North Africa, West Asia

Big polluting lobbyists may be forced to declare interests at UN talks

Is the presence of the fossil fuel industry necessary in global climate change negotiations, or does their presence in these talks represent a conflict of interest and undermine global progress?

Rabiya Shabeeh
29 June 2017

UN climate change conference in Bonn, Germany in May 2017. Picture by UNclimatechange / Some rights reserved.This article is published in collaboration with Climate Tracker

The push from developing countries to force fossil fuel lobbyists taking part in UN climate talks to declare conflicts of interest won one significant battle during an agreement made at COP23’s preliminary session held recently in Bonn, Germany.

A recent report by the US-based non-profit Corporate Accountability International, CAI, revealed that fossil fuel representatives are extensively represented in the associations that participate in UN climate talks.

While companies cannot participate in the talks themselves, membership-based business and industry non-government associations (BINGOs) can and they have been using backhanded tactics to stop key climate policies in their tracks, says the report.

Policies under the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) allow organizations with ‘observer status’, which include the likes of the National Mining Association, FuelsEurope, the World Coal Association, and the Business Council of Australia (of which members include Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP), to sit in meetings where delegates discuss policy options to avert climate disaster.

These organizations represent corporations with hefty track records of climate change denial and a portfolio that includes decades of profiting at the expense of the planet.

Many developing nations, collectively representing nearly 70 percent of the world’s population, have been fighting to incorporate a conflict of interest policy in the convention where such groups will be legally obliged to declare any and all conflicts.

For instance, in May 2016 at a meeting in Bonn, the Venezuelan delegate stated that UNFCCC’s Paris agreement was an ‘instrument between states’ and made a ‘moral request’ that lobbyists must declare conflicts of interest.

However, these demands were met with fierce resistance from richer nations, with the US, EU, Norway, and Australia leading the battle.

During one panel discussion in Bonn, Norway’s delegate stated that excluding companies based on their interests would be ‘counterproductive’ while Australia’s delegation head said that the private sector was a key part of financing the transition to a low-carbon economy.

“Some of the companies being alluded to as the polluters of policy will be the providers of the biggest and best solutions,” said Australia’s delegate. “And you could look at some of the statements coming out of ExxonMobil and Shell recently to underline that point.”

An investigation conducted in 2015 by Inside Climate News, a non-profit environmental news organization, exposed that ExxonMobil knew of climate change from as early as 1981 and then spent millions of dollars in the years that followed to promote climate denial.

CAI’s report, in addition, revealed that the US Chamber of Commerce has been receiving millions of dollars from ExxonMobil for ‘public information campaigns’.

To top it off, the Trump administration in the US, in its full-scale attack on the US environmental policy that includes dismantling the Clean Power Plan, recently also installed Exxon Mobil’s former CEO, Rex Tillerson, as secretary of state.

“With so many arsonists in the fire department, it’s no wonder we’ve failed to put the fire out,” said Tamar Lawrence-Samuels, CAI’s international policy director,” in a statement.

This, however, does not imply that there is no role at all for the fossil fuels industry to play in slowing global warming, states CAI’s report.

The report elaborated that the industry must transform its business practices to align with the commitments made by the global community to rein in the crisis, embrace the solutions created by the scientific community to minimize further devastation, and strive to meet global social and economic progress.

UNFCCC’s newly negotiated agreement commits to enhancing ‘openness, transparency and inclusiveness’ and calls for stakeholders - any person or group affected by climate change or policy – to submit their views on how that could be achieved.

“As a global community, we have an unprecedented opportunity to solve the climate crisis head-on at the precise moment when everything—people, justice, and the planet—hangs in the balance,” said a spokesperson for CAI in a statement.

Activists, pressure groups, and even government bodies from developing countries that are now actively seeking justice for the planet and its people must keep pushing towards the solutions the convention has agreed to seek.

The UAE - due to its geographical position, extreme climates, and crucial coastline - has very high stakes in climate reforms.

According to a report, UAE Climate Change: Risks and Resilience, released in March 2017 by the Emirates Wildlife Society and World Wildlife Fund (EWS-WWF), a two percent increase in global temperature by 2050 will exact a heavy toll on at least a dozen of its industrial sectors.

Since ratifying the Paris Agreement, the UAE has set a series of goals for national development in its Vision 2021.

It has also launched a number of awareness programs and invested heavily in graduate education for sustainable energy development through the likes of establishing the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology and the Zayed Future Energy Prize.

"Making measurable impact on climate change can only be achieved if civil society makes a conscious effort to raise awareness through education and providing the tools for which to make change," said an independent environmental consult who has been working with Masdar on multiple energy projects and did not want to be named.

She added that it is vital that UAE actively pushes for transparency in the convention and continues creating a culture where individuals and local pressure groups will be encouraged to do the same.

The convention is accepting suggestions on how to address the issue from member nations, and aims to take them up next year.

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