Beware the rose-tinted spectacles and don’t bank on a fossil free COP26 just yet

“Big oil need not apply” – this is how some news outlets have excitedly interpreted the recent publication of the UK government’s guidelines for sponsorship of the COP26 climate talks, due to be held in Glasgow in November 2021. If major polluters were to be successfully excluded from sponsoring COP26, this would indeed be historically unprecedented given the fossil fuels industry’s hitherto strong and uninterrupted influence over the talks. However, is this what is actually occurring?

The full text of the government guidelines reads:

The UK Government is seeking sponsors for COP26 who:

  1. Can lend their resources, commitment and expertise to making COP26 a success and help to deliver international action on climate change
  2. Are making real contributions to the fight against climate change, and are aligned with the aims of COP26
  3. Have strong climate credentials. We are looking for businesses who have set ambitious net zero commitments by 2050 or earlier, with a credible short term action plan to achieve this (e.g. Science Based Targets).

But this is still far from being a set of stringent and restrictive criteria on who can sponsor COP26 and who cannot. In fact, it is a veiled way of keeping the door open for fossil fuel companies. The first two criteria are so vague they are effectively meaningless. The third is riding on the government’s low ambitions.

The crux of the problem is that major fossil fuel corporations including BP and Shell have themselves established “net zero” targets which may allow them to sponsor the talks. Many critics have argued that net zero is a fundamentally different to zero emissions targets (more on this below).

The scale of historical emissions from fossil fuel corporations is widely acknowledged as a main contributor to climate change. It is no longer a secret that these corporations have spent billions of dollars on advertising and public relations to improve their image and present themselves as key actors able to design and deliver solutions to climate change. As the Fossil Free Politics campaign highlights, fossil fuel corporations have also used preferential treatment of their industry to influence climate negotiations, “deny science, and delay, weaken, and sabotage climate action”. Ensuring a fossil fuel-free COP26 is therefore an important step towards strong and ambitious climate action being agreed at the talks.

Unless activists maintain scrutiny and pressure on the sponsorship guidelines, however, it could still be the case that net zero loopholes and dubious “offsetting” measures allow the COP to be hijacked by corporate interests.

A brief history of corporate COP sponsorship

Recent years have seen a wide range of corporate polluters and fossil fuel majors using COP sponsorship to influence the talks and limit climate action.

COP25 (Madrid, Spain), 2019 – As Corporate Europe Observatory highlighted, the hastily re-arranged COP25 in Madrid was sponsored by some of Spain’s biggest polluters, including utility companies (Endesa, Iberdrola, Suez), financial institutions which profited from fossil fuel investments (Santander, BBVA, Fundación Abertis) and companies accused of human rights violations (Telefónica, Acciona).

COP24 (Katowice, Poland), 2018 – The Polish government was met with derision in 2018 when it announced that several state owned coal and gas companies would sponsor the talks, including JWS, PGE, Tauron and PGNiG.

COP23 (Bonn, Germany), 2017 – These talks were also sponsored by Spanish energy giant Ibderola and BNP Paribas, another financial institution heavily invested in gas power. Other sponsors included automotive companies BMW and Mini.

COP21 (Paris, France), 2015 – Despite being heralded as a major success owing to the realisation of the Paris Agreement, these talks were used heavily by corporate sponsors as a marketing and lobbying space. Three corporate sponsors (out of 50) had a particularly high carbon footprint: BNP Paribas (again), Engie (a major importer of natural gas) and EDF Energy (a French electric utility that operates several major coal-fired power plants). According to one of Shell’s top executives, they themselves had substantial influence in shaping the Agreement.

Net zero by 2050 – too little, too late?

There are two major reasons why requiring plans for net zero emissions by 2050 leaves enough space for major polluters to sponsor the COP.

The first is that 2050 as a cut-off date is far too late to limit global temperature increases to 1.5Oc, but is in line with the UK government’s own target. These targets make it highly likely that we will see global warming of 3-4Oc – a death sentence for the global south. Setting the target date so far in the future is a deliberate decision to prioritise corporate interests over those of communities in the global south, giving major polluters time to make their operations less carbon intensive without sacrificing profits.

The second, and more important, loophole is “net zero”, meaning that COP sponsors can produce almost any level of carbon emissions as long as these are hypothetically offset in some way. The problem, as Greenpeace has argued, is that carbon offsetting doesn’t have the impact that corporations claim it does, has huge impacts on the global south and cannot counteract high fossil fuel emissions quickly enough to prevent global warming. Carbon trading schemes and other market mechanisms fall down on similar principles – they don’t actually reduce emissions or prevent global warming, they simply displace responsibility to other actors. Not only are such schemes unworkable, they have significant consequences for climate justice as they would enable wealthy nations and polluters to effectively outsource their emissions (and the impacts of climate crisis) to the global south.

Unfortunately, the UK government still sees net zero by 2050 as an acceptable target to meet the demands of the climate emergency. As such, it is quite possible that they could deem climate plans by major polluters like BP and Shell to be “credible”. So the door is not closed on a fossil free COP just yet.

Let’s remove the rose-tinted spectacles and be more realistic about the hard struggles that are still ahead.

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Photo: Protestors oppose Shell pipeline plans in Pittsburgh. Credit: Mark Dixon (Flickr)

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