Adfree Cities, New Weather Institute                            MPZ0018

Written evidence from the New Weather Institute and Adfree Cities



About the New Weather Institute

The New Weather Institute is a think-tank cooperative, created to accelerate the rapid transition to a fair economy that thrives within planetary boundaries. We find, design and advocate ways of working and living that are more humane, reasonable and effective.


About Adfree Cities

Adfree Cities is a network of groups across the UK who are concerned about the impacts of corporate advertising on our health, wellbeing, environment, climate, communities and the local economy.




Local authorities are faced with a significant task in delivering net zero by 2050. To successfully meet this target, changes to the way we consume, eat and travel are required. However, the shift towards sustainable behaviour changes and low-carbon lifestyles is still hindered by strong pressures from advertising to consume and buy nonessential high-carbon goods. Efforts made by local authorities to support low-carbon infrastructure and encourage sustainable behaviours will be significantly undermined if companies are still allowed to promote their high-carbon products and services. Alongside this, the rise in digital advertising screens in recent years is pushing up and locking-in energy demand due to their high electricity usage.


There are today increasing calls for the planning, public health and climate agendas to work together to achieve wider policy goals. For example, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has called for multidisciplinary action in planning and health in order to contribute to more equitable communities and improved health and wellbeing[1] - it is becoming clear that the impact of public advertising is currently a blind spot in this effort.


We present below our proposals to address these issues, which are gaining increasing traction among beacon local authorities, and review the scientific evidence in support of these arguments.


Our recommendations


In order to limit the environmental damage from advertising, we propose two main policies local authorities should adopt as part of their mandate to deliver net zero by 2050.


Low Carbon Advertising Policies

The clearest precedent for action on advertising that promotes harmful behaviours is the ending of tobacco advertising. At the minimum, a Low Carbon Advertising Policy would include provisions to exclude adverts from the most polluting industries - airlines, cars and fossil fuels - on all council-owned land.[2]

Such a policy can act as a tool for accelerating positive behaviour change and present an opportunity for local authorities to align their existing health and environmental policy goals relating to air pollution, active travel, climate change, sustainability and town planning.[3]

On specific policy outcomes relating to these matters, adopting a low carbon advertising policy allows for joined-up thinking across different council departments. For instance it would be counter-productive for public transport bodies to be running adverts for polluting cars at their bus stops.


Reforms to Planning Guidance


National planning regulations on outdoor advertising should be updated to take into account the unique problems with digital billboards, and to enable councils to respond to planning applications according to their current priorities, not just the narrow grounds of ‘amenity’ and ‘public safety’ that the 2007 Town and Country Planning Regulations (England) legislation currently permits.


Circumstances have materially changed since 2007, shown by the number of applications that are being submitted for digital screens and changing advertising technologies relating to facial detection and user tracking capabilities.[4] Current policies and guidance are outdated and do not accommodate the legitimate concerns of councils and residents around climate, air pollution and sustainability, environmental light pollution, the ‘attention economy’, mental health and the dominance of commercial messaging in public space.


Local councils should be able to adopt planning policies on digital outdoor advertising. For example, this could take the form of a presumption against planning applications for digital billboards on the grounds of carbon emissions, light pollution, biodiversity, impact on local residents and road safety. This would better reflect the agenda set out within the Planning White Paper (2020) for local communities to have greater say in how the built environment is shaped around them.


Image: New digital advertising screens require large amounts of electricity and frequently promote environmentally-damaging products


Evidence of Uptake


Several local councils in England have already adopted motions in favour of a Low Carbon Advertising Policy.

Liverpool City Council passed a motion in January 2021 to review its advertising arrangements and implement a low carbon advertising policy. See page 15 of the council’s minutes.[5]

Norwich City Council passed a motion in July 2021 to implement an ethical advertising policy including restrictions on environmentally damaging products, junk food, gambling and payday loan products.[6]

North Somerset Council passed a motion in July 2021 to restrict advertising for high carbon products.[7]

All three of the above councils are currently working up implementation strategies for these policies.


Environmental Impacts of Advertising


Corporate advertising in the UK is a multi-billion pound industry[8] whose role in fuelling the climate crisis - particularly when it comes to products and services with a large carbon footprint - should be taken seriously.


Harmful consumption


At the macroeconomic level, scientific research has found a positive correlation between advertising and greater levels of consumption.[9] While an adequate amount of consumption is necessary to meet basic human needs, the rise in conspicuous and high-carbon consumption driven by advertising in particular is inconsistent with efforts to mitigate climate change.

To illustrate the links between advertising and consumption levels, researchers in the field of social psychology have effectively shown that people exposed to advertising were prone to embrace consumerist and materialist values.[10] [11] These values are strongly linked with the drive to buy unnecessary goods and sustain an entire lifestyle of conspicuous and luxury consumption which is at odds with mitigating the impacts from climate change.



Image: Scientific evidence on advertising’s ecological impact


Recent research by Professor Tim Kasser and colleagues provides a detailed picture of the latest scientific evidence on the relation between advertising and our climate and ecological crises (illustrated by two case studies for beef and tobacco products).[12] The study also strongly indicates that such links will be found for the advertising of many other products, services and experiences such as SUVs and airline flights.


Digital outdoor advertising


The recent drastic increase in planning applications for digital screens is not adequately reflected in the 2007 Town and Country Planning Regulations (England) and goes against local authorities’ efforts to deliver on their climate targets. This new digital infrastructure comes with a considerable impact on the environment. Not only are these billboards highly energy-demanding but they also present a threat to local biodiversity by creating greater light pollution in cities.

Research shows that a ‘six-sheet’ sized  double-sided digital billboard (often found at bus stops) requires the same electricity as  four average UK households per year. Other larger billboards, powered by JCDecaux, were found to consume as much electricity as 37 households a year when running at their maximum capacity.[13]






Image: Adfree Cities, 2019. The electricity cost of digital adverts.

High-carbon adverts


There is no doubt the transition to net zero by 2050 requires unprecedented efforts from all parts of industry and society. However, local authorities could take immediate and straightforward action in removing adverts from the largest polluting companies such as airlines, and the fossil fuels and car industries. In the “race to net zero” these businesses have claimed - via aggressive marketing campaigns - to be joining global efforts to mitigate climate change and green their operations. The reality is that these strategies help them curate an environmentally responsible image to the public while keeping their business models virtually unchanged and, in the case of production shifts within the car industry in the last decade, actually making things worse.


Car advertising


Over the past ten years, car manufacturers have shifted away from selling family cars towards ever bigger, more polluting - but much more profitable due to their higher cost margins - ‘sports utility vehicles’ (SUVs).[14] As a result, vehicle manufacturers have moved the bulk of their advertising spend toward the promotion of SUV ranges rather than traditional cars. In 2018, car maker Ford reportedly spent 85% of its advertising budget promoting SUVs and light trucks in the USA.[15] Globally, rising sales of SUVs are the second biggest cause of increasing CO2 emissions (after power generation, but ahead of aviation and heavy industry).[16]


Image: Mercedes-Benz Define “need” ad to promote a highly polluting SUV


Car adverts often display images of exotic, wild or rural locations surrounded by plenty of space. They promise adventure, escape and the open road; but the reality in many world cities is gridlocked traffic jams and soaring, illegal levels of air pollution.[17][18] Research finds that on average two thirds of SUV purchases are registered to urban addresses.[19] Despite the UK Government introducing legislation to ban the sales of new internal combustion engine cars by 2030, failing to remove advertising for fossil-powered cars risks strongly compromising the success of this policy (all new cars sold today will remain on the streets for an average 6-11 years).


Fossil fuel advertising

Oil and gas companies such as Shell, BP, Total and Exxon use advertising to promote themselves as environmentally conscious businesses. Looking at their adverts we are led to believe that they are mostly renewable energy companies. But the reality is that their businesses remain almost entirely focused on the continuing exploration of oil and gas reserves. As recently as 2018, major oil companies spent $50 billion on fossil fuel projects in direct contradiction of the Paris climate goals according to research group Carbon Tracker.[20] Companies such as Exxon, BP, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips have often used advertising as a strategy to block climate legislation in the United States.[21] From 1986 to 2015, the five biggest fossil fuel companies in the US spent a total of $3.6 billion on adverts.[22]

Image: BP advert suggesting they believe in the possibility of planes fueled on garbage.

Research in the Journal of European Consumer and Market Law also warns about the pernicious effects posed by fossil companies’ “greenwash advertising” which strongly misleads the public and reduces our capacity to hold these companies accountable for their damaging activities.[23] BP, for example, has been criticised for using adverts to promote their renewable energy projects, which only makes up 4% of their total investments, while 96% remains in oil and gas.[24] In 2020, the UK body that regulates advertising, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), ruled that Shell made misleading environmental claims in its advert about carbon offsetting.[25]

The environmental law firm Client Earth carried an investigation into nine major fossil fuel companies’ marketing campaigns exposing how their “green” advertising messages do not fit with the reality of their business models based on increased fossil fuels extraction.[26]

Airline Advertising

Having refused to take meaningful action on climate change for 30 years, airlines are still encouraging dangerous growth in sales using advertising by promoting flights to far-away holiday destinations and short shopping trip breaks to cities across the world. Based upon 2014-2015 figures, UK airlines spent around £260 million per year on promotion and advertising.[27] After the industry was forcefully brought to a halt at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, travel agencies and airlines are now again promoting “business-as-usual” travel despite the massive threat this presents to public health and the climate.

Image: easyJet ad in the Times Earth (22 July 2021) promoting zero emission flights.

Airlines have also quickly grasped the need to use “green” messaging in their advertising - with recourse to carbon offsetting schemes -  in order to appeal to climate-conscious consumers.  In 2020, the budget airline RyanAir was accused of greenwashing and asked to take down one of its adverts claiming to be “Europe’s lowest fares, lowest emissions airline”.[28] The company was in fact ranked among the EU’s top 10 carbon emitters in 2019. At the last football match of the Euros 2020, viewed by 30 million people worldwide, Qatar Airways “Fly Greener” ads were featured on Wembley stadium’s pitch side. These ads are a typical example of airlines making unsubstantiated environmental promises through advertising  (exacerbated by the company’s absence of credible green credentials) leading to complaints being submitted to the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).[29] The ASA, however, said it was unable to take action.


For the reasons outlined above, we believe that two key measures should be introduced to help stop advertising fuelling the climate emergency and to reduce its other harmful effects. We propose that local authorities should explore and adopt as part of their mandate to deliver net zero by 2050:

        Low-carbon advertising policies consistent with the widespread declarations of climate emergency and net zero targets.

        Reforms to Planning Guidance on outdoor advertising to take into account the unique problems with energy-intensive digital billboards.


August 2021

[1] McKinnon et al., 2020. Strengthening the links between planning and health in England

[2] Gillett, 2021. Low Carbon Advertising Policies. A toolkit for local policymakers.

[3] It should be noted that restricting advertising for harmful products (e.g tobacco or SUVs) is not the same as banning the products themselves.


[4] Short, 2018. Bristol’s new phoneboxes could end up spying on you.

[5] City of Liverpool, January 2021. City Council Meeting

[6] Adfree Cities, 2021. Norwich Council votes to limit harmful advertising.

[7] North Somerset City Council, 2021. Motion to review and strengthen the councils Low Carbon Advertising Policies.

[8] Advertising Association, 2019. UK Ad Spend hits £6bn in Q1 2019.

[9] Molinari and Turino, 2018. ​​Advertising and Aggregate Consumption: A Bayesian DSGE Assessment.

[10] PIRC and WWF, 2011. Think of me as evil? Opening the debates in ethical advertising

[11]  See Kasser (2003), The High Price of Materialism

[12] Kasser, 2020. Advertising’s role in climate and ecological degradation. What does the scientific research have to say?

[13] Adfree Cities, 2019. The electricity costs of digital adverts.

[14] Beever and Murray, 2020. Upselling smoke. The case to end advertising of the largest, most polluting new cars.

[15] Inside Radio, 2018. Ford Ad Spend Predicted Company’s Shift Away from Cars.

[16] International Energy Agency, 2019. Growing preference for SUVs challenges emissions reductions in passenger car market.

[17] Boyle, Murray et al., 2021. Mindgames on Wheels. How advertising sold false promises of safety and superiority with SUVs.

[18] Transport & Environment, 2018. Six EU governments finally face legal action over air pollution.

[19] Boyle, Murray et al., 2021. Mindgames on Wheels. How advertising sold false promises of safety and superiority with SUVs.

[20] Carbon Tracker, 2019. Oil and gas companies approve $50 billion of major projects that undermine climate targets and risk shareholder returns.

[21] Heated, 2019. Introducing: The Fossil Fuel Ad Anthology.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Clemens Kaupa, 2021. Journal of European Consumer and Market Law.

[24] Client Earth, 2020. Fossil fuels and climate change: the facts.

[25] ASA, 2020. ASA Ruling on Shell UK Ltd.

[26] Client Earth, 2021. The Greenwashing Files.

[27] Satista, 2016. Costs of advertising and promotion United Kingdom (UK) airlines in 2014/15

[28] The Guardian, 2020. Ryanair accused of greenwash over carbon emissions claim.


[29] Adfree Cities, 2021. Airline misleads Euros football fans with pitchside greenwash.