A Matter of Interest: How the Fossil Fuel Industry Is Influencing Global Climate Policy

Thursday, May 18,2017

Imagine if you wanted to enact an international convention to protect humans from the health hazards of smoking tobacco. Would you allow the biggest tobacco companies to decide the specifics of that convention?

Probably not, as it would seem illogical to do so, which is exactly what happened with the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Under Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), parties are required to protect tobacco control policies “from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law”.

However, another international instrument, possibly the most important of our times, the Paris Agreement which came into force in October 2016, remains vulnerable to influence by the fossil fuel industry marred by conflict of interest (CoI).

I am currently reporting from the Climate Change Conference in Bonn, which is an intersession to prepare for the Conference of Parties in November 2017, between May 8-18, 2017. Last week, the UNFCCC organised a workshop “on opportunities to further enhance the effective engagement of non-Party stakeholders with a view to strengthening the implementation of the provisions.” A crucial discussion in the workshop was the issue of conflict of interest, whether business interests such as fossil fuel industries which contribute to man-made climate change, should be allowed the degree of influence and access to the negotiations of the Paris Agreement which they currently enjoy.

Last year, at the Conference of Parties in Marrakesh, countries like Ecuador, Venezuela and the Like Minded Group of Developing Countries stressed on the need to prevent CoI at the UNFCCC whereas parties such as Australia, EU and the US protested such a policy. It is hardly coincidental that some of the biggest fossil fuel industries are from the latter countries.

In the run up to the Bonn conference, Corporate Accountability International, released a detailed report titled Inside Job: Big Polluters' lobbyists on the inside at the UNFCCC, which analyses the inherent CoI between the fossil fuel industry being allowed to influence the negotiations on the Paris Agreement, possibly the only shot that the global community has to contain climate change.

The CAI Report emphatically states that there are two major priorities for the UNFCCC to establish: first, to clearly define CoI for the purpose of the climate negotiations, and second, to ensure that governments establish a transparent procedure for admission to the talks, so that parties motivated by public interest rather than private interest are represented at the talks.

The report lists several organisations which are currently admitted non-party stakeholders at the UNFCCC, but have had a long standing record of jeopardising the climate justice movement, denying man-made climate change, and publishing misleading scientific research to influence climate policies.

One such organisation is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has:

- consistently criticized the goals of the Paris Agreement;

-has still not accepted that climate change is caused by human activity;

- considers fossil fuel production as one of its top priorities;

- has repeatedly litigated measures such as the Clean Power Plan in the US;

-has supported pipeline projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline which would harm the lands of indigenous communities;

-and has published misleading scientific research to protect the interests of the fossil fuel lobby.

In 2015, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation was granted USD 1 million for “public information and policy research,” along with a pledge of USD 5 million between 2014 and 2018. It is has also received funding from other big climate polluters such as Chevron and Peabody Energy. It is therefore difficult to believe that the USCC’s position on climate change is a coincidence.

Another organisation admitted to the UNFCCC is FuelsEurope, which although recognises the role of human activity in climate change, continues to prioritise business interest over global environmental interests and has shirked the EU’s responsibility in paying for its historic emissions.

FuelsEurope’s paying members include some of the biggest polluting companies such as BP, Exxon Mobil, Shell, Statoil among others.

Down South, the Business Council of Australia (BCA) too is an admitted non-party stakeholder at the UNFCCC. The BCA’s President is the director of BHP Billiton, an oil and gas mining company, accused of pollution to the point of human rights violation. Its members include BP and Chevron, and the BCA has consistently maintained positions such as curbing global warming being unrealistic and opposing carbon taxes in Australia.

The CAI report therefore highlights the inherent problem with allowing polluters to have unfettered access to the decision making process which is supposed to inherently regulate that pollution. In the workshop in Bonn, the delegation from Ecuador repeatedly emphasized on the need for having a definition of CoI, so that the integrity of the UNFCCC was not compromised by vested interests. This stance was supported by Venezuela, Cuba and Uganda.

Most other countries supported an approach which would be “inclusive”. Australia on the other hand, maintained its unyielding opposition to the issue of CoI by stating that they did not recognise differentiation between private and public sector parties and characterised it as a freedom of speech issue, and did not support any discussion on CoI.

The question therefore is whether creating a CoI policy inherently means excluding business interests from the climate negotiations process. However much the fossil-fuel lobby would like to conflate the two, there is a clear distinction between being transparent and accountable with respect to one’s interests and blatantly excluding businesses all together.

The interests of the international community at large should not be compromised for the narrow interests of a select group of fossil fuel companies. At the same time, it is also true that participation of the business sector with respect to advancing technology, is indispensible if we are to successfully implement the Paris Agreement.

The debate is currently heating up in Bonn, and we are awaiting a decision on CoI. A transparent and clearly defined CoI policy is essential if we are to truly protect the spirit and the goals of the Paris Agreement and if we are to have a fighting chance of limiting climate change to under 2° Celsius.

( The writer is an Environmental Law Researcher at the University of Cologne, Germany; formerly an Advcoate at the National Green Tribunal in India. )

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