Is it a conflict of interest to have representatives of coal and oil companies at the climate change discussions?
November 6, 2016 — As the world gathers in Morocco for the historic first meeting under the Paris agreement – called “COP22” but now also “CMA1” – it does so with the unprecedented involvement of corporate interests who have fought climate action around the world, funded climate change denial and whose fundamental interest is in extracting and burning as much fossil fuel as possible.
Earlier this year, desperate moves from countries representing the majority of the world’s population to examine how the UN might identify and minimise conflicts of interest were swept under the carpet by rich countries – especially the US, EU and Australia – who argued they wanted to be as “inclusive” as possible and that the concept of “conflict of interest” was too hard to define.
As a result, representatives of companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Peabody, BP, Shell and Rio Tinto will have unquestioned access to most discussions in Marrakech, will be called upon for advice and will be walking the corridors and holding private discussions with countries that are trying to move the world to stop consuming the products those companies have based their businesses on.
The bodies through which those companies access the COP22 meetings have been detailed in a chart created by Corporate Accountability International. Groups such as the World Coal Association, the Business Council of Australia, Business Europe and Business Roundtable will represent the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies in the meetings through their “observer status”.
Jesse Bragg from Corporate Accountability International says it is clear those groups are driven by a profit motive and not by the desire to curb carbon emissions, and so have a conflict of interest.
“It’s hard to believe the World Coal Association is having conversations with delegates, encouraging them to more strictly regulate the coal industry,” Bragg says. “That’s completely against their interests. So what is their purpose in that space other than to continue to extract and burn coal?”
Bragg says those groups have a role to play in the implementation of the rules set by nations but no legitimate role to play in the setting of the rules themselves.
The role many fossil fuel companies play in policy debates as the world attempts to curb carbon emissions has been clear:
- A series of ongoing revelations have shown the fossil fuel industry was aware of climate change for decades but publicly denied its scientific basis.
- Analyses of the limited amount of public information about the lobbying efforts of fossil fuel companies suggests that ExxonMobil, Shell and others spend millions of dollars to manipulate public discourse on climate change.
- When Peabody went bankrupt this year a Guardian analysis of court documents revealed America’s biggest coal mining company was funding at least two dozen groups that cast doubt on human-made climate change and oppose environmental regulations. Peabody will be represented at the meeting by six bodies with observer status.
In a striking irony, the climate change COP at which these corporate interests will be welcome will happen at exactly the same time as another UN COP, where the exclusion of corporate interests has been hailed as a fundamental ingredient to its success: COP7 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, starting today in Delhi, India.
At that meeting, a report will be presented analysing the impact of the tobacco control treaty. It concludes the FCTC “has contributed to significant and rapid progress” in tobacco control action.
Part of the FCTC – article 5.3 – says that “parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law”.
The treaty recognises that “there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests.” It then goes on to recommend almost no contact with the tobacco industry, except when necessary to implement regulation of their products.
“It’s pretty much the most important aspect of implementation,” says Mike Daube from Curtin University in Australia, of article 5.3. Daube was the deputy chairman of the committee that wrote the report on the impact of the tobacco control treaty.
“It essentially says that governments should only speak with the tobacco industry when they absolutely have to and do so holding their nose and washing their hands afterwards,” Daube says.
Despite the strong acknowledgement of corporate conflicts of interest in that UN treaty, rich countries have argued strongly against any measure to limit corporate involvement in the implementation of the Paris agreement.
In May, the Like Minded Group of Developing Countries (LMDC) – a collection of more than 20 countries representing most of the world’s population – pushed for an report to be prepared examining how “the United Nations system and other intergovernmental forums … identify and minimise the risk of conflicts of interest”.
Far from a radical call for governments to distance themselves from the fossil fuel lobby, it merely asked for a report on how conflicts of interest have been dealt with in other forums.
But that request was deleted from the final report from the meeting and a “technical glitch” meant an objection raised by Ecuador on behalf of the majority of the world’s population was ignored.
The Venezuelan delegation spoke strongly about the issue:
But the EU, Australia and the US rose to speak against any exclusion of fossil fuel lobbyists.
The Australian delegation framed the issue as one where developing countries were trying to make the process less “open”, despite supporting measures in the tobacco control treaty to lock out the tobacco industry:
Australia also argued the concept of “conflict of interest” itself was too hard to define, despite the issue being grappled with in many other forums:
The US delegation also framed the issue as one where they were trying to be as inclusive as possible. “We oppose constraining NGO participation in the UNFCCC process,” the US delegation said.
Besides having access to meetings as observers, with no conflict of interest screening, the unprecedented level of corporate influence on the implementation of the Paris agreement was formalised in the global climate action agenda, through which corporations who make carbon-cutting pledges get high-level access to the meetings, can organise side events in the “civil society village”, promote their products in a “gallery” and sponsor the conference.
Kingsley Faulkner is the deputy president of the Australian Council of Smoking and Health as well as the national chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
Faulkner says the exclusion of the smoking lobby from tobacco control forums was essential and that there are clear parallels to the fossil fuel lobby.
“Bodies that make these decisions should be looking very seriously at who they allow into the policy-making groups and see in whose interests they are talking,” Faulkner says. “And if you do that, of course, you clamp down on the fossil fuel lobby.
“There are a number of real examples where industries have huge influence on public policy, to the detriment of the health of the community.
“If politicians are serious about saying their first priority is the security and the wellbeing of the community then they’re going about it in a bad way if they allow the fossil fuel lobby to put that at risk.”