Opinion: If a company’s existence depends on fossil fuels, the single most polluting activity on the planet, should they be allowed to engage in climate talks at all?
In September 2017, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), an organisation that represents the interests of global businesses in intergovernmental meetings, was granted Observer status at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. This marks the first time that a private sector group has been formally admitted into the UN system.
The ICC praised this move as a step towards inclusivity and increasing engagement of the private sector, particularly in the realm of climate action.
“Business is central to national climate action plans that will affect domestic and international operations, supply chains, planning and investments,” the group said in a statement.
This last November, global leaders and climate negotiators met in Bonn, Germany for COP 23, which is a series of high-level climate talks that seeks to tackle climate change through negotiations between governments. The conference’s main objective for this year was to craft the rulebook for the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
12 December marks the two-year anniversary of the signing of the #ParisAgreement. This year, global leaders will meet in #Paris to reaffirm their #climateaction commitments during the #OnePlanet Summit https://t.co/V08JMpQhA4 Vid by @WorldBank pic.twitter.com/xWTJmOnOVL
— UN Climate Change (@UNFCCC) December 6, 2017
In a statement issued before the start of the conference, the ICC announced that businesses are ready to tackle several pillars of climate action. This included mitigation as a source of new business opportunities, adaptation, and even opening the conversation about finding new pathways for workers from ‘dirty’ energy industries into the age of renewable energy.
But what was noticeably missing from the ICC’s detailed support of climate action was ‘loss and damage’, one of the central pillars of climate action in the Paris Agreement.
Irreversible impacts of climate change
In a nutshell, loss and damage refer to the inevitable impacts from climate change that simply won’t be slowed through measures like mitigation or adaptation. Examples of these are deaths caused by extreme weather events like Typhoon Haiyan in the Eastern Visayas in November 2013, and displacements and loss of income due to slow onset events such as intense droughts.
Developing countries, especially those that are highly vulnerable to climate change, including the Philippines, have been leading the charge in campaigning for finance for loss and damage. There had been optimism that this year’s conference would finally address finance since the host country, Fiji, is a small island nation that has recently experienced its own incredible losses due to the onslaught of Typhoon Winston earlier this year.
Not all disasters fed by climate change
During one of the negotiations on loss and damage last November, representatives of Australia and the European Union (EU) blocked the inclusion of finance from the agenda, saying, “not all disasters are caused by climate change”.
The assumption of liability for developed countries that have historically polluted the environment to industrialise has always been a controversial topic. Acknowledging fault would drive this debate for financial responsibility to the mantle of developed nations.
“Agreeing to loss and damage means admitting responsibility, which is the last thing the fossil fuel industry and developed countries that do their bidding want to do,” said Jesse Brag, media director of Corporate Accountability (CAI), a US-based think tank.
Fossil fuel industry and influence
A report released by CAI titled “Polluting Paris” details how fossil fuel corporations influence the UN-led climate talks through proxy organisations.
According to the report, the US Chamber of Commerce—a participant in the Business Day segment of COP 23—receives donations from fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil.
Companies such as ExxonMobil are notorious for rejecting climate science. In 2016, the Guardian reported that the multi-national company had spent approximately $27m on lobbying for ‘climate obstruction’.
And the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said Exxon Mobil, through the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), has been complicit in spreading misinformation by repeatedly undermining the scientific claims that climate change can result from the burning of fossil fuels. The AEI has, in the past, said there is no consensus on man-made climate change in the scientific community.
The AEI received $3.6m from Exxon Mobil from 1998-2012 and more than $1m in funding from Koch foundations, which have business interests in the fossil fuel industry, the UCS said.
— Shrina (@shrina_k) November 16, 2017
Climatic Change, a scientific journal, has also identified ExxonMobil and Chevron as among the top emitting companies globally.
There seems to be an obvious conflict of interest in the participation of these companies in climate policymaking, which begs the question: when companies whose profits and existence depend on burning incredible amounts of fossil fuels, the single most polluting activity on the planet, why should they be allowed to participate in climate negotiations at all?
Lobbyists dilute the Paris Agreement
“If there is a time to lobby for big corporations, it is now,” Yeb Saño, executive director of Greenpeace Philippines, said during an interview in Bonn, Germany.
As countries worked to create the roadmap for the Paris Agreement, multinational fossil fuel companies were exercising their hand in the talks through proxy organisations that sponsored events and even attended negotiations, CAI said.
This participation of lobbying organisations in the talks might help to explain the timid response seen by developed nations in loss and damage negotiations.
For many members of civil society organisations, the outcome for loss and damage in COP 23 was truly a disappointment.
Action Aid global lead on climate change Harjeet Singh lamented on the weak position adopted by both the Fijian prime minister and COP president Frank Bainimarama on loss and damage.
“Even though vulnerable communities were in the spotlight [during COP 23], this still hasn’t translated into the support that they need,” Singh said.
During the meeting, advocates and several negotiators from developing nations campaigned for more funding for the technical group in charge of studies and meetings for loss and damage. Instead, COP 23 only provided for a one-off expert dialogue that will happen in May 2018, which even then won’t be enough to comprehensively tackle all of the issues that cover loss and damage.
#Youth voices sent powerful messages to delegates at #COP23 and around the world. Watch Timoci’s call to world leaders: https://t.co/bT72PrPyz3 #Uniting4Climate #GlobalGoals pic.twitter.com/T9gAscLLSq
— COP23 (@COP23) November 23, 2017
A conflict of interest clause
To be able to take the loss and damage agenda further in climate policymaking, there is a need to disengage private sector interest in the climate talks, CAI said.
While businesses and private sector organisations have a role to play in global climate action, there should be an imperative for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to disallow their participation in the highest level of climate negotiations. The UN organisation must invoke a conflict of interest clause, where groups with interests that run contrary to the goals of the talks shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the talks, CAI added.
The World Health Organization created a similar policy to preserve the integrity of its discussions on tobacco control in 2003.
“Government must reclaim its role as the arbiter of corporate behaviour. For too long, corporations have eroded governmental power and convinced people that individual actions are the solution to the climate crisis,” Brag said.
As the irreversible costs of climate change continue to destroy communities and take the lives of people who had no hand in the climate crisis, a thorough evaluation of the UNFCCC’s rhetoric of inclusivity is imperative.
Alanah Torralba is an independent journalist based in the Philippines and writes for Climate Tracker, an organisation that trains up-and-coming climate change journalists on how to cover UN climate negotiations. She currently reports on road safety, the disability sector and climate change.