Fossil Fuel Companies Get Enormous Play At UN Meetings

The international tobacco treaty bars corporate influence at its negotiations. So why aren’t the largest carbon emitters banned from climate conferences?

12 January 2020
Chris D’Angelo

MADRID ― On the morning of Dec. 2, a bizarre sight ― several national newspapers with nearly identical front pages ― covered newsstands around Spain’s capital city.

“Endesa presents its solutions for an emission-free society at COP25,” read the cover of El País on the day that thousands of delegates, scientists and environmentalists flocked to the opening day of the United Nations climate conference. At least seven other influential publications carried similar full front-page advertisements from Endesa, Spain’s largest electric utility, all with the same photo of an electric car charging station.

Endesa is also the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in Spain, accounting for approximately 9% of the nation’s planet-warming emissions.

Along with its enormous newspaper ad buy, the company paid more than $2 million to be a top-level sponsor of the 2019 U.N. climate talks. It hosted official events at its nearby headquarters, where outside it displayed a giant banner that read “this canvas absorbs the same CO2 as 182 trees.” Endesa’s engagement with the summit reflected its “commitment to the process of ecological transition and the fight against climate change,” the company wrote on its website.

Endesa isn’t the only company with ties to fossil fuels that had an outsize presence at the Madrid talks. Corporate Accountability and several other watchdog groups published a research paper last month on the corporations that bankrolled the conference, a list that also included Iberdrola, a Spanish energy company and one of the country’s top 10 emitters; Santander, Spain’s largest bank and a major financier of coal production in Poland; and Acciona, a renewable energy and infrastructure giant that until recently touted on its website its help constructing 75% of Spain’s natural gas storage capacity. (An Acciona company spokesperson told HuffPost that the web page, which has since been taken down, was “outdated,” and that the company is no longer involved as a contractor of oil and gas projects.)

Spain stepped in to host the 25th Conference of the Parties, or COP25, in October after Chile backed out due to civil unrest across the country. With just two months to organize the massive event, the Spanish government courted some of the nation’s biggest corporations, El Periodico reported. As top-tier “diamond” sponsors, Endesa and Iberdrola each dished out $2.2 million in exchange for tax breaks of up to 90% of their contribution. Sponsors also received exhibit space in the summit’s Green Zone, an area where businesses and other stakeholders showcased their work and new technologies. 

Industry presence at U.N. climate talks is nothing new. The 2018 summit in Poland’s coal capital of Katowice was sponsored by three of the country’s largest coal producers, as well as several European oil and gas companies. 

But watchdogs and climate activists say it is unacceptable that, as scientists around the globe are warning that we are rapidly running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming, the industry most responsible for driving the crisis is allowed access to the very forum where world leaders are supposed to be striking deals to address the problem. They liken the situation to giving cigarette companies a seat at global talks on mitigating lung cancer and say industry interference in the U.N. process is a big reason world governments have failed year after year to put in place measures that significantly curb emissions.

A growing number of developing nations and advocacy groups argue that if parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, ever want to make real progress, they must take a page out of the international tobacco treaty.

Tobacco companies and industry lobbyists are prohibited from attending negotiations of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, adopted in 2003 to reduce global tobacco use. Article 5.3 of the FCTC includes conflict of interest language mandating that parties to the accord take all necessary steps to protect public health policy from industry influence back home. The World Health Organization’s guidelines for implementing Article 5.3 notes that there is “a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests.” 

Securing a similar policy to “end corporate interference in and capture of the climate talks” has become a core demand of the climate justice movement

Philip Jakpor of Environmental Rights Action, the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth International, attended the annual tobacco talks for nearly a decade and COP25 was his third U.N. climate conference. The two summits, he said, could not be more different. Whereas the tobacco industry has been booted from the FCTC negotiations, fossil fuel representatives and lobbyists roam U.N. climate conferences alongside delegates. 

“Since the Paris agreement was drafted in 2015, no progress has actually been made,” he said. “And the reason no progress has been made is because those responsible for the crisis are the ones steering the debate.” 

Jakpor and others pushing for conflict of interest language in the UNFCCC say one need look no further than the 2018 climate talks in Poland for proof. As The Intercept reported at the time, an executive at oil giant Shell boasted at the conference about how the company, through the International Emissions Trading Association, helped write Article 6 of the agreement pertaining to carbon markets, which allows for larger countries to offset their own emissions by purchasing credits from smaller ones. IETA is an industry trade group whose members include oil companies Shell, BP, Chevron, and Enel, the parent company of COP25 sponsor Endesa. In Madrid, the association hosted more than 70 events at its “Business Hub” pavilion, including several cocktail receptions, as well as a members-only “nightcap party.” Its 140-member delegation in Madrid was larger than that of the European Union and the presiding nation of Chile, according to Agence France-Presse

Critics also point to the fact that while the goal of the Paris Agreement is to slash emissions and keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, it does not mention “fossil fuels.”  

“Until we start naming what’s driving this crisis, we’re not going to be able to solve it,” said Jesse Bragg, media director of Corporate Accountability. “That’s where a lot of frustration with this process stems from. We want to sanitize it and not offend anyone.”

The talks have become a public relations opportunity for the industry, a forum for companies to promote new products and unveil fresh climate action pledges. This has created “a false sense of reality” that all parties — including fossil fuel companies that claim to be taking climate change seriously while continuing to expand production and fund attacks on climate science — are part of the solution, said Pascoe Sabido, a researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory. 

“This is what’s scary, the greenwashing of these companies that makes them socially acceptable, gives them social license,” he said. “If we’re ever going to get them out of these spaces, we need to make them toxic.”  

series of reports over the last two years make clear that the world must rapidly overhaul the global economy and move away from fossil fuels in order to stave off what Australian climate scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg described to HuffPost as “thousands of years of mayhem.” These dire warnings helped give rise to an ever-growing movement of steadfast youth, indigenous and environmental activists demanding action in line with climate science. 

In Madrid, tensions came to a boiling point Dec. 11, as it became clear that negotiators were unlikely to make meaningful progress toward finalizing rules and technical details of the Paris pact. Several hundred people from more than a dozen green groups swarmed the plenary hall to call on rich countries to abandon carbon trading schemes and agree to properly compensate vulnerable nations for climate-related damages. They waved banners and chanted “kick polluters out.” The scene turned ugly when U.N. security guards tried to break up the protest. Demonstrators were directed to an outside area of the complex, then blocked from getting back inside, sparking outrage in the environmental community. 

In a joint statement, more than a dozen participating groups condemned the UN’s actions, which they viewed as a sign of the grip that industry has over the policymaking process. 

“We are being kicked out as civil society, and the polluters, who are profiting out of the climate crisis, are staying in,” Angela Valenzuela, a Chilean coordinator of the Fridays for Future movement, said at a press conference in Madrid. “Our voice is not represented, it’s not protected in the negotiations.”

UNFCCC called the incident “unfortunate” but defended its actions as necessary to ensure the safety of conference attendees. Demonstrators were allowed to reenter the following day after committing to refrain from additional protests. 

The longest climate conference in UNFCCC’s history, COP25 ended Dec. 15 in what many saw as total failure. Parties could not agree on two primary agenda items: finalizing rules on carbon trading and “loss and damages” for vulnerable countries. In a post to Twitter, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said the “international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis.” 

Activists blamed industry for the stagnation. But UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa told AFP during the talks that it must continue to include fossil fuel interests.

“There is no way we will [make] this transformation without the energy industry, including oil and gas,” she said.

With help from ally NGOs, developing nations like Uganda and Ecuador have for years been trying to rein in the corporate presence at UNFCCC negotiations. Each time, they’ve met fierce resistance from the world’s richest countries, in particular the United States. 

At the 2018 talks in Bonn, Germany, the Least Developed Countries bloc of 47 nations introduced a proposal for parties to formally acknowledge conflicts of interest as a problem and begin the process of drawing up rules to address it. Led by the U.S., developed countries succeeded in blocking the effort. The U.S. also managed to kill a similar proposal in 2019, warning that preventing any group from attending the negotiations would be a “slippery slope,” AFP reported

The U.S. has a long history of using its power to water down international agreements only to walk away from them entirely, as Corporate Accountability detailed in a 2003 report called “Cowboy Diplomacy.” In November, the Trump administration kicked off the formal process of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris accord ― a historic pact that the U.S. championed under President Barack Obama.

Conflicts of interest were not on the agenda at COP25, as they are a matter that’s addressed by a subsidiary body of the UNFCCC that is slated to meet again in Bonn in June. The issue is once again expected to be front and center. 

Bragg, of Corporate Accountability, said that although it’s been an uphill battle, he’s confident that parties will eventually move to protect the integrity of the treaty process. There’s been growing support as the world comes to realize where it might be if the fossil fuel industry hadn’t spent decades delaying action on climate change, he said. 

“It’s hard to make the case that they should be in the room,” Bragg said. 



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