This year’s COP, the 28th United Nations gathering dedicated to environment advances, is an important event bringing together attendees from varied countries to discuss and address global climate challenges. Last year at COP27, there was an explosive fossil fuel event in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The seismic shift is not from a literal big bang but rather the increased representation of fossil fuel lobbyists planning to attend.
The tremor is still felt today as delegates weigh whether registering for what many consider the key global meeting on climate change and booking their flights for COP28 in Dubai is worth their expense and time. One primary concern for many attendees is the weighted presence of the fossil fuel industry and how their voices may shape climate policy and actions.
Some 636 lobbyists from the oil and gas industries attended the COP27 climate conference, an increase of more than 25% from the previous year, outnumbering all other national or corporate delegations. In 2020 in Glasgow, that number was 503. This year, the fossil fuel sector’s delegation is second only to the COP28 host nation, the United Arab Emirates, with 1,070 registered delegates, representing a 10-fold increase over the country’s presence last year.
Reflect on the reaction of some 2022 delegates reported in The Guardian about the scores of fossil fuel delegates who attended COP27:
“The influence of fossil fuel lobbyists is greater than frontline countries and communities. Delegations from African countries and Indigenous communities are dwarfed by representatives of corporate interests”, said the group Kick Big Polluters Out, which campaigns against the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists at the climate negotiations.
Regarding the quality of representation, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once remarked, “The delegates at UN COP meetings exemplify the collective strength and determination of nations, driving us towards a sustainable future. Their dedication and commitment serve as a beacon of hope for our planet and generations to come.”
Others advocate for bringing the industry closer to the decision-making table, citing that their full participation is needed to align policy to actions. Among them, the influential meeting president Sultan al-Jaber. Al-Jaber, closely connected to the fossil fuel industry, has advocated for change and investment in new technologies.
Does the influx of fossil fuel industry delegates detract from the former Secretary General’s expectation for the UN-sponsored COP meetings? Many are voting on that question by choosing to stay home this year. Does that serve society’s and industry’s best interests?
SCIENCE VS GAS-PUMP SALES
Science has established beyond doubt that the window for action to alter our planet’s disastrous climate trajectory is drawing closer and closer to closure. The angst among those unsure if they should make their presence and voices heard in Dubai is influenced by the sheer volume of fossil fuel industry lobbyists registered. Are they there to listen, learn and rally to support change or stymie urgent action through backroom deals and obstinance? Is the fossil fuel industry the fox in the world’s sustainability henhouse?
Fossil fuel companies have participated in previous COP conferences as part of the business and industry constituency. That presence has been subject to scrutiny and suspicion. The sector’s business model is clear — it’s focused on fossil fuel extraction with direct climate change impact. But, to survive and thrive, it must change too. The writing is on the wall and the pressure is, as it must be, being turned up.
Though many fossil fuel companies publicly support the Paris Climate Accords and the COP conversations with commitments to reduce their carbon emissions, it is unclear whether their actions align with their public statements. COP conferences are a platform for stakeholders to engage in discussions and solutions and, importantly, transparently show their progress toward commitments related to climate change. If the fossil fuel industry plans to attend, delegates must raise questions and the media must compare aspirational statements to follow-up.
STATUS QUO OR CHANGE
Many suspect the fossil fuel industry is vested in maintaining the status quo, climate change be damned. Its profitability relies heavily on the continued extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. Transitioning away from the only business they’ve ever known requires significant infrastructure and operating model changes that need enormous investment. It requires countries and companies to ween consumers off cars that drive up to the pump for refueling and purchasing rubber and plastic–oil derivative products.
The fossil fuel industry’s influence on policymaking processes is a given. These companies have lobbied governments for decades, funded political campaigns, and built trade associations to shape energy and climate policies. Attendees at COP28 — people connected to addressing their planet and public health priorities — worry that the industry’s enormous presence will result in worthless outcomes, weakening climate commitments in favor of short-term economic gains instead of long-term sustainability.
The fossil fuel industry spends billions on lobbying efforts that affect business operations and profitability. Among the issues this industry historically prioritizes:
1. Climate and Energy Policies: Efforts aim to shape policies on greenhouse gas emissions regulations, renewable energy standards, carbon pricing mechanisms, and other climate-related measures that impact industry operations and competitiveness.
2. Regulatory Environment: Work to influence regulations related to drilling and extraction practices, environmental protection, land use policies, permitting processes, and safety standards.
3. Taxation and Subsidies: Lobbying activities targeting tax policies, incentives, and subsidies that impact the cost of exploration, production, and transportation of fossil fuels.
4. International Agreements: Influencing international agreements, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, to shape global climate policies that align with their business interests.
It’s that last point that worries attendees heading to COP28. The latest scientific reports, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments, underscore the need for rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid catastrophic consequences. Given the urgency, many in scientific, advocacy, and media communities feel that fossil fuel industry involvement in climate discussions directly conflicts with the speed needed to address the crisis.
As the world grapples with the need for a sustainable and equitable energy transition, addressing these concerns and finding ways to balance industry participation with climate ambition will be crucial for the success and credibility of COP28 and the future of global climate action.
STAY HOME OR GO
Many will cite fossil fuel industry meddling or lack of concrete progress as sufficient reason to watch what happens in Dubai from afar. Fair-balanced influential voices must require checks and balances and a watchful eye over fossil fuel lobbyists. The COP meetings — however tainted — remain essential to the world’s welfare.
Urgent action is needed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, transition to renewable energy sources, adapt to the changes we’re already seeing and work toward building a more sustainable and resilient future for the planet.
Climate change affects ecosystems and biodiversity. Rising temperatures, habitat loss, and changing precipitation patterns will result in species extinction, disrupt the food supply chain, and impact life-sustaining processes such as pollination and water purification. The clock is ticking. Can we afford to sit out COP28 for a better time, settling or set of delegates?
Shutting out an industry that is among the most significant contributors to the problem doesn’t move us closer to solutions. Giving them free rein to the meeting and back-room conversations is equally unacceptable. Staying home removes critical voices from having an impact.
You don’t make peace with your friends. You make it with your enemies. Perhaps we need to bring fossil fuel companies to the table for a good tongue-lashing and see what they are capable and committed to accomplishing to advance people and planetary health. We must hold them accountable under the glare of the world community. To go or stay home? The decision may be critical to global progress. The clock on global sustainability is ticking.