Masks off, gloves off

Oil and gas companies turn record profits, while their fossil-fuelled emissions rapidly accelerate climate change. Tackling the problem means challenging these powerful economic interests and the political access it affords them


At COP26, Glasgow, the fossil fuel industry had over 500 registered delegates, more than the host nation. ©IISD/ENB

A third of Pakistan was under water this August due to extreme flooding. Millions lost loved ones and livelihoods. Climate change is impacting those that did the least to cause it, but not only them. In Europe, Australia, and North America, historically the biggest emitters, every year brings increasingly severe forest fires, droughts, and floods. 

Three-quarters of climate-warming emissions come from burning fossil fuels. Limiting temperatures to 1.5°C, as outlined in COP21’s Paris Agreement, means leaving the vast majority of known reserves in the ground. However, doing so challenges the financial interests of one of the most powerful industries in the world. A recent study by Professor Aviel Verbruggen shows the oil and gas industry has made €3 billion a day for the last 50 years, while quarterly profit postings by the likes of BP, Shell, and Exxon have broken all records. To ensure these profits continue, the industry has spent billions on lobbying decision-makers at national, regional, and UN level. Their aim has been to weaken or delay policies that could wean the economy off their core product. 

Should the UN, which prides itself on multilateralism, still allow these companies to take part in the negotiations when there is such an obvious conflict of interest? The UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) could look to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) for inspiration on how to address the conflict and protect public interest policymaking from vested interests. There is an opportunity to do so at COP27. If grasped, the world may yet find the ambition needed to avert catastrophic climate change.

Problem of lobbying

Oil companies like Shell, Exxon, and Total knew the impact on the climate of burning fossil fuels decades ago. Rather than acting, which would mean jeopardizing their business models, they sowed doubt around the science and manufactured their own “facts.”

While today they are publicly more accepting of the science, they continue to lobby against policies which would reduce the use of fossil fuels, such as renewable energy targets. Instead, oil and gas majors and their lobby groups argue for “technology-neutral” policies, which would allow industry itself to decide how to cut emissions. Carbon markets fit this bill and have been a key policy repeatedly championed by the fossil fuel industry. 

In the European Union, BP was key in successfully lobbying for the bloc’s flagship emissions trading system (EU ETS), defeating the campaign for a carbon tax. Once its policy had been accepted, the fossil fuel industry and its lobby groups then set about introducing numerous loopholes to weaken its effectiveness and boost profits. Between 2008 and 2014, energy-intensive companies made €24 billion in windfall profits thanks to free handouts of emission permits, while the ETS’s impact on emission reductions was negligible. 

Any successful lobbying depends on political access. In the first two and a half years of the current EU administration, headed up by Ursula von der Leyen, research by Friends of the Earth Europe revealed that the EU had 500 meetings with the fossil fuel industry – the equivalent of almost one every working day.

At COP26 in Glasgow, an investigation by Corporate Europe Observatory, Corporate Accountability, Global Witness, and Glasgow Calls Out Polluters revealed the fossil fuel industry to have the largest delegation at the talks. More than 500 lobbyists were registered to attend, more than twice the size of the delegation of the host nation. Canada’s delegation included lobbyists from Alberta tar sands company Suncor. 

The delegation of Equinor, Norway’s state-owned oil and gas giant, included Amber Rudd, chair of its UK International Advisory Group. Until September 2019 Rudd was a UK cabinet minister under Prime Minister Boris Johnson and had previously served as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate, before going through the revolving door. Hiring ex-politicians is a common way for fossil fuel companies to gain political access, profiting from their existing networks and know-how.

Oil and gas industry influence was evident in the UN negotiating halls. While the final text references “phasing down” coal, the conspicuous absence of oil and gas alongside it are a testament to the power of their lobby groups. David Hone, head of climate at Shell, had previously boasted during a side event at COP24 that his oil company helped write part of the Paris Agreement: the part that included carbon markets. 

While the oil and gas majors make public statements in support of the Paris Agreement, their business plans foresee an increase in fossil fuel production up to 2030 and continued extraction beyond 2050. PR and lobbying play an important role in hiding this contradiction. In the three years following COP21, InfluenceMap research shows the five oil and gas majors (Shell, BP, Total, Chevron, and Exxon) spent more than USD 1 billion on misleading climate-related PR and lobbying. Clearly going against the goals of the Agreement, the desired outcome was to maintain the companies’ social license and justify expanding fossil fuel operations. These figures are not one-offs, and consistently high spending is a key reason why they secure such high levels of political access. Respecting the Paris Agreement and keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C requires addressing the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry.

Learning from the tobacco treaty

Public health officials faced the same obstacles and tactics from the tobacco industry that we see today from the fossil fuel industry. That’s why the WHO included Article 5.3 in its FCTC, which recognizes the “fundamental and irreconcilable” conflict between the interests of the tobacco lobby and the interests of public health officials. To unlock the necessary ambition, the FCTC called on governments to “protect public health policies from the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.” In practice this meant a firewall between public health officials and the tobacco industry, limiting lobbyists’ access to only when strictly necessary for regulating. This firewall applied not just at the UN level, but also to every government that signed the treaty.

The parallels are clear, which is why countries representing almost 70% of the world’s population have called for a conflict-of-interest policy at the UNFCCC. These have been mirrored by civil-society groups from around the world. However, progress has been consistently blocked by the US, EU, and other historical polluters such as Canada and New Zealand. In the vacuum, national and regional-level initiatives have sprung up in the EU under the Fossil Free Politics campaign, launched by Corporate Europe Observatory, Friends of the Earth Europe, and Greenpeace Europe.

COP27 represents an important opportunity to once again address conflicts of interest at the UN level. The UNFCCC secretariat – ordinarily in favor of a multi-stakeholder, “everyone is welcome” approach – is now conducting its own review around participation at the talks. A public campaign to “Kick Big Polluters Out” has been launched to build broad-based support. Inside the talks, a cross-constituency coalition of environmental, youth, feminist, and trade union groups has come together around the issue for the first time. It’s calling for a conflict-of-interest policy and an accountability mechanism to enforce and monitor it. If successful, it could greatly reduce the influence of the fossil fuel industry and other climate-harming interests over the talks and unblock much-needed ambition. If it fails, given the current trajectory, that ambition is unlikely to materialize.

With the stakes so high, we must urgently address these vested interests. As one longstanding observer of the negotiations put it: “When you’re trying to burn the table down, you don’t deserve a seat at it.”

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