Looking back at the corporate circus inside COP21

The Paris climate talks saw a vast gathering for corporate lobbyists pushing 'solutions' which happened to match their interests.

Rachel Tansey
12 January 2016

COP sponsors_0.jpeg

The "sponsors" board at the entrance to COP21/Adam Ramsay

The world finally has a climate deal. But however triumphant our leaders and the mainstream media may be, let there be no doubt – the Paris climate agreement fails justice, it fails our future, and leaves so many behind.

Rich countries have been excluded from liability for loss and damage in the poorest, most vulnerable and least responsible nations. Human rights have been removed from the text. The 1.5°C goal is only aspirational. A peak date for emissions is absent. The concept of “emissions neutrality” has been inserted, implying pollution can continue, but with dodgy offsetting, technofixes and geoengineering. Numerous other loopholes and injustices have been allowed through.

With this in mind, lets take a look back at the environment in which this deal was hashed out.

We mean business

During the second week of December's Paris climate talks, I dashed from corporate event to corporate event inside Le Bourget, the COP21 conference centre, listening to companies and lobby groups that have a vested interest in continuing their polluting being given a formal platform side–by–side with negotiators.

As well as official UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) side events, many polluters' events happened at the 'We Mean Business Hub'. Nestled in amongst all the country delegation booths, it is run by emissions trading lobby IETA (members include BP, Chevron, BNP Paribas, EDF Trading, and Vattenfall Energy Trading) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

WBCSD represent the likes of Shell, BP, Statoil, Engie (GDF Suez), Dow, Monsanto, BMW and Volkswagen. The business hub's partners also include big–time fracking fans Chevron and CEFIC, the EU chemicals lobby.

Something that came up several times in events at this hub was the complaint that there was – as yet – no explicit recognition of business' role in the draft agreement text. This is a complaint repeated by business at every COP, even as its role gets bigger and bigger.

Coal for climate, bioenergy for business

The first event I attended at the business hub was run by the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI), whose members include numerous major coal companies.

Entitled “Financing The Demonstration of CCS in Developing Countries”, it took the premise that lots more coal – and gas – power stations will be built. It was argued that the industry needs to push much harder for the backing of governments and multilateral development banks for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). In other words, they were pushing for public money for climate and development to go to the industry most responsible for climate change.

In reality, CCS – capturing emissions from power plants and pumping them underground – is a prohibitively expensive, risky and far–from–viable proposition. It is the industry's favoured justification for building new dirty energy infrastructure that locks us into burning more fossil fuels.

Nick Stern, author of the UK's Stern report on the economics of climate change, plugged not just CCS, but CCS with bioenergy (BECCS). Demand for bioenergy drives deforestation, more petrochemical fertilizer use, land grabs, human rights abuses and biodiversity loss. GCCSI were also speaking at an official side event that I strolled past, on “Technology Solutions for a 2°C world: investing in renewables, storage, energy efficiency and CCS”. But what the title doesn't give away is that investing in expensive CCS threatens investment in renewables, whilst giving coal companies that comprise GCCSI's membership their desired free pass to keep mining, burning and building new coal plants.

Push for markets, disaster for justice

Also at the business hub, I attended a 'Carbon Pricing Leadership CEO Roundtable', featuring the CEOs of a range of big energy firms with big fossil fuel interests. They pushed for a global carbon price and advocated the necessity of linking carbon markets around the globe.

Carbon markets have a history of enriching polluters, failing to cut emissions, and trampling over justice. Enabling these multinationals to continue polluting, whilst paying for dodgy offsets – which themselves have too–often involved environmental and human rights violations – in the Global South. But at this event, the CEOs insisted there should be wording in the text that enshrines markets.

The CEO of Vattenfall (the company suing Germany over environmental decisions, and whose emissions footprint is twice that of Sweden) talked up the need to address 'carbon leakage'. This is the idea that if carbon prices are too high, companies will up–sticks to developing countries with little environmental regulation, resulting in higher emissions. But evidence shows that this problem is largely fictitious. Vattenfall also emphasised the need for a “level–playing field, a carbon price throughout world”. In other words, ensuring that the corporations of rich countries are not disadvantaged by higher prices, and so failing to recognise differentiated responsibility, a key tenet of climate justice.

Some other official fringes that I dipped into included an OECD side event held together with the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders group. I popped in just in time to hear COP21 sponsor, French state–owned coal and nuclear–heavy energy giant EDF, talk of the missed opportunity if carbon pricing is not explicitly included in the Paris text. This was followed by a plea from the world's largest cement firm LafargeHolcim that trade policy should be an active enabler of improving the climate.

How did they plan to do this? “By levelling the playing–field”: a classic justification used to expose fragile economies in the global South to “competition” from the richest multinationals.

Richest business clubs demand more influence

Perhaps the most scandalous of the official side events I attended was an event with the Major Economies Business Forum on Energy Security and Climate Change (BizMEF). This club of rich countries' big business associations includes members like BusinessEurope, Medef and the US Chamber of Commerce.

The event was entitled “Business Perspectives on INDCs”. INDCs are the non–binding Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, countries' plans of how they're going to cut emissions, which, according to independent analysis, together add up closer to 3°C warming – far above the 2 or 1.5°C being promised.

Its co–organiser was the United States Council for International Business (USCIB), whose board includes ExxonMobil, McDonalds, Dow and Nestle. USCIB presented the results of a survey about how business had been consulted when countries were writing their INDCs. Their conclusion? That business has a very important role in “bringing expertise and experience” to the UN's climate change process, and to national governments. Business involvement will strengthen INDCs and make them more durable, because having the business community involved throughout would create a “consistent” effort, even in the face of domestic changes. If I understood this correctly, it was tantamount to saying, 'let's not allow democratic changes in government get in the way of business writing the rules'.

Different countries' business groups then went on to comment on their experience of how much they'd been consulted when their governments were writing their emissions–reduction plans (INDCs).

French business lobby MEDEF – which supports shale gas exploitation, pushed weak EU CO2 reduction targets, and has resisted a law on the energy transition in France – felt that France's plans didn't sufficiently focus on the “economic dimension”, and was concerned that the role of business in governance is “not clearly reflected” in the French INDC.

Some of the other business groups which described their input into national plans included the Australia Industry Group (AGL), who described a business advisory body recommending on Australia's INDC – which was then scrapped when the government changed. But the new consultation process still gave “multiple, genuine opportunities” to give input and have it listened to.

An Australian government representative later confirmed that “business in particular had a strong influence on where we ended up with our targets”. Not so happy was the US Chamber of Commerce (whose board includes Caterpillar, Pfizer, Dow, Ford, ConocoPhillips, etc), which lamented that the US INDC hadn't been done in consultation with the business.

Japan's business lobby Keidanren emphasised how Japanese industry was fast to propose voluntary actions in response to the Kyoto Protocol. In this way, they made sure the voluntary basis was accepted by governments before a regulatory approach could be taken.

John Carnegie from BusinessNZ (who, tellingly, was part of New Zealand's official delegation) described INDCs as an “incredibly positive development” for the “growing relationship with the business community”. Since INDCs are both no where near ambitious enough, and not legally binding, it seems clear that what is a positive development for business is a very negative one for people and planet.

The USCIB moderator concluded that business consultation is essential and helpful to governments, and business has “asked the UNFCCC for recognition of this”. Next up was Brian Flannery, a BizMEF advisor.

I last saw Mr Flannery at a side event at COP19 in Warsaw, where he asserted that oil and gas will be used for the next several decades, “maybe longer, and some scenarios show it would be better to keep using oil, with offsetting and capture”. So who is he? Former chief climate adviser to ExxonMobil, including at the time of the Copenhagen climate talks (COP15).

ExxonMobil spent $27.4 million supporting the climate denial movement between 1998 and 2012. According to his Linked–In profile, Flannery was Manager of Science, Strategy and Policy for ExxonMobil 1998 to 2011, and scientific advisor to the oil firm 1980 to 1988. And as recent investigations have revealed, Exxon knew “all that there was to know about climate change decades ago, and instead of alerting the rest of us denied the science and obstructed the politics of global warming.”

So what was Mr Flannery's message? “Business can make an important contribution to the assessment of domestic INDCs and the implications of the global portfolio”.

Gagging for gas

As well as all these corporate events inside the COP21 venue, I also attended some of the others happening around Paris. And right next door to Le Bourget conference centre, the climate talks' venue, was another business exhibition.

World Efficiency's Gallerie de Solutions was open to both COP21 badgeholders and pre–aproved “registered professionals”. I took a visit to drop in on a panel held by fossil fuels lobby group GasNaturally. Featured alongside the gas lobby were the EU wind and solar lobby associations, happily buying into the “gas is renewables' best friend” shtick that the gas industry has been so successful at promoting.

The wind energy association EWEA's Chair, Giles Dickson, emphasised the “hard reality” that coal is going to be around for years to come, and so it must work with renewables, whilst gas has a central role in the transition. Giles Dickson was, until September this year, Vice President of Global Public Affairs at Alstom, an energy company with significant fossil fuel interests.

Both EWEA and its solar counterpart EPIA have been infiltrated by the fossil fuel industry, with companies like Total and Enel sitting on both group’s boards, resulting in them both pushing a pro–gas stance in the EU's 2030 energy plans. Likewise, GasNaturally (in close collaboration with lobby firm Fleishman Hillard), using the rhetoric of gas (including fracked gas) as a transition fuel, wants to lock us in to infrastructure that will keep us burning gas for decades to come.

Voluntary initiatives: the path of least resistance, leads to disaster

Back in the Business Hub, I went along to the WBCSD's 'Low Carbon Technology Partnerships Initiative (LCPTI): Results and Outlook to 2016'.

LCTPI's “nine big business solutions” include Climate Smart Agriculture (the rebranding of industrial, fossil–intensive farming that destroys biodiversity but puts profits in hands of agribusiness) as well as CCS and agrofuels (see above). “If you're an oil and gas company your solution is CCS, if you're a food company, your solution is Climate Smart Agriculture”. You can read about another business event pushing Climate Smart Agriculture here.

Another model of voluntary business action, but one that is being promoted alongside the official outcome of the Paris climate talks, is the Lima to Paris Action Agenda or ‘Agenda for Solutions’. Created in 2014 by UN Secretary–General Ban Ki–moon, this agenda has been designed to make polluting industries the key partners of states in implementing their corporate ‘contributions’.

Throughout COP21, the Lima to Paris Action Agenda had focus events on its different aspects – including innovation, forests, transport and agriculture – but these “official, high–level thematic events” were invitation only. The Action Agenda, a series of commitments and initiatives involving more than 1,700 corporations, conflates the goals of the UNFCCC with the interests of private companies, and ignores decades of failure of voluntary initiatives like this. Yet this voluntary partnership with companies with ongoing records of human rights abuses and environmental destruction (including Shell, Total and ExxonMobil), has been laid out as part of the outcome of the Paris talks. To be clear, this represents the outsourcing of the implementation of the UNFCCC to business, elevating isolated business initiatives (often ones which represent destructive 'solutions') to official outcomes.

The Lima to Paris Action Plan is inherently problematic, resting “on a fallacy, an analytical fiction that big corporations can be trusted to tackle climate change on their own” – as put by Tamar Lawrence–Samuel from Corporate Accountability International – when the reality is that profits are their purpose, and even a legal duty to shareholders. But the LPAA fails to recognise this inherent conflict of interest, giving corporations the opportunity to greenwash, and at the same time reducing the political will to achieve binding regulations.

There is a real need to delegitimise the so–called 'solutions' of polluting corporations, not least because governments are picking them up and with a little PR using them to convey the message that they are actually acting on climate change. But these false 'solutions' – like CCS, agrofuels and carbon markets – don't address the root causes of climate change. Instead, they protect the business models and power of multinationals, regardless of impacts on local communities, environments and the climate.

We need a firewall to protect climate policymaking at all levels from vested interests. The UN tobacco framework provides a legal precedent for this, a ban on tobacco companies influencing health policy–makers, introduced in response to the same kind of aggressive lobbying, misinformation and pseudoscience that we've seen from fossil fuels and dirty industry. The role of companies with a vested interest in polluting is not – as they would like – to have a seat at the decision–making table, but to abide by regulations made in the public interest. Laws that serve justice, not profits.

A longer version of this article is available here. Please support us with £3 a month so we can keep producing independent journalism.

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