'Money in our world is exactly the same thing as power.' So says Bill McKibben, the internationally-recognised climate activist and co-founder of 350.org.
Speaking at a Fossil-Free Oxfordshire gathering in September, McKibben made a strong case against the continued inclusion of the fossil fuel industry in climate negotiations, as well as within the workings of wider society. McKibben stated that the 'enormous political power' wielded by giants such as Shell and BP continues to buy them time, space, bargaining power and the ability to keep extracting fossil fuels.
Many recent climate conferences and COPs (Conferences of Parties) have been controversially sponsored by companies with ties to fossil fuels. These companies can be accused of 'greenwashing': of paying to have their logos painted across conference spaces and official outputs, whilst claiming to support the fight against climate change.
Paris' COP21 in December was sponsored by carbon-footprint heavyweights Air France, the coal-giant EDF and the multinational bank BNP Paribas. The utilities company Engie was also a key sponsor. Engie's website claims to 'bring forward practical solutions to combat climate change', yet over 70% of the company's energy comes from coal and gas.
Scare tactics have also been used in the past by fossil fuel companies at climate conferences: at COP20 in Lima, Peru, Shell and other companies took part in an event called 'Why Divest from Fossil Fuels When a Future with Low Emissions Fossil Fuel Energy Use is Already a Reality?' Individual governments may therefore be swayed by their connections to fossil fuel companies, and much of the transparency which should be at the core of COP is undermined.
Allowing these companies into conference spaces creates (justified) disruption. COP19 in Warsaw saw the 'Warsaw Walkout' protest against corporate interests by more than 800 participants. In Paris, activists gathered to protest on the streets, and the group 'Brandalism' covered billboards in fake adverts highlighting sponsors' hypocrisy.
The WHO (World Health Organisation) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005 was an excellent example of preventing vested interests from having the last say. Article 5.3 of the Convention calls for parties to 'protect their tobacco control and public health policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.' Accordingly, a working group was established to discuss Article 5.3, resulting in the recommendation to 'not give preferential treatment to the tobacco industry'. The ground-breaking decision was made to exclude the tobacco industry from 'interfering' in top-level policy-making, for the good of public health. The Convention also outlined the need for international cooperation on the issue.
Future climate policy-making, including COP22 in Marrakech, must follow the WHO's example. Professor Nebojsa Nakicenovic, (Deputy Director and Deputy CEO of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis), spoke at Oxford's 1.5 Degrees Conference in September. He described 'a need for deep decarbonisation in the future', and a complete overhaul of the current system. With new technology and investment, this is possible. Nakicenovic pointed out that in a photograph of New York City from 1900, there are no cars. Fast forward just 13 years and cars fill the street. 'To be successful', he said, 'we need new values and norms... it's a new development paradigm'. This cannot be achieved as long as dominant corporate interests hold the reins.
If we continue to accommodate fossil fuel companies' demands, we are surely headed for disaster. Recent climate figures are alarming. A report by Oil Change International shows that if we release the carbon from all currently operating oil, gas and coal reserves, levels of warming would far exceed 2°C, the figure highlighted as a maximum target threshold in the Paris Agreement.
We are already living with anthropogenic global warming. Flooding, crop failure and ecosystem collapse (to name but a few) affect millions of lives daily. We should be working to mitigate, not exacerbate, the future consequences.
Allowing the fossil fuel industry inside climate negotiations flies in the face of all that COP should be working to achieve: a just, sustainable, safe and liveable future. As long as we dwell in a capitalist, expansionist society, companies will vie for power. However, what if international leaders finally face up to the facts and acknowledge the problematic political and economic pressures being applied by fossil fuel companies? What if 'business-friendly' solutions don't have to stick to the status quo?
Corporate vested interests must be removed, or mobilised to work for a radically different system. Climate negotiations must be wiped clean of the poisonous, staining influence of the fossil-fuel industry.
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Katja Garson. Katja holds an MSc in Environmental Governance from the University of Oxford, and is a member of Climate Tracker. Follow her on Twitter @kmgarson