% renewable energy, the 20 largest oil companies are planning to spend $1.5 trillion developing fossil fuel sources by 2041. A recently published study found that while the four major oil giants — Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell — have increasingly used language like "climate," "low carbon," and "transition" in company reports, the lion's share of their business is still in traditional fossil fuels. For example, although Chevron declared its plan to reduce absolute emissions by around 40% by 2030 and Shell declared its commitment to zero-carbon emissions by 2050, they have dedicated only 0.2% and 1% respectively of their long-term investments to low-carbon energy sources. BP launched an advertising campaign called “Keep Advancing” and “Possibilities Everywhere,” misleading the public by emphasizing the company’s low-carbon energy products when more than 95% of its annual investments still go to oil and gas. ExxonMobil reportedly spent just 0.2% of its capital expenditure on sources of low-carbon energy like wind and solar between 2010 and 2018. Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, made a climate pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050 and presents itself as taking rigorous steps to gradually reduce its carbon emissions until then. However, according to a report by Bloomberg Green, the oil giant excludes emissions generated from many of its refineries and petrochemical plants in its overall carbon disclosures and adding in these emissions would nearly double its self-reported carbon footprint.

Individualizing and demobilizing collective action

The fossil fuel multinationals have been relying on public relations and advertising campaigns to promote the claim that climate change is about individuals’ lifestyle decisions and not the fault of the oil giants. For example, BP — the second-largest non-state-owned oil company in the world, with 18,700 gas and service stations worldwide — popularized the concept of the “carbon footprint” when it launched, in 2004, “the carbon footprint calculator” on its website as a way to help individuals understand how their normal daily activities cause global warming, obfuscating the fact that individual actions are fueled and powered by the fossil fuel industry. Nearly two decades later, BP is still mainly producing oil and gas: 4 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2005 versus 3.8 million bpd today. Last year, BP invested more money in Middle Eastern oil and natural gas fields, including projects in Iraq, in the world’s third-largest oil field of Rumaila (to increase its capacity to 1.7 million bpd in the coming few years); in Oman, in the rich gas fields of Khazzan and Ghazeer (to reach their full capacity of 1.5 billion cubic feet per day in the coming year); and in the UAE, with the government-owned producer ADNOC (to boost the capacity of onshore oil fields beyond 2 million bpd). Of course, we shouldn’t totally dissociate ourselves from responsibility. Carbon footprints can still be used to reduce the amount of heat-trapping CO2 saturating the atmosphere. But on top of this, carbon footprint calculations should be used by industries and governments at every scale, from local to global, to transform the dominant global energy system and to prove they’re making the necessary changes to keep more carbon in the ground.

Hyping “green” hydrogen: Is it really green?

Industry players and governments have introduced “green” hydrogen to help decarbonization efforts and accelerate the green transition. Hydrogen can be a clean energy source when produced by electrolysis using renewable energy. The North Africa region has plans to produce and export hydrogen to neighboring EU countries. However, the oil-producing states of Egypt and Algeria are manufacturing hydrogen from fossil fuel, using controversial CCS — which has received millions in subsidies — to trap emissions, known as “blue” hydrogen. Blue hydrogen results in a huge carbon footprint and risks undermining the benefits of using hydrogen in the first place. Calculations suggest that the carbon footprint of blue hydrogen is 20% greater than that of burning natural gas or coal for heat, and 60% greater than burning diesel oil. Even with the use of CCS, only 60% of the CO2 emissions can be captured and it is argued that CCS capacity needs to increase by a factor of 100 over the next two decades to meet the 2°C target set out in the Paris Agreement. Alternatively, using electricity rather than fossil fuel to create green hydrogen will add substantial costs and the resulting energy could be less than 30% of what would have been obtained from hydrogen that was produced from fossil fuel. For example, Algeria would need to install 50 GW of solar to replace current gas exports with green hydrogen, which is more than a thousand times its current solar capacity and would have detrimental impacts on land and water access and use, as well as raw materials and natural resources. In addition, the reliance on renewable sources to manufacture hydrogen will increase the cost to 11 times more per unit of produced energy than fossil gas, and on top of the high production costs are high transportation costs. Algeria is looking to export green hydrogen by sea via tankers; however, it will take three times as much energy to liquefy as natural gas, while the same size tanker would carry only 27% of the transmitted energy.

Woke-washing: Co-opting social movements’ values

Big polluters are now relying on a new tactic called “woke-washing” to gain legitimacy and social acceptance while maintaining their business models. By engaging in woke-washing, companies rely on social and political values in their marketing campaigns to address highly topical issues. "Woke" in this context is defined as “being awake or alert to critical social issues, discrimination, and injustice.” Woke-washing generally entails the use of two techniques: first, warning that advancing low-carbon pledges would be socially and economically unjustifiable. This means that the big polluters are aligning their discourse to social justice underpinnings, arguing that phasing out fossil fuels would adversely impact people, especially vulnerable groups such as the poor, women, and people of color. Second, big polluters are presenting their activities and businesses as integral and beneficial to society by relying on social movements’ values to justify their actions. This tactic makes customers feel like they are contributing to social justice movements by buying the companies’ products. For instance, Coca-Cola is marketing its “presumed” alignment to the climate movement by declaring its commitment to collect one bottle for every one sold as a way to “wash away" its pollution impacts and contribute to global calls for climate action. In addition, it was one of the main sponsors of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (27th Conference of the Parties, COP27) held in Sharm el-Sheikh. However, according to the environment group Break Free from Plastic, Coca-Cola remains the world’s top plastic polluting corporation for the fourth consecutive year.

Conclusion: A pressing need to align discourse and action

As the above makes clear, greenwashing tactics are routinely used by major polluters to misrepresent the sustainability of their businesses, avoid announcing the true size of their carbon emissions, exaggerate their clean energy investments, promote costly and unproven solutions, shift responsibility for the climate crisis to individuals, and co-opt social movements’ values and goals. Using these tactics, big polluters have spent billions of dollars on advertising, lobbying, and campaigns as a way to ghostwrite the current climate realities, putting a climate-friendly face in front of the public while continuing their existing business models, which seek to maximize profits and delay climate action. Implementing the decisions taken at COP27 and reaffirming corporations and governments’ commitment to limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will be a decisive milestone in navigating the path to fulfilling climate pledges in a way that moves us beyond years of inauthenticity and broken promises by big polluters.


Zeina Moneer holds a PhD in environmental politics from Freiburg University in Germany and her research interests include environmental movements, environmental justice, environmental communication, international polices of climate change negotiations and adaption, and sustainability transition with a particular focus on the MENA region.

Photo by Luis Soto/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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