The Sustainable Innovation Forum 2015: Flashy greenwash at an exclusive corporate love-in

Big corporate polluters - with the help of their multi-million dollar marketing and PR departments, cutting edge lobby consultancies and well-connected trade associations - have succeeded in infiltrating, undermining, subverting and weakening climate policy. The result is that COP21 resembles a trade fair for dirty companies. Fossil fuel companies and their financiers sponsor the talks and high-profile greenwashing events are everywhere you look. Voluntary, non-binding partnerships with business are being presented as positive outcomes, whilst public money for the most vulnerable to, and least responsible for, climate change is being filtered off to multinationals to “leverage” their investments. And business-friendly techno-fixes and market-based “solutions” are gaining acceptance as the silver bullets that will allow the lifestyles and power structures of the rich to remain unchallenged – whilst we plummet head on into climate crisis.

By Rachel Tansey

In light of this, I have been traipsing around some of the many corporate events suffocating the Paris climate talks, a fly on the wall witnessing the pseudo-inspring words and greenwash of some of those who've profited most from causing the climate crisis. The beginning of this week, the final week of the talks, was host to what described itself as the “biggest and most prestigious business forum at COP21”, the Sustainable Innovation Forum 2015 (#SIF15). Over the two days in the shiny conference centre of the Stade de France, its high-profile guests included US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, and Scottish First Minister Nicola Surgeon. I went along to day one, on behalf of the New Internationalist (and as press, avoided the $400-500 ticket price).

Organised by Climate Action (whose “products and service providers” include companies with dodgy records on human rights and environmental damage such as Anglo American, EDF, New Holland Agriculture, Vale, Barclays and Maersk), the event's sponsors included BMW, Coca-Cola, Vattenfall and BNP Paribas. The 750 strong audience was told that they had been carefully selected, from all sectors, out of the 5000 who applied, as the ones that will make the change happen. Given that SIF15's website referred to its “strict eligibility criteria” and made clear that there is no “funding or support to NGOs to attend this event” (the category for which was closed at least 4 weeks before the event, whilst the others remained open), it is perhaps not surprising that during my time at SIF15 there was a complete absence of critical voices or dissenting opinions.

The business event was opened by Achim Steiner, Undersecretary-General of the UN and Executive Director of UN Environment Programme (UNEP) – which co-hosted the event. Steiner was full of appreciation for this “now traditional” big business jamboree, a message echoed by Hakima El Haite, Environment Minister of Morocco, the host of next year's climate talks, who emphasised that “we can't do this without business.” Next up was headline sponsor BMW, deferentially welcomed to the stage for a “high level business address” by board member Peter Schwarzenbauer. He assured us that BMW is not merely courting the notion of sustainable mobility at this event, “it has become part of our company culture”. This heart-warming assertion is, unfortunately, a fairytale. For example, at EU-level BMW lobbied tirelessly against emissions reduction targets for the car industry, pulling strings with the Angela Merkel to delay EU rules. Yet at the same time as lobbying governments (last year spending €1.5 million lobbying the EU) to make sure it can continue making fuel-guzzling, emissions intensive big cars, it has been claiming green credentials by promoting its i3 electric car series (which make up a miniscule fraction of its cars sold). One very shiny example of which was parked in the middle of the conference. Despite this strategic hypocrisy, Schwarzenbauer spent considerable time blowing BMW's green trumpet, expounding the key role business has to play in addressing climate change. He went on to urge Paris to get an agreement with a standardised global CO2 price for emissions, which he said would achieve targets at the lowest cost to society and drive low carbon innovation - a favoured myth of the corporate and neo-liberal elites.

Next up was – no surprises - a session on Carbon Pricing and Markets. The German Environment Ministry talked of their “positive” experience with the EU's carbon market, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which enables companies to choose where to cut emissions – leaving out that the ETS has failed to reduce domestic emissions whilst lining the pockets of the most egregious polluters. The panel also featured Swedish energy firm Vattenfall (primarily fossil fuels and nuclear). Vattenfall has shown that it won't shy away from protecting its polluting interests, even at the expense of democratic decisions: it has used investor protection mechanisms in free trade deals – another neo-liberal threat to environmental protection – to undermine environmental decisions. It has sued German for €4.7 billion over its post-Fukushima decision to scrap two nuclear power plants, and succeeded in getting Germany to water down coal plant environmental regulations, after demanding enormous compensation for loss of anticipated profits. Yet Vattenfall's Deputy CEO Ingrid Bonde spoke of how their whole sector is embracing the change - they just “need a little help to do so”. In other words, a plea for public climate money to flow to the very corporations that profit from polluting. Bonde also expressed the view that with functioning market mechanisms, linked around the world, “the market will sort everything out”. (Ever heard that one before...?)

The panel was in agreement that the various regional carbon markets around the world should be linked – indeed, said Anthony Hobley, CEO of Carbon Tracker, “Economic theory tells us so”. But economic theory (ie read: neo-liberal theory) also tells us that the rich getting richer is good because wealth will trickle down, whereas reality shows us that the poor get poorer. In a similar way, linking carbon markets from different national and regional schemes, which each have different social, environmental and carbon accounting standards, will quickly lead to a global race to the bottom. Whilst industry's underpinning motivation for pushing for a global carbon market is to ensure “competitors” from countries in the Global South are also hit with the same costs - despite the fact that these countries are least responsible for climate change, suffer its worst effects, and have less capacity to adapt to it or avoid dirty development pathways. In other words, a global carbon market, with a global carbon price, is an attempt to treat all countries the same way, something which is unacceptable on the grounds of climate justice.

But it was not only carbon markets that were on the menu. BMW appeared again on the subject of sustainable urban mobility. BMW Vice President Glenn Schmidt boasted of the company's car-sharing projects, talked of “mobility portfolios”, and argued that rather than banning cars from city centres, lots of different transport options should be available - “on a level-playing field that allows them to compete”. In other words, don't interfere with our selling cars, don't regulate, and look instead at the token gestures we're making! This is one of the underlying messages of SIF15 - “no need for binding regulation on business, we're doing it anyway, look at our great token gesture/techno-fix/greenwash”. This is a well-established and classic strategy for big business lobbies keen to circumvent rules or legislation that might dent their profits or interfere with their business model: to promote a self-regulatory vision, perhaps creating a set of (non-binding) principles or making a fanfare around their own (voluntary) commitments, which claim to address the issue at stake and demonstrate that the industry is serious. When in fact, other than minor concessions, it allows the industry to continue to protect its commercial interests above all else. The strategy behind this tactic is to pre-empt regulation by – seemingly – rendering it redundant. Unfortunately, this strategy has had great success, at national, EU and UNFCCC levels.

At a networking lunch provided by Coca-Cola (a greenwashing aficionado with a well-documented history of depleting water sources in poor countries, and lobbying against progressive waste and recycling laws and practices), I wondered around the glossy trade stalls of the event's various sponsor . An enthusiastic spokesperson for 'Carbon Bank', a new online trading platform of the Climate Resources Exchange (which boasted the tag-line “Triple bottom line: People Planet Profit”) told users they could trade not just carbon credits, but biodiversity offsets too. This represents a frightening step in the financialisation of nature, based on the fallacious – and dangerous – notion that invaluable and irreplaceable biodiversity can be destroyed in one place and “replaced” elsewhere.

The afternoon brought a panel on 'De-carbonising Global Energy Supply', featuring Carl Pendragon, Co-Founder of Carbon Wealth, a company launching a “new” and space-age sounding technology called Skymining: “the process of literally mining CO2 straight out of the atmosphere, and turning that carbon into Carbon Negative Fuel”. But Skymining turns out just to be burning energy crops grown on “marginal” land. The problem with this is that bioenergy companies' interpretation of marginal land has so often proved to be very different to people whose livlihoods depend on that “marginal” land. According to a spokesperson on their trade stall, the company's start-up project is a plantation of elephant grass on desertified land in Senegal, close to a “fresh water source being wasted into the sea”. Senegal is a country with a history of conflicts over bioenergy projects, as communities rights have been trampled over by foreign company investments. But Pendragon claimed his product was different, urging investment in Skymining to replace coal and gas with his heat-treated elephant grass solid fuel. The amount of land that would be required to produce this amount of energy would be colossal, far surpassing areas of supposed “marginal” land, and as a result fuelling the same land grabs and deforestation that he claims his energy crop avoids.

My day at SIF15 resembled a game of bingo for corporate false solutions, “solutions” which don't address the root causes of climate change, but protect the business models and power of multinationals – regardless of impacts on local communities, environments and climate. But interspersed with the smooth, self-congratulatory presentation of false solutions, were things that actually do make a lot of sense. Such as the importance of energy efficiency (particularly in buildings) and reducing energy demand. However, this should not surprise us, for another favoured distraction technique of corporations that profit from polluting business models is to ride on the coat tails of real solutions. And with multi-million euro marketing budgets and the most expensive minds in the PR business helping polluting corporations present their profit-motivated “solutions” to climate change, it really can be a confusing picture to untangle, especially given the intoxicating glamour of this kind of corporate greenwashing. But the stakes are too high not to.

Despite what will no doubt be heralded as a success in much of the media, the deal that will come out of Paris at the end of this week is set to take us into very dangerous territory indeed: a dramatic shortfall of the action needed to avert catastrophe, in a way that will perpetuate injustice, inequality and conflict. And I fear that looking back, after years of collectively cheering on how well we're doing, how historic our decisions, how ambitious our voluntary goals, we will only be able to regret that the corporate words were so reassuring, their lobby materials so shiny, their suits so well-cut, their events so captivating and their champagne so sparkling, that we were blinded to believe all would be well if we left things in the hands of profit-motivated multinationals with a systemic vested interest in continuing to pollute, and profit from it.

Instead, we need to start by safeguarding climate policy-making from vested interests, beginning with kicking big polluters out of the climate talks, and putting a firewall up between dirty industry lobbying and those responsible for shaping climate policy.

Rachel Tansey is a freelance writer and researcher, working with Corporate Europe Observatory to expose the corporate capture of COP21