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.