COP25 was a playground for polluters, COP26 must be different

By Eilidh Robb

COP25 will likely go down in history, but not in the ways the Chilean presidency might have hoped for. Despite being the longest UNFCCC conference on record, COP25 was largely considered to have been a failure, achieving very little progress and even less ambition. 

To be fair, no one ever said that coming up with global commitments to tackle climate change was going to be easy, but the 2019 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference of the parties (COP) seemed to hit some of the most controversial roadblocks yet. Parties could not agree on key issues within the Paris Agreement such as rules on carbon markets, details under climate finance, and no progress was made on loss and damage financing – which would help vulnerable countries hit by climate-induced damage claim economic losses from richer countries. 

By failing to reach an agreement on these key issues, the UK Government, who are the official hosts for the next conference, have quite a job ahead of them if they are to wrap up these issues during the October 2020 intersessionals before the big event now in November 2021. Yet, despite clear stumbling blocks in the global policy arena there were some other pretty obnoxious hurdles adding to the lack of ambition at COP25. 

Big polluters take a field trip to the UN climate talks 

While this was by no means a new development in the UN climate talks, COP25 had a pretty outrageous polluter presence that left many activists enraged. The event itself was sponsored by the following large polluters:

  • Iberdrola an electrical utilities company who produced 24.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 and are linked to numerous human rights offences, 
  • Endesa another electrical utilities company who produced 61.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent,
  • Suez a water and waste management company, partially owned by ENGIE who are considered one of the biggest polluters in the world through their coal operations,
  • Santander a fossil fuel funding bank who boasted about €2.714 billion in green financing, while investing three times that in fossil fuels in the same year, with significant responsibility for funding the destruction of the amazon rainforest too,
  • BBVA another fossil fuel funding bank who are responsible for funding the Dakota Access fossil gas pipeline (a project famous for disrupting the lives of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in the USA) alongside many other gas pipeline investments, arms funding, and allegations of corruption.

It should also be noted that Iberdrola, who made a reported profit of  €3.014 billion in 2018, received tax cuts in exchange for their sponsorship. 

Polluter presence at COP25 went beyond those who bought their way in through sponsorship. Representatives from major oil and gas companies were invited to speak on panels and co-host events throughout the conference. Highlights included:

  • Shell speaking at six events, including on a panel organised by the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA, a pro-carbon markets lobby group with members including BP and Chevron among others),
  • BP, Shell and ConocoPhillips joining the Australian government in hosting a joint invite-only reception for polluting companies and governments,  
  • Registered participants to the conference including executives from Shell, BP, Total, Eni, Enel, BHP Billiton, ENGIE, Rio Tinto and Equinor, accompanied by their various lobby groups, 
  • The IETA boasting a delegation of 129 people, more than the delegations of South Africa, Nigeria or China.

These companies all directly profit from the continued pollution of our planet. By sponsoring and attending these global climate conferences they buy themselves more time to profit from pollution, while the rest of us bash our heads against a wall wondering why we are still failing to take adequate action. 

COP26 must be different

In order to achieve a genuine global shift to lower our collective carbon footprint we need big polluters to take action. But that action will never be as ambitious as we need it to be while they continue to get a seat at the table where they put forward watered down solutions with high profit margins. 

The UNFCCC currently has no rules on the admittance of big polluters to the COP negotiations, and it desperately needs one. As in the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) meetings we need a Conflicts of Interest Policy that would remove big polluters from the talks, like tobacco companies and lobbyists were removed from the WHO.

Already in the UK, ex-Environment Minister Andrea Leadsom told BP that they were “key stakeholders” in the upcoming climate talks. This kind of preferential treatment for big corporations fuelling the climate crisis cannot continue. 

The UK has a horrid track record. Despite having historically contributed the most to climate change, the UK have attempted to rebrand themselves as global leaders on climate change – if you were to drink every time the UK say this at climate conferences, you would be drunk by 11am. Yet, they continue to offload the burden: funding fossil fuels abroad in the name of “aid”, blocking progress in the UN climate talks, and playing with numbers to make their climate achievements look better than they really are.

If the UK wants to fill the shoes of the “global leaders on climate change” that they claim to be, they must reject all big polluter influence at the UN climate talks. And, at the intersessional negotiations in summer 2021 they must facilitate discussions that help the UNFCCC finally initiate a Conflicts of Interest Policy to remove big polluters for good. We don’t have time to listen to big polluter greenwash for the benefit of their egos, we need radical action now – it’s almost too late.