A fly on the wall of the corporate COP: Through the looking glass

Black-listed from the coal summit, inside the business day and at loggerheads with the US Chamber of Commerce

The first few days of the second week of the international climate talks in Warsaw have been a busy time for a fly on the wall reporter of the corporate capture of COP19. Where big business and polluting industries are attempting to undermine and subvert effective and just climate action, whilst at the same time giving themselves a good coating of greenwash. From being blacklisted from the supposedly open-access, and free for NGO's, International Coal and Climate Summit (put on by the World Coal Association and the Polish Ministry of Economy), to spending a stifling morning with some of the richest and most powerful businessmen in the world at the so called “Climate Solutions” business day. And to top it all off, coming face to face with the notoriously climate sceptic and aggressively anti-climate lobby, the US Chamber of Commerce, in an official COP19 side event.

International Coal Destroys Climate Summit: opposition not welcome

Mid-way through the climate talks, the Monday and Tuesday of the second week (18-19) brought the event that has caused the most outrage of all the corporate lobbying extravaganzas this COP has been privy to: the paradoxically titled "International Coal and Climate Summit" (read more about it in the lobby guide and blog). The UNFCCC secretariat – the body tasked with getting international action to prevent catastrophic climate change – has given what appears as a tacit legitimation of the coal lobby's agenda, with executive secretary Christiana Figueres choosing to address the so-called 'International Coal and Climate Summit', despite calls from both the youth constituency and big environmental groups not to attend the greenwashing event of an industry determined to continue profiting from its massive contributions to climate change. Figueres patronisingly and disturbingly responded to the youth with the suggestion that they would be better-off showing their commitment to climate justice through “ethical consumption” choices. With this background, I was warily anticipating attending the summit, to report both on what big coal and Figueres said, having sent off registration documents to the organisers, who offered free entry to NGOs, nearly two weeks previously.

As I went to enter the column-fronted building housing the Ministry of Economy – temporarily shrouded in a huge red Greenpeace banner asking “Who rules Poland? The coal industry or the people?” held in place by several activists suspended high in the air on ropes – I was told that I was not on the list. I explained that I had registered weeks ago, and was asked my name and organisation again, but before I could say who I was working for, another door attendant interrupted to say, “its ok, I know which organisation you're from”. And no amount of arguing - that suppressing dissent by blacklisting civil society organisations with different views to theirs was unacceptable and made them look very bad - could get me through the doors. So whilst UNFCCC chief Figueres told big coal corporations that they could be “part of the worldwide climate solution” through unproven technologies like 'carbon capture and storage' (see below for description), both of CEO's COP19 attendees were outside taking part in the Polish organised action “Cough for Coal.” With the Greenpeace banner now long since removed by the police and fire-service, a giant pair of inflatable lungs and a battle between the public – demanding healthy lungs and planet (for coal pollution kills approximately 3500 people in Poland every year) – and coal lobbyists was taking the attention of the Polish and international media. See this video, featuring CEO, of the action, to get a better picture of what was going on.

Big business: solution to climate and social crises is... Big business

After an eventful (and cold) morning outside the coal summit, I moved on to attend the second day of the “Climate Solutions” big business summit, 17-18 November, hosted by two business platforms, World Climate Ltd and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (read about WBCSD's history as spin-doctor and greenwash-extraordinaire in the lobby guide). According to its website, all WBCSD “activities at COP 19 have been sponsored by Shell”. Despite charging 750 euros for NGO attendance to the summit, CEO got in after arguing that this fee priced out all but the richest civil society groups, and the organisers - not-so-oblivious to public perception as those of the coal summit – allowed us to attend. Taking place in the ivory tower of the Marriot hotel central high-rise, I arrived just in time to hear Shell's Senior Climate Change Advisor David Hone telling us that carbon pricing is economically efficient, it triggers investment into CCS and incentivises renewables and nuclear. Singing an “unequivocal” song about the wisdom of CCS technology, Hone asserted that it is a very well-developed technology, but its high costs mean governments must co-fund it. Whilst some might imagine wind, solar and other renewable technologies are enough, the “reality” is that we can only achieve zero emissions by continued use of fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS).

In danger of falling of my chair in astonishment at our dear friend Shell's factually-flexible view of things – for CCS is, to put it mildly, decades away from commercial application, with massive doubts overhanging its safety and effectiveness - a question from the floor (SustainUs) mercifully pointed out that CCS isn't a mature or proven technology, whereas renewables are, and that is where we need the investment. Adding that the fossil industry has received 10 times more investment than renewables in last 10 years, and one million times more in the previous 80 years. This point does not however go down too well in a room full of rich, powerful industry Titans, so i'm not too surprised when WBCSD's Managing Director Phillipe Joubert shoots the voice of reason down with the old-trick that there is no fight or competition between renewables and CCS. We need both to keep within 2 degrees, because we will keep using oil and coal. In fact, Joubert tells his questioner, “it is not ok for you to bring that false debate into this room”.

Over the next few hours, prizes for private-interest-disguised-as-public-interest arguments go to South African (mainly coal) power giant EKSOM's Chair Zola Tsotsi for arguing that business should share a bed with governments, including a fully-fledged revolving door; “business needs to move into public sector, not just as advisers and consultants, but to start from there”. Also to the brainwave of calling environmentally, socially and climatically destructive shale gas an issue of “subsurface governance”, and CCS the “return of carbon to the subsurface”. A flick through the programme revealed the clever use of phrases including “paradigm shift”, “transition” and “drastic transformation”. Yet none the so-called Big Ideas in WBSCD's newly launched Action 2020 plan – including CCS and forests as carbon sinks (see False Solution box 'Offsetting with carbon sinks in the guide) – or the topics of its panels – including public private partnerships (PPPs), “green trade” and “game-changer” technologies – add up to anything remotely resembling these grand and progressive titles. WBSCD is a slick operating system, a lobby body which knows how to co-opt the language of its opposition, manipulating political opinion to accept it wholeheartedly as part of the solution – despite fully intending to continue profiting from its contribution to the problem, including the continued burning of fossil fuels.

The summit ended with seven men on a panel entitled “Convergence 2015 – A Roadmap to a Universal Climate Change Agreement”. WBCSD's President Peter Bakker's main message was that “business is here to help and to provide solutions, and yet business is not in the stadium (the COP19 venue), but here at the Marriott hotel, which is extremely frustrating.” Daniel Violetti, UNFCCC chief of staff, suggested that this event should give confidence to governments, showing that business is on board, and added that in order to ensure the elements business wants in the Paris 2015 agreement at COP21, it must make sure that its key asks are reflected already in the draft texts in Lima 2014 (COP20). Andrew Steer, President of the World Resources Institute and ex-special envoy for climate change at the World Bank, emphasises that the “private sector needs to get back into the stadium”, this is “very very important” to ensure a timetable where a year from today, their proposals/offers are on the table, not waiting until the middle of the night in Paris. France's Ambassador for Climate Change Negotiations H. E. Jacques Lapouge, told his audience that “it is very important to be open to all the stakeholders”, though would not confirm whether business will be inside or outside the venue in Paris 2015. In contrast, next year's pre-COP is organised by Venezuela and is exclusively for social movement, groups and civil society organisations. It was also suggested by an audience member, that for “us” - the crème de la crème of big business interests plus the most influential climate policy-makers – to be talking only once a year at this forum (when negotiators already have their position) is not enough, and that they should meet more frequently over the year, at closed-door (no media or outsiders) events, “to build trust between negotiators and business”. The concluding plan was confirmed to be to ensure a COP21 where business “has a seat at the table and is allowed to contribute to the discussions”.

By this point, I was feeling chilled to the bone by this corporate lobby plan from a greenwashing body whose 200 members have a combined revenue of over $7 trillion, and include many companies with well-documented records of human rights and environmental abuse, such as Shell, GDF Suez, Duke Energy, Veolia, Vale, Dow Chemical, Monsanto, E.ON, BP and Rio Tinto, as well as official corporate partners of COP19 BMW, Alstom, ArcelorMittal and International Paper. A plan which declares the intention of securing an even bigger seat at the table (what could that be other than Party status with decision-making power!?) and to get “inside” a stadium that is already plastered in corporate sponsors and full of business and industry-hosted side events (see for example, my previous blog entry, Diary of a Corporate COP), not to mention business infiltrating government delegations left, right and centre! In fact, on my way out of the business day, I met a COP19 delegate for the New Zealand government, John Carnegie, who casually divulged that he actually worked for a business lobby called BusinessNZ, whose members include the likes of BP, Chevron, Deutsche Bank, Meridian Energy Shell and Siemens. And funnily enough, after listening to the dangerous nonsense of WBSCD about business not being on the inside, later the same day I came across its managing director Phillipe Joubert (formerly of COP19 sponsor, dirty energy giant Alstom) inside the stadium, doing a great job of getting his view heard (about the blissful coexistence of CCS and renewables, remember?) at a TV interview in the COP's Climate Change Studio. Here he reiterated the platitude that its not about betting on renewables or on fossil fuels but about portfolio management, “because we need all kinds of technology, including nuclear and CCS as well as renewables”. Despite the IPCC confirming that at least three quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground in order to keep below 2 degrees, let alone sticking to 1.5 degrees, Joubert claims he does not “believe we will not touch the fossil fuels left under ground.” Well if that is the case Mr Joubert, it is because corporate lobby groups like yours infiltrate and manipulate governments and international processes to ensure that they can continue to exploit them.

US Chamber of Commerce “regrets” calling for climate science to be “put on trial”

The following day, Tuesday 19, inside the stadium (where business complained of the outrage that it wasn't present) I attended an official side event hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and others (including BusinessNZ's John Carnegie), entitled “The Roles of Innovation, Investment and Finance in Mitigation and Adaptation”. As our COP19 lobby guide explains, the US Chamber – one of the most powerful national members of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) claims over three million business members, but gets most of its revenues from the top few, like Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Exxon Mobil and Duke Energy. Some companies, including Apple, Nike and Pacific Gas and Electric, left the Chamber in protest against its climate policy; it has consistently blocked attempts at regulating emissions in the US, and has even called for climate science and the US Environmental Protection Agency to be put “on trial.” After listening to more talk about “voluntary carbon markets”, the need for public climate money to go directly to big business to “mobilize” its efforts and the removal of barriers to business profits, staying a fly on the wall reporter ceased to be an option. So I asked the US Chamber representative what, given its lobbying record of fighting emissions reductions laws and its abrasive climate sceptic stance, did it consider its legitimacy to be at the UN climate negotiations? And what did the middle aged white male representative of American corporations answer? First, that I probably didn't understand the complexities of the proposed US law; yes they lobbied against it, but it was a “bad bill” and they make no apologies for this. And as for the Chamber's call for climate science to be put on trial, well, the person who made that remark “regretted it and apologised” - that is not the position of the Chamber. Easy as one two three.

The discussion then moved on to how they can convince those with reservations or sceptical feelings about the good intentions of business. It was suggested that if we just looked more closely at all the public statements big business has made – about seeking a good successful and ambitious climate agreement – then maybe we'd be convinced. And golly gosh, if they're not getting their message across at the COP, where business is “having lots and lots of events”, then they must do more to show – with their statements – what “business is bringing to the table”. Asked about student campaigns for divestment from fossil fuels, panel member Brian Flannery (i'll tell you a bit more about him in a moment) “explained” that business today can't invest in CCS because its too expensive – that will have to be a societal decision (i.e. public money to cover their continued polluting). Oil and gas will be used for the next several decades, maybe longer, and some scenarios show it would be better to keep using oil, with offsetting and capture. “In our groups we're proud of what we've done – we recognise that there are different views, views that haven't taken off, but if they do, then where will the oil and gas come from for the two billion without energy access?” The attitude that there is business on the one side and “good-thinking people” on the other does not, says Flannery, accord with what we think on this panel. So who is this self-righteous champion of climate action and (*coughs*) energy access for the poor? Brian Flannery was ExxonMobil's chief climate adviser at the time of the Copenhagen climate talks (COP15). ExxonMobil spent $27.4 million supporting the climate denial movement between 1998 and 2012.

Industry that profits from pollution has no place in climate-policy making

All of this sustainability spin from big business and industries that profit from polluting, that have deep vested interests in continuing to exploit fossil fuels, and that push false solutions to climate change (see lobby guide for more on this), is permeating through the entire climate negotiations, shifting rhetoric, minds and action away from what really needs to be done to prevent catastrophic climate change. In order to ensure real, effective and just climate action, it is absolutely vital that polluting corporations with everything to gain from climate inaction do not have place at the climate policy-making table. This requires restricting the influence and access of fossil fuel companies (or other industries that depend heavily on overconsumption of fossils fuels) around climate change policy-making, industries which as the above demonstrates, are pushing for a more and more institutionalised and influential role in setting climate policy. There is a precedent in the UN World Health Organisation's global tobacco treaty, Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which requires that governments "shall act to protect [tobacco control] policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry". This followed decades of aggressive lobbying, misinformation campaigns, funding junk-science etc. to discredit the peer-reviewed and public science showing how dangerous tobacco is. The fossil fuel industry is up to the same tricks, with devastating success at weakening and blocking vital progress. It is becoming more urgent than ever that something is done to protect our climate policy-making – and our climate – from the efforts of fossil fuels and big polluting industries to undermine and subvert it. You can read more about one possible way of doing this here.

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