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Revealed: Key UN climate campaign being advised by a Big Oil PR firm

Brunswick, an adviser to UN ‘climate champions’, has been accused of ‘enabling the fossil fuel industry’s deception’

Lucas Amin Ben Webster
1 December 2022, 10.19am

The oil refinery of Saudi Aramco, one of Brunswick’s clients

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Tom Hanley / Alamy Stock Photo

UN climate campaign leaders are taking advice from a PR firm that works extensively for fossil fuel giants – including the world’s biggest oil company, Saudi Aramco.

The international public relations firm Brunswick has helped the UN’s “high-level climate champions” – a small but influential team led by the UK and Egypt, the hosts of COP26 and COP27 – to develop five UN-backed climate policies and campaigns.

One of these campaigns is Race to Zero, which encourages companies to rapidly reduce emissions, with its flagship initiative, Business Ambition for 1.5°C, calling on corporations to help limit global warming to that level.

But while advising the climate champions, and having signed up as a member of Race to Zero, Brunswick also spins for fossil fuel companies developing dozens of new oil and gas prospects.

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These developments will make the 1.5°C goal – which requires a complete stop to new oil and gas projects – much harder to attain.

Duncan Meisel, executive director of Clean Creatives, a campaign calling for PR and advertising agencies to boycott fossil fuel companies, told openDemocracy: “Working for oil drillers and fossil fuel power companies makes Brunswick an opponent of the action that UN high-level climate champions are trying to promote.”

PR companies’ role in the climate crisis has been under renewed scrutiny in recent months, after Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, condemned the “massive public relations machine raking in billions to shield the fossil fuel industry from scrutiny”.

‘Enabling deception’

Brunswick’s chief executive Neal Wolin has said the company wants “to be part of the solution [to the climate crisis] through the advice we give our clients and, importantly, how we operate as a firm”.

But critics have questioned whether Brunswick can live up to that claim, while working for some of the world’s biggest carbon emitters.

Last month, Brunswick client Saudi Aramco said it would increase its oil production capacity by one million barrels per day by 2027 – bringing its total daily output to 13 million barrels.

Another Brunswick client, Harbour Energy, the biggest oil and gas producer in the UK, said in March that it would participate in the drilling of 23 new oil wells this year, and would double the number of rigs it has in operation, from four to eight.

Brunswick client Capricorn Energy is currently exploring new oil prospects in the North Sea, Mauritania, Mexico and Suriname.

In October, Brunswick announced the opening of an office in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital. Days later, the firm helped oil contractor Arabian Drilling and gas power company Marafiq to launch successful initial public offerings (IPO) on the Saudi stock exchange.

In 2019, Brunswick worked on the IPO of Saudi Aramco, when the oil giant raised $25.6bn in the biggest initial stock offering in history.

With the help of Brunswick… oil and gas companies have continued to make sky-high profits while generating heat-trapping emissions

Kathy Mulvey, Union of Concerned Scientists

openDemocracy has also found that Brunswick has previously worked for a host of other oil and gas companies including BP; Centrica; fracking company Cuadrilla; Sinopec, which is China’s largest oil company; BG Group, which is now part of Shell; and KazMunayGaz, the state-owned Kazakhstan gas company.

Brunswick, which has more than 1,400 employees at 29 offices worldwide, uses its UN work to tout for business from corporate clients, with a video on the firm’s website boasting that it works with “the entire eco-system of actors in the climate space”.

Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told openDemocracy that “skilled communications professionals” such as Brunswick are “enabling the fossil fuel industry’s deception”.

She added: “With the help of Brunswick and other powerful PR firms, major oil and gas companies have continued to make sky-high profits while generating ever more heat-trapping emissions and stepping up greenwashing campaigns.

“In the face of the climate emergency, PR agencies must stop attempting to secure social licence for fossil fuel polluters and instead come down clearly on the side of climate action.”

Sending the wrong message

In June, the Race to Zero campaign strengthened its membership criteria to require firms “to align their lobbying and advocacy activities with net zero by proactively supporting climate policies”.

Existing members – including Brunswick – were given up to a year to meet this new criteria, and Race to Zero published guidance on how to do so. This made clear that all “public relations campaigns” by members should be consistent with halving emissions by 2030.

Brunswick did not respond to questions from openDemocracy on whether it would align its lobbying and advocacy with net zero by June 2023.

But Duncan Meisel told openDemocracy that by working with Brunswick, the Race to Zero sends the wrong message.

Meisel said: “These guidelines are vital to building a clean energy future, and as long as the high-level champions employ Brunswick, they are sending a message that the guidelines should not be taken seriously.”

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Tom Hale, a professor of public policy at Oxford University and an expert adviser to Race to Zero, said the campaign’s new membership criteria still failed to capture the impact of service providers such as Brunswick.

While Race to Zero members must have “a 1.5°C-compliant business model”, the rules do not require them to quantify the impact of the work they do for fossil fuel clients.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Hale said: “As net zero is operationalised, one huge area in need of more work is what standards service providers – PR companies, but also lawyers, accountants, management consultants etc – should follow.

“Current carbon accounting tools – including those used by initiatives like Business Ambition for 1.5°C – were not designed to capture the footprint of these kinds of companies, even though their impact on the direction of the economy can be substantial.”

Hale called on “leaders in these industries” to “step up and lay out a credible pathway for what net zero-aligned PR looks like”.

‘Proud of the advice we provide’

A spokesperson for Brunswick told openDemocracy that the firm is “proud of the advice we provide clients across a range of industries on the transition to a resilient net-zero economy, and of our role in advising the UN Climate Change High Level Champions and the Race to Zero campaign.”

They added that it is “vital to be engaged with companies in the most complex sectors to decarbonise. Our climate advice is based on science-based pathways for transition and we advise many businesses in these sectors on the actions it takes to build credibility and trust on climate change.

“Brunswick itself is committed to aligning our firm with a robust science-based 1.5°C pathway by 2028, in line with the Science-Based Targets initiative.”

Frances Way, executive director of the climate champions team, said: “We collaborate with a wide-range of organisations, including Brunswick, that are working to achieve a resilient, 1.5°C-aligned future, requiring actors across all sectors of the economy to transition, including among the most systemically important industries that need to decarbonise.”

The climate champions did not respond to questions about whether Brunswick was in breach of the Race to Zero guidelines.

Last month, more than 400 scientists called on the PR firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies to drop its fossil fuel clients after openDemocracy revealed it was also working for the Egyptian presidency of COP27.

Some 636 fossil fuel industry representatives registered to attend COP27, according to research by Global Witness, leading to claims that the conference had been hijacked.

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