Fossil fuel companies, and those who work closely with them, are the largest spenders of advertising designed to look like. Google search results, in what campaigners say is an example of “endemic greenwashing”.
In collaboration with InfluenceMap (a thinktank that tracks lobbying efforts in polluting industries), The Guardian analysed ads appearing in Google search results for 78 terms related to climate.
The results show that over one in five ads seen in the study – more than 1,600 in total – were placed by companies with significant interests in fossil fuels.
Advertisers can pay to have their ads show up on search engines when users type in certain terms. Businesses find the ads appealing because they look very similar to search results: More than half of users see them. a 2020 surveyReports indicated that they couldn’t tell the difference between a paid-for listing or a normal Google result.
ExxonMobil Shell, Aramco McKinsey and ExxonMobil Goldman SachsWe were among the top-20 advertisers for the search terms, while many other fossil fuel producers and financiers also placed ads.
Jake Carbone, senior data analyst at InfluenceMap, said: “Google is letting groups with a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels pay to influence the resources people receive when they are trying to educate themselves.
“The oil and gas sector has moved away from contesting the science of climate change and now instead seeks to influence public discussions about decarbonisation in its favour.”
Oil major Shell’s ads – 153 were counted in total – appeared on 86% of searches for “net zero”. Many promoted Shell’s pledge to be a net-zero company by 2050 and align with a 1.5C warming target.
However, Shell’s net-zero strategy relies heavily on carbon capture and offsetting, according to a Carbon Brief analysis, which says: “Despite its ‘highly ambitious’ framing … Shell’s vision of a continued role for oil, gas and coal until the end of the century remains essentially the same.”
A spokesperson for Shell said: “Shell’s target is to become a net zero emissions energy business by 2050, in step with society. Our short, medium and long-term intensity and absolute targets are consistent with the more ambitious 1.5C goal of the Paris agreement.”
Goldman Sachs, who facilitated almost $19bn worth of lendingThe number of ads for the fossil fuel sector in 2020 was third. The bank’s ads appeared on almost six in 10 searches for “renewable energy”, with many emphasising its “continued commitment to sustainable finance”.
Consulting firm McKinsey’s ads appeared on more than eight in 10 searches for “energy transition” and four in 10 searches for “climate hazards”. Its ads stated: “McKinsey works with clients on innovation & growth that advances sustainability.”
In addition to its work in sustainable investing, McKinsey also receives significant income through fossil fuel clients. In recent years McKinsey has advised 43 out of the world’s 100 most polluting companies, according to the New York Times.
McKinsey spokesmen pointed out an op-ed written by a managing partner at the company, which states: “There is no way to deliver emissions reductions without working with these industries to rapidly transition.”
Aramco, the state-owned Saudi oil company, which is the world’s largest oil exporter, had 114 ads on the keywords “carbon storage”, “carbon capture” and “energy transition”. A number of their ads claimed the company “promoted biodiversity” and “protected the planet”.
Melissa Aronczyk, an associate professor at Rutgers University, said: “Since at least the 1980s in the US, there has been a very concerted effort by public relations agents to help polluting companies develop strategies to ‘go green’ while maintaining business as usual.
“Many of the initiatives companies are taking are very piecemeal and will not amount to any kind of long-term or systemic change.”
Johnny White, a lawyer for ClientEarth, called on the government to regulate polluting industries’ advertisements. “Fossil fuel companies spend millions on incredibly sophisticated advertising campaigns, so sorting fact from fiction can be really tricky for the public.
“Damaging greenwashing has become endemic – to stamp it out we need to legislate bans on all fossil fuel advertisements, just like what happened with tobacco.”
The analysis also looked at “snippets”, which are not paid-for but are chosen by Google’s algorithm as the most relevant result. The Guardian found the snippet chosen for “fracking” linked to the website of an oil and gas lobby group, the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
In answer to the question: “Is fracking a threat to public health?”, the IPAA page states: “No. In fact, there is ample evidence that increased natural gas use … has improved public health by dramatically improving air quality in recent years.”
A Research that has been ongoing for yearsThe US Environmental Protection Agency concluded that fracking could have harmed drinking water supplies in some cases in 2016.
Google doesn’t have an open ad library like Facebook. This makes it difficult to analyze advertising on the platform. Google is not available in the UK and EU. provides comprehensive dataAds that mention politicians or a party or those that feature a referendum question.
A spokesperson for Google said: “We recently launched a new policy that will explicitly prohibit ads promoting climate change denial. This policy applies to all advertisers, even financial institutions. We will remove or block any ads with violating content.
“When search ads do appear, they have the word “Ad” clearly labeled in bold black text in the current design. We rely on extensive user testing both on mobile and desktop to ensure ad labels meet our high standards for being prominent and distinguishable from unpaid results.”
A spokesperson for ExxonMobil said: “ExxonMobil has contributed to the development of climate science for decades and has made its work publicly available. And as the scientific community’s understanding of climate change developed, ExxonMobil responded accordingly.”
Aramco and Goldman Sachs didn’t respond to requests for comment.