Trouble always comes in threes: Big polluters; the Polish Government and the UN

By Corporate Europe Observatory, with research contributions by Karolina Jankowska

It is an inauspicious sign for the outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP19, that Poland, a country heavily dependent on coal and notorious for blocking more ambitious climate change policy at the EU level, is this year's host for the meeting. The Polish Government has invited private corporate sponsorship of the COP – a first for the conference – raising questions of whether this is being taken seriously as an international meeting of paramount importance, or a facilitated lobbying opportunity for those who have a direct commercial interest in burning more fossil fuels. The fact that one business sponsor, the steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal, paid for the building of the structures housing the international meeting – and has its logo on it – is powerfully emblematic of how corporations have captured the COP process itself1. Meanwhile the International Coal and Climate Summit run by the World Coal Association is taking place as a parallel event, with the support of the Polish Ministry of the Economy; they have issued a joint 'Warsaw Communique' proposing the non-existent “clean coal” to fight climate change.

Corporate capture is not an exclusively Polish problem, however – the UN has increasingly opened its doors to corporate participation at each successive COP meeting. It seems that ultimately those most responsible for the climate crisis are the ones calling the shots.

Talks which should be fuelled by the urgency to solve climate change are increasingly resembling business fairs, a fertile ground for carbon crooks to spin false solutions that are designed to allow them to keep burning fossil fuels while lining their pockets. Their heavy participation is a block on real progress – for example, business associations like the International Chamber of Commerce demand that all countries be treated equally regardless of their historical responsibility for carbon emissions – and a crucial factor in the COP's failure to reach an agreement thus far. Therefore COP19, which followed the horror of typhoon Yolanda devastating the Philippines, is ignoring the crucial questions – how are we going to leave fossils fuel in the ground? How do we ensure a just transition? How do we make sure the North pays its climate debt to the South? The UNFCCC was meant to be the forum to discuss all this and find way forwards. However, lack of political will and the capitulation to corporate pressure is preventing this from happening.


One of the three most coal dependent countries in the world, this years climate talks host, the Polish Government, is planning the construction of several new coal power plants and mines. It sees its coal industry as the guarantee of energy security based on domestic resources, thousands of jobs and economic growth. This might help to explain the government's obstructionist position towards climate change policy. The country has a track record blocking almost every attempt to make EU climate policy a bit more ambitious. For example it demanded that the Polish (coal-fired) power sector was exempt from paying permits to pollute under the Emission Trading System (ETS) in order for the country to stop blocking the EU's climate and energy package. This obstructionism continues even when the proposals in question wouldn't ask Europe to cut its emissions at source but instead allow it continue to pollute, as is the case with the Commission's “Low Carbon Roadmap for Moving to a Low Carbon Economy” and the “Energy Roadmap 2050”. The Polish Government still vetoed them three times2.

And the Polish Government is not scoring any better at UN climate talks. At COP18 in Doha, it continued to oppose any attempt of rising EU climate policy ambitions, and at the last meeting of EU environmental ministers in Luxembourg – devoted to the formulating of a common EU position for COP19 – the Polish Government refused to include the commitment to increase the EU emissions reduction target to 30% (a target in itself totally insufficient); a veto the Polish Minister of Environment regarded as a “Polish success”3.

The government's opposition to more ambitious climate policy is not a surprise if we take a look at the country's carbon dioxide emissions per capita, well over the EU average as one of the least efficient EU economies. Almost all Polish electricity (more than 90%) is produced from coal and the government is in the process of approving heavy new coal infrastructure. The government wholly or majority owns major polluters and pro-fossil fuel lobbies, including two of COP19 partners PGE and Lotos Group. Having the Polish Government presiding over the climate talks is like handing them to the coal industry – one of the biggest climate culprits – and allows almost no chance of setting the talks into the right direction.

How the UN learned to love big business

This year's COP is the most corporate-captured in the history of the UNFCCC negotiations, with representatives of big corporations ubiquitous in the process.

However, the trend of big business steadily increasing their influence in the COP meetings has been a long term process ever since the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The nature of this corporate influence follows two broad tracks. The first is to push for false solutions to climate change – “clean coal” anyone? – that allow for business as usual. Another example of solutions that don't solve the problem are the market-based mechanisms (carbon markets) offered as the main way to implement the obligations of the Kyoto Protocol. Carbon markets have brought millions of euros in windfall profits to big business and industry whilst allowing them and the Northern countries to continue without making domestic emissions reductions. The second strategy, something we can see playing out strongly in Warsaw, is industry positioning to get an increasingly institutional role within the UN climate negotiations to preempt any chance of passing a decision that goes against their commercial interests..

Although officially, business is just one of nine major constituencies to this process recognised by the UN – which also include for example youth delegations and environmental NGOs – in reality they pack a far more powerful punch than the others.

The two key corporate lobby groups involved in this process are the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). The WBCSD is a club of some 200 companies, including some of the biggest climate culprits such as Shell, Vale and BP, as well as official corporate sponsors BMW and ArcelorMittal, all of whom have specialised in re-branding big business as the solution to – and not the cause of – environmental problems. The ICC – a powerful force behind trade and investment liberalisation – has also helped to put multinational corporations like Monsanto and Exxon Mobil at the centre of the UN processes. For example, at COP16 in Cancun, with the help of these groups the Mexican Government organised the 'Mexican Dialogues': a set of processes to increase the role of business to directly negotiate on the issues of more importance to them, such as carbon markets, or technology4. Similarly, in 2010 the WBCSD was awarded a contract by the European Commission to investigate options for how to increase the role of businesses in the UNFCCC5.

For many years the WBCSD and the ICC have organised 'Business Days' during COPs where industry takes advantage of privileged access to the UN negotiators. This year is no exception, though the WBCSD this time has partnered with World Climate Ltd – led by former World Economic Forum's André Schneider, a group which since COP16 in 2010 (Cancun) has organised so-called World Climate Summits – another fora where top officials mingle with big polluters and herald carbon markets and other false solutions as progress in the fight against climate change.

Warsaw – a feast for polluters

COP19 has stepped up the pace of corporate capture of the process; and Warsaw has made this a particularly smooth path for industry. During this COP, the Polish Ministry of Environment has facilitated corporate access to formal negotiations and to top officials. Meanwhile climate youth showing peaceful solidarity with the Philippines negotiator – who in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda decided to fast until the talks take some meaningful decisions – have been kicked out of the COP altogether.

Aside from the WBCSD and World Climate Ltd's “Climate Solutions” Business Day (17-18 November), and the International Coal & Climate Summit in Warsaw on 18-19 November organised by the World Coal Association (the industry lobby) with the Polish Ministry of Economy, there have been many other opportunities for lobbying and corporate interaction. In an unprecedented move the Polish Government invited business to join the official negotiations during the the PreCOP meeting of Environmental Ministers from 2-4 October in Warsaw. Business participation was organised in collaboration with Lewiatan, the Polish employers federation and member of BusinessEurope, Brussels' most powerful and actively anti-climate action business lobby. And last but not least, corporations are the only partners and sponsors of COP19.

The idea of sponsorship came from the UN Global Compact – a UN initiative involving 6000 companies that has been accused of whitewashing corporate reputations, which get the UN seal of approval for signing on to a series of non-binding and non- enforced principles on environment, labour and social rights6. One of the Compact officials, questioned in a public event, said that as it was business that would have to put international climate policy into practice, it was necessary to hear what kind of climate policy they thought was needed, possible and workable7. In his opinion, up till now there had been too little discussion with business in the UNFCCC process, but starting with the COP19 business should be more involved in the global climate negotiations8. Similarly, Polish Minister of Environment, Marcin Korolec, addressed the question of why there was a special day for business, saying that all the COPs were generally "feast days" for civil society and they had always been present at COPs, unlike business9; thus it was time to start talking with and listening to business as well10.

All of which begs the question, what will be the outcome of a climate change conference which has created more formal and official channels for businesses whose profits depend on burning fossil fuels than any COP before? The outlook is bleak.

Greenwashing the sponsors of COP19

There are 13 official corporate business partners of COP19, namely ALSTOM Power, ArcelorMittal Poland, BMW Group Poland, Emirates, Europress Poland, General Motors Poland Sp, LOTOS Group, International Paper – Kwidzyn, Kaspersky Lab Poland, LeasePlan Fleet Management (Poland), PGE Polish Energy Group, Leroy Merlin Poland and IKEA11. Many of them are highly energy-intensive companies and/or are operating in the conventional energy sector; all create serious negative environmental and climate impacts from their business activities12. Their contributions to the conference infrastructure are not superficial: ArcelorMittal is covering the construction costs for the structures housing the conference itself, Alstom Power the water coolers and cups, BMW is providing cars, Emirates is providing discounts for flights, General Motors a fleet of vans, and so on.

Sponsoring the UN climate talks greatly help those companies to greenwash their damaging business activities – and the reality of their lobbying to continue burning fossil fuels and profiting from carbon markets, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and other false solutions.

However, the Polish Ministry of Environment claims that companies were approached to be sponsored based on their green credentials. This assertion is easily disproved. According to documents obtained through the freedom of information regulations, these companies were selected by a team established in the Ministry of Environment. The letter of intent was sent to over 150 firms not based on their green credentials but based on their “financial capacities and possibilities for eventual provision of the expected services and products during the COP19”13,14,15. In the letter of intent sent to prospective sponsors, the Minister emphasized that, “Realization of such a prestigious event is an exceptional opportunity for the host as well as for his partners to promote themselves, both in Poland and on the international level. It is an ideal occasion to manifest in society the engagement in climate protection and propagation of ecological attitudes”16.

Unfortunately, there are no minutes of the meetings that the Ministry held with companies interested, so we do not know what might have been offered or promised in exchange for sponsorship.

The products and services offered by the selected companies are described by the Ministry of Environment as “green”, and this form of sponsorship for the organization of COP19 as “professional”, allowing them, “to reduce the costs of organizing the conference from public sources”17. However, it would be naïve to imagine that the only thing the partner companies expect in return is “the opportunity to promote their activities on an international scale” by receiving “the title of a partner supporting the Polish Government in organizing COP19, as well as the right to provide information about their role in the organization of the Summit in their commercial materials”18. This is not just a greenwashing opportunity, but an opportunity to influence climate policy outcomes.

Head to head: business meets the negotiators

The increasing influence industry has gained influence over the COP is made clear in the way that for the first time they have been invited into the official process itself, not just at informal talks. Meanwhile, civil society groups who asked to also take part at the preCOP meeting were denied access. The participation of business in the preCOP was organized by the Confederation Lewiatan and the Polish Ministry of Environment. The following global corporations, Polish companies and business organizations were invited by the organizers and took part in this meeting: Alstom, ArcelorMittal, BASF, CEMEX, Intel, International Paper Kwidzyn S.A., General Electric, Philips, LOTOS Group, CEZ, Dalkia, CitiBank, Business Europe, Lewiatan, Symid, US Chamber of Commerce - US Council for International Business, PGE, Keidanren, Business New Zealand, Brazilian Industry Confederation (CNI), The Climate Markets & Investment Association, European Economic and Social Committee, and Cleantech Poland19,20.

Lewiatan together with BusinessEurope21 – issued a common statement entitled “European Business Key Messages for PRE-COP Meeting”. It calls on governments “to ensure that actions taken to address climate change can assist economic growth and development22”, and demands that any global climate agreement “should build up the creation of the market-based approach (…) as it gives an economic incentive for sectors to reduce their emissions in a technology-neutral way”23. In other words, they want more carbon markets and a free pass for all controversial technologies such as CCS, nuclear and agrofuels.

Lewiatan saw the participation of business in the PreCOP as necessary, giving business cause for optimism that the climate negotiations process would take place with the inclusion of their voices, which they felt had been so far excluded from the mainstream24. The Day was framed around business expectations for a new global agreement, financing and development of technologies and increased business participation25. Business standard discourse for a new agreement is that they support one – but one which covers all competitors and treats all countries equally – which, because it ignores the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (which puts the bigger burden of emission cuts to the countries more responsible of creating the problem in the first place) is a position that de facto blocks an agreement.

Interestingly, business presented public funding and support through the Green Climate Fund (GCF) or public private partnerships (PPPs) almost as a condition for more private investments by them into climate protection26. It seems that industry wishes to continue with its dirty and carbon intensive “business as usual” and to get governments to cough up public money in order to do so.

Last but not least, business representatives at the PreCOP proposed that they should be included as a permanent fixture in formulating a new climate agreement to be concluded in Paris in 2015. They created a roadmap for cooperation between industry and the UNFCCC administration "on the way to Paris"27. Polish Environment Minister Marcin Korolec seemed happy to oblige, and announced that the corporations' seat at the official table becomes permanent: “The incoming President indicated his intention to turn business community involvement in the process permanent starting with COP19/CMP9/... We will work with the future COP Presidencies, in order to ensure that they continue this practice.” 

Coal industry suggests saving climate by burning coal...

It is important to note that coal is the most polluting of all fossil fuels and the largest single source of global warming pollution in the world. Thus, one of the most controversial demonstrations of the corporate capture of the COP19, and of the willing role played by the Polish host, was the International Coal & Climate Summit held in parallel to the UNFCCC. It was organised by the World Coal Association in Warsaw on 18-19 November and in their words brings together “the leadership of the world's largest coal producing companies, senior policy-makers, business leaders, academics and NGO representatives to discuss the role of coal in the global economy, in the context of the climate change agenda”28.

They could not have had a bigger welcome from host country Poland; the event took place at the Ministry of Economy in Warsaw. Poland's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy, Janusz Piechociński and UNFCCC's Head Christiana Figueres all gave opening speeches29 endorsing the role of the coal industry in any future climate deal.

On 24 June, in the run-up to this Summit, Head of the World Coal Association Milton Catelin, had a meeting with the Polish Minister of Economy. According to files released through freedom of information requests, the Minister merely made some amendments to the draft “Warsaw Communiqué” which had been written by the World Coal Association, which was then released as a joint statement of the Polish Ministry and the World Coal Association30. Corporate Europe Observatory has asked to get access to both texts (with and without the amendments) but the Ministry has refused to answer.

The authors of the communiqué argue that climate protection is possible “while allowing coal to continue playing its role as an affordable, abundant, easily accessible source of energy”31. In order to protect the climate while further burning coal “the use and deployment of more efficient coal technologies to tackle climate change” must be supported, they say32. Not very surprisingly, the coal industry presents coal as a solution to climate change – together with carbon capture and storage or CCS (a technology not expected to be ready for commercial use until 2030 and with hugely controversial risks) and high-polluting coal combustion technologies aimed at rebranding dirty coal as 'clean' coal.

An official signing ceremony was held at the Summit and “The Warsaw Communiqué”, with a list of all signatories, was delivered to the President of the COP1933.

Inevitably the Coal and Climate summit has been the target of protests and actions, as clearly the interests of the coal industry – no matter how 'clean' they describe their coal to be – runs in opposition to the only way to tackle climate change: namely, to leave fossil fuel in the ground, and this includes leaving the coal in the hole.

Conclusion: UN at the climate crossroads

For the Polish Governent, a country so dependent on the fossil fuel industry, to capitulate so completely to corporate priorities is one thing – for the UN to is quite another. It is certainly shameful that the Polish host is facilitating the involvement of big businesses at so many levels of the COP process; in particular those same companies who, through a myriad of lobby groups are pushing for false solutions while creating the problem of climate change in the first place. However, for the UN to not only accept this but facilitate it means that it is becoming part of the problem.

To rub salt in the wound, the UN Global Compact, in cooperation with WWF, UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program), the UNFCCC itself, and others, released at the end of week one of the COP, a “Guide for Responsible Corporate Engagement in Climate Policy”34. The guide, while recognising the negative role of the fossil fuel industry on effective climate policy, also adds to the greenwash of many big polluters who claim to be climate saviours. It follows the flawed approach of the UN's toothless Global Compact, that is, of praising 'enlightened' corporations which only seem to need to adapt their rhetoric. Needless to say the guide's recommended voluntary guidelines for corporate lobbying around climate are painfully inadequate.

What we have seen with COP19 goes totally the opposite direction to the one required – that is, it opens up the negotiations to corporations with an awful climate policy track record. And toothless recommendations will not change this – we need rules that genuinely and effectively close access to climate policy lobbying by corporations whose direct commercial interest is burning fossils fuels and profiting from false solutions. These should be rules that also force COP Presidents such as the Polish Government to comply. As a statement35 denouncing the corporate capture of COP19 signed by over 150 groups, networks and movements all over the world says, the UN “has to stop yielding to corporate power and their lobby groups, stand to them and enable a just transition to a post-fossil fuel society.”36


This article continues after the banner

Subscribe to our newsletter