Fossil Fuel Inc.’s outsize presence at talks reflects its influence

  • A confrontation between activists and an oil executive at the U.N. climate talks has highlighted just how much influence fossil fuel producers continue to have over global climate policies.
  • The confrontation involved the same Shell executive who, days earlier, boasted about the company influencing one of the key provisions in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
  • Fossil fuel companies, from oil producers to coal operations, are enjoying a prominent presence at the climate talks in Poland, including as sponsors and as speakers at events throughout the summit.
  • Activists have blasted the U.N. for giving the companies such an important platform, saying that it only confirms their long-held suspicions that the very corporations contributing to the climate crisis are the same ones pushing supposed solutions to the problem.

KATOWICE, Poland — “How did you get here?” asked the angry fossil fuel company executive.

“Have you ever been to Nigeria?” responded the agitated environmental activist.

This was part of an exchange between Swedish environmental activists and a senior executive from oil-and-gas giant Royal Dutch Shell at the ongoing United Nations climate summit in Katowice, Poland.

Not exactly fighting words, but not a friendly conversation either.

What it exposed, though, was just how deeply entrenched parties with a vested interest in fossil fuels are in influencing the global climate pact.

It started after Shell, among the top 10 fossil fuel companies in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, presented its future scenario on climate change, called SKY, during a side event at the climate talks on Dec. 11. Shell’s chief climate change adviser, David Hone, and its projects and technology director, Harry Brekelmans, said solutions ranging from carbon capture technology to hydrogen fuel and market-based mechanisms would be essential to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), as targeted by the Paris Climate Agreement.

Brekelmans responded to charges that Shell had willfully withheld since 1988 knowledge that its fossil fuels were contributing to climate change, saying that no one company was responsible for the current climate situation.

“So we are all responsible for this,” he said. “We can’t be pointing fingers at each other to say that you are unilaterally causing [climate change]. Because we are all enjoying the energy in this room with electricity powered by fossil fuel. There’s no way to say it’s only one party and one actor.”

After the event, Anna Bokström and Johanna Norrbo, environmentalists from Sweden, confronted Hone about Shell’s responsibility for climate change and its operations in the Niger Delta, which have resulted in decades of oil spills that have ruined the homes of more than 40,000 people.

Hone responded that fossil fuels had brought more benefits than they did harm, then turned the argument on Bokström and Norrbo, saying they were complicit by benefiting from the fossil fuel industry themselves.

“How did you get here?” Hone asked Bokström during the 10-minute exchange witnessed by Mongabay.

By train, she replied. Hone pointed out that trains in Poland run on electricity; 80 percent of the country’s electricity comes from burning coal.

“I know I am part of the system,” Bokström told Mongabay later when recounting the exchange. “I don’t want to be a part of the system anymore … killing other people. I think we have to move to something else, and they [Shell] are so into this [fossil fuels], so they never want to do it.”

She added she hadn’t intended to confront Hone at first, “but I felt so frustrated because I’ve been talking to people from Nigeria and they told me about the situation there in the Niger Delta.”

Shell’s 200 gas flares operating in the region have been declared illegal, but continue to burn 24 hours a day. The resultant air pollution and constant spills has caused health problems such as skin irritations and respiratory issues, and affected farming and fishing.

“In the Niger Delta where I come from, we’ve endured 60 years of gross oil pollution and human rights abuse,” said Nnimmo Bassey, from the environmental alliance Health of Mother Earth Foundation.

Bokström asked Hone whether he had ever been to Nigeria to see the devastating impacts that Shell had wrought upon the people living in the Niger Delta, to which he answered that he’d never been to the country.

“Well, maybe you should,” Bokström replied.

She later told Mongabay that the exchange had sent chills down her spine.

“It’s scary, I think, because it’s like you can’t get into their hearts,” she said. “If you could get into their hearts, they wouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing. But their hearts are closed.”

Two Swedish activists, Anna Bokström and Johanna Norrbo (left) talk to Shell’s chief climate change adviser, David Hone (right) at the 24th U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

‘Polluters in the COP’

Mohamed Nasheed, a former president of the Maldives and the head of the island nation’s negotiating team at this year’s climate talks, said that begging polluters to stop destroying the environment based on ethical grounds wasn’t effective.

“The problem is we keep asking polluters to take the ethical route, but they never listen to us,” he said. “We should ask the big emitters to invest so much in clean energy that they will stop using fossil fuel. We need to reframe what we’re demanding. Let’s demand something positive rather than demanding negative.”

That a massive oil company like Shell gets a platform to promote its policies at the U.N. climate talks is confounding, Bassey said.

“Today oil, gas and coal companies populate the corridors of the negotiation halls of COP24,” he said. “They have the guts to claim that they have the right solution to the weak Paris Agreement. They are proud to claim that their wordings are in the Paris rulebook. Shameful to have these polluters in the COP.”

He was referring to a statement by Hone on Dec. 7, at another event at the summit, when he said Shell could take credit for a provision in the 2015 Paris Agreement that identifies carbon markets as one of the chief ways for oil companies and other major polluters to offset in their emissions.

The Paris Agreement, a landmark global pact to tackle climate change, has been signed by 195 countries. Only state actors can negotiate the text of the agreement, while companies and civil society groups act as observers.

Hone, though, was candid about the extent to which Shell likely influenced the final outcome of the Paris Agreement.

“We have had a process running for four years for the need of carbon unit trading to be part of the Paris agreement. We can take some credit for the fact that Article 6 [of the Paris Agreement] is even there at all,” he said as quoted by The Intercept.

“We put together a straw proposal. Many of the elements of that straw proposal appear in the Paris Agreement. We put together another straw proposal for the rulebook, and we saw some of that appear in the text,” he added.

The provision in question allows companies to offset their carbon emissions by buying credit elsewhere instead of actually reducing them. Carbon-trading schemes have been criticized for not actually doing anything to reduce the local impacts of a company’s emissions-producing activities.

Jesse Bragg, media director of the watchdog group Corporate Accountability, said Hone’s statement proved what campaigners had suspected for a long time: that the very corporations contributing to the climate crisis are the same ones pushing the supposed solutions to the problem.

“It’s what we’ve always known, but the shocking thing is how honest and sort of arrogant he [Hone] was when he said, ‘Yeah, we influenced the Paris Agreement,’” Bragg told Mongabay. “All of that points to what we’ve been saying for a long time: that these guys are writing the rules by which we’re supposed to solve climate change. It’s the first time we’re seeing them admit it publicly.”

Members of civil society demonstrate in the hallway, calling for an ambitious outcome at the 24th UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

‘Economic interests over climate’

Fossil fuel producers may also have been influential at the current climate talks in Poland. Bassey, the Nigerian activist, said they were responsible for getting the delegations from the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to block the conference’s adoption of a key report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC report warned that the world has just 12 years left in which to cut global carbon emissions by half to prevent catastrophic global warming that will have severe impacts on populations, food supplies and natural systems.

According to the investigative media outlet DeSmog UK, at least 35 delegates from the four countries have ties to the oil, gas and mining industries. They are either currently employed or used to work for companies and organizations involved in the petrochemical and mining industries or lobbying on behalf of those industries.

Of these 35 delegates, 12 represent Saudi Arabia and nine represent Russia, according to DeSmog UK. The NGO Climate Tracker previously identified 13 delegates representing Kuwait who worked for the fossil fuel industry.

Pascoe Sabido, a researcher and campaigner at the nonprofit Corporate Europe Observatory, said having delegates with ties to fossil fuel companies at the climate talks was unacceptable.

“What it shows is how blatantly economic interests come before the climate. Gulf states know exactly what these talks mean for their economy,” he told Mongabay.

But Pascoe added that these individuals didn’t necessarily have to be in the official delegations at Poland to influence the climate policies coming out of the talks.

“Let’s not pretend that just because the U.S. and EU don’t have them on their delegations, they’re not influencing,” he said. “They don’t need to be on their delegations, because they’ve already written their governments’ positions back home in the national capitals. With the U.S., you had the CEO of Exxon going straight into government. He wasn’t on the delegation. But [it was] clearly worse!”

Protesters march towards the venue of the 24th U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

A platform at the pavilions

Activists like Bokström, Bassey and the others are a part of a growing civil movement taking on the U.N. for allowing big polluters to be involved in its annual climate conferences, where politicians are supposed to negotiate solutions to climate change.

Since the start of the talks in Poland, protesters have been chanting the slogan “Polluters out, people in,” in reference to what they see as unfettered access for the fossil fuel industry and to lobby world leaders. Nor have the protesters overlooked the heavy corporate sponsorship of the conference.

The summit carries a hefty price tag of nearly $67 million, and is being sponsored in part by fossil fuel companies, including three state-run coal giants as well as a gas company — a decision that has caused an uproar among activists.

Climate Tracker found at least 30 events hosted at numerous countries’ pavilions that gave fossil fuel companies a platform to promote themselves. The South African pavilion, for instance, showcased just one company, Exxaro Resources, under the theme “How a mining company is contributing to sustainable food.”

The Russian pavilion also highlighted just one company, the energy and mining outfit EN+ Group, under “EN+ Group climate responsibility.”

Taylor Billings from Corporate Accountability said that it was clear fossil fuel corporations saw the climate talks as a one stop shop to obstruct the negotiations and sell their products.

“While countries may be arguing in the negotiations, it’s clear many of them agree on promoting oil, gas and coal corporations at their exhibits,” she said. “This means that the negotiations are playing second fiddle to the corporate trade show happening just down the halls.”

The Indonesian pavilion is sponsored by the oil major Chevron and Adaro, an Indonesian coal mining operation. The pavilion hosted two sessions: one where Chevron representatives talked about the role of the private sector in achieving the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, and another, also courtesy of the oil company, on “corporate responsibility on environmental management.”

Yuyun Harmono, a climate campaigner from Indonesia’s largest green NGO, Walhi, said both Chevron and Adaro were major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Carbon Disclosure Project’s Carbon Majors Report 2017, Chevron was the 12th-biggest emitter among fossil fuel producers; Adaro was 78th.

The top 100 fossil fuel companies have since 1988 accounted for more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the report says.

“By accepting money from these companies, the Indonesian government has contradicted its own climate policies,” Yuyun told Mongabay. “It’s a conflict of interest because our main goal here is to reduce the use of fossil fuels. So why accept money from companies whose core businesses are in fossil fuels?”

A list of sponsors displayed at the pavilion of Indonesia during the 24th U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Speaking opportunities for support

Agus Justianto, the official in charge of the Indonesian pavilion, said there was nothing wrong in accepting financial support from private companies to cover the minimum 240,000 euro ($272,500) cost of the pavilion.

He added that fossil fuel companies needed to be given an opportunity to work with other stakeholders, including the government, on ways to tackle climate change. That’s why their sponsorship of the pavilion doesn’t contradict Indonesia’s climate policies, Agus said.

“The government’s task is to bridge the gap between private companies and civil society,” he told Mongabay. “We can’t side with either one of them. We have to stand in the middle.”

He added the government preferred to use the term “supporters” rather than “sponsors,” and that in exchange for their “support,” these companies would get opportunities to speak during the many side events at the pavilion. The more “support,” the more opportunities, Agus said.

Walhi spokeswoman Khalisah Khalid said the Indonesian government could still facilitate dialogue between companies and civil society without having to take their money.

“If the government indeed considers climate change a serious issue, then it should have allocated funding for the pavilion in the state budget,” she said. “This way, the government wouldn’t have to rely on corporations. When they do that, there’s a conflict of interest and the government is facilitating these companies in their greenwashing.”

Baby Tapanuli orangutan in Indonesia. Photo by Maxime Aliaga.

Orangutan threat

Another of the pavilion’s sponsors is North Sumatra Hydro Energy, the developer of a dam in Sumatra that scientists almost universally agree poses a severe threat to the survival of the world’s most endangered great ape.

The $1.6 billion hydropower project calls for the partial flooding of the only known habitat of the recently described Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), as well as the cutting of roads through the ape’s forest.

With a population of no more than 800 individuals, the Tapanuli orangutan is already teetering on the brink of extinction, as its habitat in Sumatra’s Batang Toru ecosystem continues to be fragmented by infrastructure projects. And the hydropower project threatens to exacerbate an already precarious situation, with a group of orangutans already being driven out of their habitat due to preconstruction activity for the dam and power plant.

Yet the developer’s ads play on a loop at the Indonesian pavilion in Katowice, touting the project as “a socially and environmentally responsible development” and describing efforts — building a wildlife research center, putting up animal signs, and restoring land — meant to mitigate the environmental impacts.

An ads by PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE) on the Batang Toru hydropower project displayed at the Indonesian pavilion during the 24th U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Dana Prima Tarigan, who heads the Walhi chapter in North Sumatra, called the display an embarrassment for the Indonesian government because it highlighted the state’s powerlessness to protect its own environment and biodiversity.

“The government should be promoting Batang Toru as a national asset, not as an investment in destroying the ecosystem itself,” he said. “And remember: who was in Batang Toru first? The orangutans or the company?”


Banner image: A group of protesters demand fossil fuel companies to be kicked out of the 24th U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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