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Edinburgh’s ban on high-carbon ads defies the cynics

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By Maria Rugamer, illuminem

· 4 min read

This article is part of illuminem Editorial's ongoing commentary on current sustainability issues

Late last month, the Scottish capital joined the ranks of other European cities having banned a host of high-carbon advertisements including for SUVs, airlines and cruise ships. The aim is both to dissuade consumers and to inflict some reputational damage to corporations non gratae.  Though a generally uncontroversial move, the ban is nevertheless as vulnerable to cynicism as many other long-term climate initiatives. So, what are the implications, challenges, and promises?

The new ban was enacted by Edinburgh's City Council as a response to the climate crisis and as part of the wider national net zero goals. The policy document declares that “the promotion of high-carbon products is incompatible with net zero objectives.” The rationale is straightforward enough, and much denser cities like Paris and Sydney have seen positive results in pollution levels, as Edinburgh’s council explicitly points out. Amsterdam, known for its cycling culture, has used the same approach to further reduce the car dependency of its residents. The significant decrease in accidents in SUV-free cities (a small car involved in a road accident causes about 110,000 times as much damage as a bicycle, a commuter truck over 800,000 times as much) is the metaphorical cherry on top.

A clear trend is emerging, as articulated by the ban’s architect, Scottish Green Party councillor Ben Barker: "We’re pleased the Council has taken a lead on the issue of fossil-free advertising and sponsorship. It’s basic common sense that if the Council is serious about its commitment to climate justice, we cannot allow council advertising space to promote fossil fuel companies."

The seriousness of the Council’s goals is not to be glossed over: Edinburgh’s net zero objective for 2030 aims to remove as much greenhouse gas as the city emits by the end of the decade. To reach that milestone, it will be crucial to engage not only companies but to shift people’s behaviours - along with their wallets. Electric and hydrogen cars are allowed, provided they are not SUVs. The exception aims to promote cleaner transportation methods as viable alternatives while discouraging using larger, more polluting vehicles. 

Critics of the ban point to the loss in public revenue and at times selective implementation of similar bans. And some economic trade-offs are of course inevitable, but the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term losses. The estimated reduction of £200,000 per annum from 2030 is a small price to pay for significant environmental gains. Scotland’s renewable energy achievements, notably generating the equivalent of 113% of its electricity consumption from renewable sources in 2023, suggest that its private sector is well-equipped to take the hit, so to speak. 

On top of that, the ban will only apply to new advertising contracts and sponsorship agreements and will not impact existing contracts. This means it will be phased in over time as contracts are renewed without disrupting existing agreements. 

So, advertising influences consumer behaviour, and by limiting exposure to high-carbon products, public preferences will ideally shift towards more sustainable options without directly restricting availability. The precedent of tobacco and alcohol advertising bans in the 1960s and 1970s indicates that even partial bans over decades can have a significant impact.

The future projections for Edinburgh are promising. Its smaller size enhances its climate initiatives' effectiveness. The city's compactness facilitates strong community engagement, exemplified by the Edinburgh Community Climate Fund, which mobilised £140,000 for local projects. Efficient implementation is evident in the rapid deployment of energy efficiency and public transport decarbonisation measures outlined in its 2030 Climate Strategy - it doesn't hurt that, as in many cities, the City Council owns a significant portion of its land, which includes parks, open spaces, woodlands, cemeteries, and roadside verges. Edinburgh’s actions serve as scalable models for other cities aiming for net-zero emissions. Done properly, concentrated resources and focused governance ensure impactful climate actions, supported by robust local government commitment. This combination of community involvement, efficient execution, and strategic focus makes Edinburgh a leader in urban climate action.

Still, only continuous assessment and potential policy adjustments will ensure the ban remains effective and aligned with achieving net zero by 2030. But the potential is there and the model seems effective across Europe. As United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres noted in a speech in New York this month, “Stop the Mad Men from fueling the madness.” 

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About the authors

Maria Rugamer is the Head of illuminem Voices, working to nurture our vibrant community of Thought Leaders, which stands as the world's largest and premier expert network in sustainability. Holding a degree in History and Politics from the University of Oxford, she is passionate about sustainable business and financing.

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