Experts say fossil fuel advertising bill won’t address root issue

The real problem is cars, says Dalhousie professor

4 min read
Traffic builds up on Quinpool Rd in Halifax.
caption Traffic builds on Halifax's Quinpool Road, highlighting a major source of our dependence on fossil fuel: cars.
Andie Mollins

Federal legislation that would prohibit misleading fossil fuel advertising does not address the root issue – our dependence on gasoline consumption, say two experts. 

Anya Waite, scientific director of the Transforming Climate Action program, says even honest advertising sidesteps a reality that “we use fossil fuels because we are essentially addicted to them.”

Waite said what’s needed is clear messaging about the harms of fossil fuels so that people can’t “duck and dive” from the issue. Similar to the warnings on cigarette packaging, she said gas pumps should warn the public “every time you fill your tank, you’re contributing this many degrees to global warming.”

NDP MP Charlie Angus introduced Bill C-372 in the House of Commons earlier this month.

The bill would ban promotions that suggest a fossil fuel product is less damaging than its competitors’ or that it would have positive outcomes for the environment and Canadians’ health. Violators could be fined up to $1.5 million or face a prison sentence of up to two years.

A man stands and points while speaking in parliament.
caption MP Charlie Angus introduces his bill to prohibit fossil fuel advertising to the House of Commons.

The ban would reflect actions taken in 1989 against the promotion of tobacco products for their role in a public health crisis. In his speech to the House of Commons, Angus said fossil fuel pollution is causing more deaths every year than tobacco.

“The big tobacco moment has finally arrived for big oil. We need to put human health ahead of the lies of the oil sector,” he said.

Dalhousie professor Larry Hughes agrees the bill fails to address the root issue.

“I don’t see what the point is,” he said in an interview. “I don’t see an ad on television for Irving Oil, I see the car ads.”

In order to see a reduction in oil emissions, he explained, we need to reduce car usage. “Look at the bill and see what it says and … just replace the words fossil fuel with automobile,” Hughes said.

Cars parked at gas station
caption Experts say the real problem is our reliance on cars, which require fossil fuels to run.
Andie Mollins

Canada has set 2050 as a target year to reach net zero as a country, with a 2030 goal of reducing emissions to 511 megatonnes, according to an article written by Hughes. In 2021, Canada’s emissions increased by 1.8 per cent from the previous year, reaching 670 megatonnes.

$15 billion has been allotted towards measures to achieve this latter goal, including plans to plant two billion trees.

In Nova Scotia, the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity, heat buildings, and provide transport make up the bulk of its greenhouse gas emissions. The province has a plan for 2030, by which time it aims to reduce its emissions by 53 per cent below 2005 levels.

“Nova Scotia is gambling on the future, assuming that all kinds of technologies will be available to help integrate renewables like wind,” Hughes said.

Still, Waite said ads hold a lot of power and consumers may not understand the numbers to see through the deception.

As an example, a company could say it’s taking 1,000 tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere. Waite said this may sound like a lot, but it would take removing gigatonnes of carbon to make a difference.

“So gigatonnes. What is that? That’s like a billion tonnes … I think those numbers matter, and we need to get them right.”

Sehjal Bhargava, co-chair of Ontario’s branch of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), said at a press conference on Feb. 6 that eight million people die every year as a direct result of fossil fuel pollution.

In an interview, Bhargava said the concept of greener fossil fuels is deceptive. “It’s like saying … smoking can help stop lung cancer,” she said.

A woman stands at a podium speaking with two other women standing to her sides.
caption Sehjal Bhargava speaks about the harms of fossil fuels during a press conference, with Émilie Tremblay from the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment at left and Leah Temper on the right.

“Continuing on with business as usual … is not compatible with health,” she said. It will take political action against greenwashing to ensure that Canadian consumers are able to make informed choices, she said.

Leah Temper, who is also with CAPE, said these informed choices would make a difference. She said the move against tobacco promotion led to huge reductions in smoking, where in 1965 half of adults smoked and in 2020, only one in ten. 

Introducing a bill is the first step toward making it a law. It will be up to Parliament now to bring the bill forward.

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About the author

Andie Mollins

Andie is from Shediac, a small but lively beach town in New Brunswick. She studied history and sociology at the University of New Brunswick and...

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