Advertising, marketing and public relations are the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of fossil fuel companies. Fossil fuels are the primary drivers of climate change, threatening our planet, wreaking havoc on vulnerable communities and affecting public health.
Yet fossil fuel companies have convinced us to tolerate their growing harms. To do this, they use a wide range of tactics, most notably greenwashing, which makes them appear less environmentally damaging than they really are. Greenwashing plays a very significant role in delaying urgent climate action.
It’s easy to believe that the climate crisis can be separated from other aspects of our daily lives, but the truth is a lot harder to swallow. Fossil fuel companies have slithered their way into our mindsets, behaviours and choices, from filling up at certain stations to earn cashback from insurance companies, to getting free entry into SANParks for a week in September.
The sport world is not immune to this infiltration. Fossil fuel companies sponsor teams and events to benefit from the “halo effect”, a cognitive bias that causes us to form a positive impression of something because it’s associated with something else we feel positively about.
There has been a recent uptick in calls to prioritise women’s sport, with President Cyril Ramaphosa praising the successes of our women’s teams and urging sponsors and sporting bodies to direct greater resources to women’s sport. On 6 August 2023, Banyana Banyana became the first South African senior national soccer side, male or female, to advance to the round of 16 at a World Cup.
The team’s only major sponsor
Despite the team’s admirable continued success, coach Desiree Ellis repeatedly highlights that they receive less corporate funding than their male counterparts. Sasol has been the team’s only major sponsor since 2009, also sponsoring the women’s league, which is credited as a key enabler of women empowerment through football. This is highly ironic considering the greatest impacts of climate change will be faced by women and girls.
It would be a blissful misconception to think Sasol truly cares about the plight of sportswomen and sincerely wants to give them the opportunities they deserve. This is a calculated move, a classic case of misdirection.
While we are oohing and aahing, patting Sasol on the back for forefronting women’s soccer, we may forget that the company is South Africa’s largest private emitter of greenhouse gases. Its emissions cause climate change that has a disproportionately negative effect on women around the world. A major report produced last year by researchers at the University of Sussex on behalf of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative showed how fossil fuel use is sabotaging all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Sasol’s Secunda operations have sparked major concerns, facing criminal charges of improper disposal of hazardous chemicals into the Vaal River. The Mpumalanga Highveld Priority Area suffers severe air quality issues, with Sasol contributing significantly to one of the world’s worst air pollution hotspots.
In their review of Sasol’s Climate Change Report 2022, Just Share and the Centre for Environmental Rights found that none of the company’s targets properly align with the vital climate science-based goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5°C to protect humanity. Sasol’s decarbonisation strategies and claims of progress towards a 30% reduction by 2030 lack clarity and immediacy.
Now is the time to challenge the fossil fuel industry’s social licence by ending its sneaky propaganda. To that end, Fossil Free South Africa, a leading organisation advocating for fossil fuel divestment and sustainable reinvestment, has unveiled a compelling new campaign: “Fossil Ad Ban Cape Town”. It aims to persuade the City of Cape Town to embrace a comprehensive, incremental ban on fossil fuel advertising, sponsorship and promotional activities within its jurisdiction.
Not an easy knot to untangle
The campaign has already been endorsed by Green Anglicans, Earthlife Africa, Just Share, groundWork, SAFCEI, African Climate Alliance, Project 90 by 2030, Extinction Rebellion and the Centre for Environmental Rights; as well as by the former head of Greenpeace and Amnesty International, Kumi Naidoo, social justice organisation #UniteBehind and the Public Health Association of South Africa.
We realise sport sponsorship by fossil fuel companies is not an easy knot to untangle. If such sponsorship is banned, who will replace the funding so that sport can continue? Rather than viewing the ban as something that eliminates sporting opportunities, we should take this as an opening for other corporate sectors – that are not engaged in systematically undermining human rights – to step up and support our sport heroes.
Cities like Stockholm, Sydney and Amsterdam have already adopted some measures to implement local bans, while France has legislated a partial nationwide ban. The launch of the campaign in Cape Town marks us as the first city in Africa seeking to join their ranks.
Adopting this ban would establish the city as a trailblazer for climate action and demonstrate its commitment to our rights as citizens to a safe, secure and healthy environment, prioritising the wellbeing of its citizens and holding itself to the highest standards of environmental responsibility.
Cape Town is committed “to achieving carbon neutrality and climate resilience by 2050” and reducing global warming. But without a ban on fossil advertising, this commitment is like a campaign against lung cancer that refuses to even mention tobacco. The apparent tacit taboo against assigning proper blame for the climate crisis has to end.
The launch of a fossil fuel advertising ban campaign in Cape Town sends a clear message to the world that we are ready to break free from the grip of the fossil fuel industry. It is time to take a stand against its manipulations and lies: for our people, for our future, for our planet. DM