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One of SAs most lucrative public relations contracts just came back on the market. Unfortunately, it comes with one untenable condition — “greenwashing one of the most contentious projects in the world and ignoring scientists and human rights groups.

It was reported recently that Standard Bank Group had fired Edelman because the PR agency refused to provide any communications support on the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project, which the bank is advising on and may also fund.

Just as demand for oil is set to begin falling as the world moves towards electric vehicles and other clean technologies, a consortium including TotalEnergies is looking to build the world’s largest heated crude oil pipeline, with Standard Banks help.

Crude oil will be extracted in Uganda before travelling along a 1,443km pipeline to Tanzanias port of Tanga, displacing rural communities and ploughing through wetlands, nature reserves and other sensitive ecosystems. At peak production, it will generate about the same carbon emissions as nine coal-fired power plants, according to environmental studies.

This as climate scientists and the UN warn that no new coal, oil or gas projects can go ahead if the world is to avert a full-on climate catastrophe, which would affect Africa far more than other regions. 

Kudos to Edelman for refusing to put lipstick on this pig. Of course, the PR firm is not acting purely for the good of the planet. It is no doubt also concerned about its own reputation, and its tougher stance follows years of pressure from the global Clean Creatives campaign and hundreds of scientists, who have demanded that PR firms ditch clients that are fuelling the climate emergency.

Edelman itself still has a long way to go to clean up its act. Its list of clients over the years includes ExxonMobil, which has long relied on PR firms to help it downplay the severity of the climate crisis and pretend it is at the forefront of the clean energy shift.

As the climate crisis worsens in the years ahead — the devastating heatwaves and droughts in Europe are a small taste of what is to come all companies involved in the greater fossil fuel value chain will have plenty to answer for.

Some PR firms that are less concerned about their future reputations, and all life on earth, will no doubt see an opportunity to step in where contracts like Standard Banks become available. But taking on the Standard Bank contract, if it includes EACOP, would be a short-sighted decision.

Earlier this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the worlds main climate science body, called out PR firms for holding back action on climate change. The PR and advertising industry has for decades helped fossil fuel companies either sow doubt about the scale of the climate crisis or play down their role in causing it.

Now, PR companies are being tasked with making projects like EACOP seem okay, or even good. Make no mistake, the oil firms, banks and PR firms involved in these projects will make short-term profits, but will seriously jeopardise their futures, and all of our futures. For this reason, the Standard Bank contract is a poisoned chalice for the advertising and PR industry. 

There is no time to waste. The world is getting frighteningly close to dangerous and irreversible climate tipping points. Average temperatures have increased by about 1.2°C since the start of the Industrial Revolution due to the combustion of coal, oil and gas. Even at these relatively modest levels of warming, the impact of climate change is evident and growing fast.

Temperature records have been smashed across the northern hemisphere in recent months. Crops are failing and droughts, rivers and dams are drying up. Earlier in the year nearly 500 people were killed in KwaZulu-Natal as a historic flood swept through the province. A scientific attribution study showed that the floods were made far more likely, and more intense, by the altered climate.

Clean Creatives is a global campaign urging PR and advertising companies to decline future contracts with fossil fuel companies, and contracts that include projects such as EACOP. The campaign launched locally in SA recently. We are building a coalition of media agencies and individuals in the industry who are committed to putting an end to greenwashingthe practice of overselling and exaggerating the green credentials of a project or company, while obscuring any failures.

The creative industry should be a force for positive change, not a force that holds back the fight against the growing climate crisis.

Horn is SA country director at Clean Creatives.

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