Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

The corporate capture of the climate talks

Pascoe Sabido from Corporate Europe Observatory looks at how the Paris summit has been co-opted by polluters

December 10, 2015
8 min read

Behind the headlines of ‘crunch talks’ and a ‘moment of truth’, all the signs indicate that the biggest winners from the Paris climate summit (COP21) will be the very corporate forces that have scuppered meaningful action to tackle the problem up to now. It looks set to be the 21st time that looming catastrophic climate change will be given the kind of short shrift we’ve sadly become so used to from such international get-togethers.

With the risks so high for people and planet, why have political leaders continuously bowed to the wish-lists of the same industries causing the problem? The evidence points to corporate capture, a form of political decay that sets in when a public authority established to act in the public interest becomes gradually hijacked so that it adopts the agenda of the groups that dominate the sector it is charged with regulating.

The story of UN climate talks is one of big fossil fuel corporations using greenwashing and effective lobbying campaigns to achieve the corporate capture they so badly need to protect their profits. Weakening, co-opting and subverting successive UN climate talks has been the aim of the game. The outcome, at each stage since the earliest incarnations of global climate summits, has seen weak rules, voluntary initiatives, market-based mechanisms, and techno-fixes adopted as solutions.

Part of the solution?

Key to this successful campaign to put business at the centre of UN climate policy has been the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The WBCSD is a global association of CEOs that grew out of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro ‘Earth Summit’. It was founded by controversial Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny (who incidentally made his money in the asbestos industry). Companies such as Shell, Volkswagen, and BP, we were told, despite masses of evidence to the contrary, were now to be thought of as ‘part of the climate solution’.

The expectation and hope ahead of Rio was that, at long last, world leaders would address pressing global environmental problems. The creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change promised the end of the dirty business models of the biggest corporations in the global North. But the WBCSD applied its clout rapidly in defence of its members.

By 1997 the US government, following demands from industry, had ensured carbon markets were part of the Kyoto Protocol, with forest offsets added in 2000. This meant that instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions or stopping deforestation, wealthy polluters could pay someone else to do so. However, a look back at the subsequent projects has shown a complete lack of real-world emissions cuts.

The UN was instrumental in the installation of these ‘business as usual’ market-based policies as the dominant approach to the problem. By 1999, UNCTAD, the UN’s trade, investment, and development body, was colluding with WBCSD to set up IETA (the International Emissions Trading Association). IETA would go on to successfully campaign for carbon markets as the most ‘cost-effective’ climate solution. Its members include oil and gas industry behemoths like Shell and Total, mining multinationals such as Rio-Tinto and BHP Billiton, and financial sector players like BNP Paribas. Despite their claims, to date carbon markets have not resulted in reduced emissions.

No watershed

As the 2000s saw the complete failure of previous summit commitments to produce meaningful emissions cuts, the severe shortcomings of climate summitry became painfully apparent to campaigners and the wider public, not least the communities in the global South suffering the worst from big oil and gas company abuses.

Despite this, expectations were raised to phenomenal heights in the lead up to COP15 in Copenhagen as the decade came to a close. December 2009 was billed as the watershed moment when a fundamental shift away from devastating fossil fuels would occur. It actually marked a milestone in the institutionalisation of business’s presence at the heart of the negotiations. The IETA brought a lobbying army of almost 500 delegates to the talks to push for carbon market ‘solutions’ and to advance the case for dodgy, fantastical techno-fixes such as carbon capture and storage.

One year after the disappointment of ‘Hopenhagen’, talks in Cancun, Mexico produced a ‘Green Climate Fund’ to assist poorer countries to finance adaptation and emissions reductions but neglected to say where the money would come from. Ahead of the negotiations, the Mexican government invited the WBCSD and another major international business association, the International Chamber of Commerce to organise meetings between governments and big business. Effectively facilitating a corporate stitch-up to prevent the changes that scientists said were needed to avoid dangerous climate change, dirty industry lobbyists got advance access to negotiators to press their agenda on key issues such as carbon markets, financing, and technology.

During 2013’s ‘Corporate COP19′ in Warsaw, UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres welcomed the increased role of business in addressing climate change in her keynote address to the ‘Coal and Climate summit’ co-organised by the coal industry and the Polish government. Figueres (who used to be a climate consultant for big gas utility Endesa), and her predecessor Yvo de Boer (who subsequently moved to KPMG), have been eminently proactive advocates of big business’s influence over UN climate policy. Figueres looks likely to continue this grubby tradition in Paris, having earlier this year issued a call for campaigners to ‘stop demonising oil and gas companies‘.

Treat them like tobacco

For at least three decades, big polluters have used every means available to them to obstruct real progress on tackling climate change. From PR spin (see ‘clean coal’) and active undermining of the overwhelming scientific evidence, to proposing false solutions such as fracking, nuclear energy and pie-in-the-sky techno-fixes, industry’s manoeuvring and manipulating has been shameless. It’s perversely logical for them given that effective measures to deal with global warming would mean leaving more than four fifths of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, undermining the fossil fuels business model.

The summit in Paris is sponsored by firms such as nuclear power operator EDF, energy giant Engie (formerly GDF Suez), Air France, Renault-Nissan and BNP Paribas. It also includes the officially endorsed corporate-expo ‘Solutions COP21’, a platform for polluters to access decision-makers, journalists and the public to present their destructive drive for profit as a ‘solution’ to climate change.

This is an example of the kind of privileged access that needs to stop if we are going to really tackle this problem. Anti-tobacco industry campaigning by civil society and Southern governments provides a useful precedent. They successfully argued that the damage caused by that industry’s lobbying warranted a firewall between tobacco lobbyists and public health officials and set up the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – a treaty that came into force in 2005 and is legally binding in 180 countries.

Due to the fossil fuel industry’s damaging work against progress at UN talks and the fact that its profit motives will always conflict with what we need to do to tackle climate change – leave fossil fuels in the ground – it needs the same treatment as tobacco. Serious action will only come from public pressure. If political leaders feel our anger at their inertia on this life-threatening issue, they will be forced to stand up to vested interests.

Paris won’t herald the necessary radical social, economic and ecological shift, but it could mark a turning point in awareness and indignation at the grip held by dirty industry over the international political response to climate change. It’s high time we put a stop to corporate capture – let’s boot polluters out of climate policy so we can get to work on building the change we all need.

Corporate Europe Observatory is a Brussels-based group that challenges the influence of big business and business lobby groups in EU policymaking.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced


28