How corporate interests dominated UN climate talks

Some of the world’s most polluting companies were present at Bonn.

 |  6-minute read |   29-11-2017
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The 23rd annual Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recently concluded at Bonn, Germany, with several important outcomes. Progress on drafting of the Paris Agreement rulebook, pre-2020 action to mitigate emissions and raising $100billion worth of climate finance, the Talanoa dialogue to facilitate stock-taking of long-term mitigation action and revision of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) of countries, and discussion on the contentious issue of "loss and damage" are among them. 

Experts agree that NDCs, as submitted by member countries of the UNFCCC, are not enough to match the aim of the Paris Agreement i.e. holding the rise in temperature to well below two degree Celsius above pre-industrial level. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at the current levels will push temperatures up by three degree Celsius or more. The yearly Emissions Gap Report, released by the United Nations Environment Programme, points out alarming gaps in emission mitigation and calls for ambitious NDCs in 2020. It also exhorts that global GHG emissions must peak before 2020 and the emissions gap close by 2030 in order to limit warming at two degree Celsius. Current NDCs will reduce emissions only by a third of the original target.

While there were several important items on the agenda, it is the Paris rule book that will regulate to a large extent the working of the Paris Agreement. The rule book, being written under the supervision of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement, will contain modalities, procedures, and guidelines on emissions mitigation, NDCs accounting and five-yearly scaling up, transparency, emissions accounting and reporting, adaptation related issues etc. It will determine climate action in the years to come. If drafted ambitiously, it is likely to have serious implications for the fossil fuel industry and could make large dents in their profits. Expectedly, thus, some of the world’s most polluting companies were present at Bonn in order to influence the talks and possibly water down the details of the rulebook.


Fossil fuel giants attempting to influence climate action

Corporate influence on climate talks is well-documented and exposed by several researchers. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by the industry to mould the narrative on climate change to its liking. It is now well known that major oil and energy companies, such as Shell and BP, were since long aware of the effects of GHS emissions on the earth’s climate. However, for decades they chose to remain silent and actively engaged in efforts to obfuscate and deny scientific proofs. Reports by Union of Concerned Scientists  and Centre for International Environmental Law dig deep into the fossil fuel industry’s well planned and flawlessly executed deception.

In September, Influence Map, a UK-based think tank, released a report which states that 35 of 50 of the world’s most influential companies are actively involved in lobbying against climate action. Most of these 35 companies are from the fossil fuel industry, energy-intensive, or polluting companies. The report also points out an oft-overlooked aspect of corporate influence – the power of corporate-owned media outlets that obfuscate the science on climate change and deeply influence public opinion.

Another recent report by the American non-profit Corporate Accountability discloses how key negotiations on areas such as finance, international cooperation, technology and agriculture are influenced and even derailed by powerful business and industry NGOs (BINGOs) through their access to the UNFCCC as accredited  observer organisations.

Unsurprisingly, many instances of blatant interference by corporate giants were at display during the 23rd COP. The International Chamber of Commerce hosted a Business and Industry Day. The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) whose members include BP, Chevron, Shell, Rio Tinto, Statoil, and Total, was in full participation at the talks as sponsors and partners. Representatives of polluting industries from the United States such as the National Mining Association and the US Chamber of Commerce were also present.

A particularly reckless move on part of fossil fuel industry lobbyists was a proposal by the Ukrainian delegation to create a new permanent body namely, "Committee for Future", that would permit "direct participation of the corporates" in the UNFCCC process. The Trump administration, too, hosted a clean coal event, signalling thereby the deepening entrenchment of fossil fuel companies within the international climate change regime.

Apart from stalling action on climate change, polluting companies and lobbyists attempt to thwart the effectiveness of negotiations by advocating faulty and harmful solutions. Some of the “solutions” put forth by the corporates to lure developing countries include more carbon trading mechanisms, climate smart agriculture, the promise of carbon capture and storage technology, and insurance instead of climate finance.

Need for a conflict-of-interest policy

Countries of the global south have, for the past few years, sought a conflict-of-interest declaration by companies that are linked to the UNFCCC. The extent of influence that corporates wield over governments of the global north may be gauged from the fact that the final agreement of the May Climate Change Conference did not include the words "conflict of interest". A similar request for creation of a conflict of interest policy during the 23rd COP was rejected by the UNFCCC secretariat. The issue is expected to be taken up again in 2018 at the biannual negotiating session. Pertinently, the European Parliament has recently passed a resolution calling for the creation of such a policy by the UNFCCC.

The earth is on a dangerous new track of warming combined with devastating extreme weather events, each surpassing the previous one in magnitude and aftermath. The Paris Agreement is the most urgent and pressing commitment of our times. Now that its rulebook is being drafted, there is all the more reason to confront corporate power and prevent its influence upon the process. Businesses that participate in the international climate change regime must be forced to declare their conflicts of interest.

Also Read: India can't ignore human rights in its climate policy


Zeenat Masoodi Zeenat Masoodi

Zeenat Masoodi is a lawyer living in Srinagar. She is also a COP 22 online fellow for Climate Tracker.

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