Imagine you have an alcohol problem. Would it be a good idea to go to the local pub every night and expose yourself to the temptation to drink? Hardly. In a similar vein, the world has a serious greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions problem. Yet most countries continue to tolerate advertising for the kinds of fossil fuel-intensive goods and services that cause global warming.
More and more voices are calling for a more coherent policy framework – specifically for a ban on advertising fossil fuels themselves as well as goods and services that heavily rely on them. The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and a coalition of health and environmental groups launched a campaign in June calling for such a ban.
Other jurisdictions have surged ahead. France has banned advertising for fossil fuels as of this year. Amsterdam is the first city globally to ban fossil fuel, car and aviation ads. Several other jurisdictions are working on reforms to limit the scope of the related problem of greenwashing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, natural resource economies such as Canada tend to lag behind.
Why a ban?
Any reform that unsettles deeply entrenched consumer habits and that challenges powerful vested interests needs a solid justification to have any chance of success. Advocates of a ban on fossil fuel ads appeal to two key arguments: harm to others and consistency with other policy commitments.
The negative health impacts of fossil fuel use are significant. Up to 34,000 deaths – or one in seven premature deaths – in Canada are related to fossil-fuel air pollution. Globally, one study estimates that between 2000 and 2019, more than five million people a year died due to the effect of climate change. This number is likely to rise further in future years with the increase in more extreme weather events caused by climate change.
Moreover, at a time when we need to reduce emissions to limit global warming, fossil fuel ads are clearly counterproductive and thus inconsistent with the climate goals set by governments in Canada and elsewhere. A ban would be in line with the decisive action taken against advertising by the tobacco industry several decades ago.
Some proponents of a ban also point to the often-misleading nature of fossil fuel advertising. Such ads regularly understate negative environmental effects – a phenomenon commonly referred to as ”greenwashing” – or fail to mention any relevant negative health impacts. Whether these problems should be dealt with through a ban or through more restrictive regulation of advertising, or both, is an open question which we shall here set aside.
Instead, we wish to counter three objections that have been formulated against a ban on fossil fuel ads, and show where these objections fall short: freedom of speech, the economic benefits of fossil fuel use, and consumer choice.
A right to advertise?
Some suggest that advertising falls under the right to free speech and that a ban would thus unduly interfere with corporate activities. Two things need to be said about that.
First, contrary to the common misunderstanding that rights are absolute – see for instance the distortion of the notion of freedom in the ongoing discussion of COVID-19 restrictions – it is in fact in the very nature of rights that they always come with obligations. Notably, they entail a duty to respect the rights of others.
In the present context, this pits the right of corporations to advertise against the right of current and future generations to a livable environment. There is a strong case that the latter is more fundamental and thus trumps the former. The Supreme Court of Canada came to a similar conclusion in the tobacco free speech case in 1995 when it ruled in RJR-MacDonald Inc. v. Canada that free speech could be overridden in the case of a “national public health problem of substantial and pressing concern.”
Second, corporate free speech enjoys weaker protections compared to the free speech of individuals. In other words, while it might be more difficult to justify preventing a politician from extolling the virtues of fossil fuels, the threshold that needs to be met to justifiably limiting corporate speech is lower.
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What about the benefits of fossil fuel use?
Other critics of a ban might concede that the harm generated by fossil fuel use is real but at the same time insist that it needs to be weighed against the tangible benefits it generates. Whereas the first objection is formulated in the arena of rights, this one is framed in terms of a cost-benefit analysis.
Advocates of a ban would not deny this. On the contrary, they appeal to the well-known fact that our current economic framework fails to adequately account for the benefits and costs of fossil fuel use. As any economics student will learn in their first year, when a company does not have to pay for the full social and environmental costs of their product – the so-called negative externalities – the result will be an inefficiently high output. Advertising adds insult to injury here by allowing companies to promote an excess volume of goods and services that is socially harmful.
In the spirit of the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith, one might add another twist to this story. Galbraith argued that advertising – rather than catering to existing wants – actually creates new, additional preferences in consumers. Ironically, however, their level of well-being once these new preferences have been satisfied may turn out to not be any higher compared to the initial situation when they did not have them.
In other words, without the constant bombardment of ads for pickup trucks, flights too distant, sandy beaches or pleasure boats, individuals would likely desire fewer of these things. If Galbraith is right, we have to weigh marginal benefits in terms of well-being against considerable costs in terms of environmental damage and negative health impacts.
Defenders of fossil fuels will rightly point out that many uses of fossil fuels serve important, real needs. But note that this is entirely compatible with a ban on fossil fuel ads. A ban on ads stops no one from using fossil fuels. All it does is limit their promotion as the preferred means to satisfy our wants. This would represent one small step towards a more appropriate balance between benefits and costs.
This objection also raises the important question of what kind of economic development we care about and how we measure it. Above a certain threshold, the production of some goods and services will generate more costs than benefits. Unfortunately, some of our measures of economic success, such as GDP, focus on the benefits but are blind to the costs.
Using a more comprehensive measure of economic success – such as the United Nations Human Development Index – would support the idea that directing our productive capacity away from fossil fuels will promote, rather than hinder, economic development.
Freedom of consumer choice
Finally, some might oppose a ban because they believe that consumers should be free to make up their own minds based on the information available to them. From this perspective, a ban might seem paternalistic because it questions the capacity of consumers to balance the luring voices of corporate ads against the knowledge they have about climate change.
One response here might be to question the extent to which the average consumer is not only well-informed but also has the motivational strength to put that knowledge into action. However, this would not just leave the objectors cold, but it would actually reinforce their worry concerning paternalism.
The more fundamental point to make here is that the idea of a freely choosing consumer is a myth. As even freedom-loving libertarians have accepted – and popularized – in recent years under that public policy label of “nudging,” paternalistic policies are justified when they are both non-coercive and without alternative. Both of these conditions would be met here by a ban on advertising. People would still be free to buy fossil fuel-intensive goods; but, more importantly, when fossil fuel advertising is allowed, this also influences consumers and undermines their freedom just the same.