Would you trust a big tobacco company at a world health conference? The question is almost ridiculous: of course not. Big tobacco’s nakedly vested interests obviously conflict with global health requirements. And so, sensibly, attempts have been made to exclude big tobacco from World Health Organisation talks.
As things stand, Cop26 in Glasgow will remain a playground for polluters, who can stalk the halls, lobby politicians and spend their not inconsiderable public relations money on presenting themselves as part of the solution.
It is against this state of corporate privilege at Cop26 that we at Glasgow Calls Out Polluters, alongside over 170 groups from across the world, have written an open letter to Cop26 president Alok Sharma, laying out five steps the UK government can take as co-hosts of Cop26 to remove and reduce the presence of big polluters at the talks.
Not unrelatedly, the talks themselves are also experiencing a crisis of legitimacy. Progress moved at a snail’s pace during the last summit, Cop25 in Madrid, described as one of the worst summits ever.
Yet it is no coincidence that the 25 years of talks have produced such inadequate measures. During this timeframe, free-market ideology has ruled, opposing government regulation of multinational corporations. As Naomi Klein says inThis Changes Everything, this is terrible timing: the moment that the climate demanded regulation of big polluters, our politicians have actively pandered to the interests and power of these companies.
This corporate-friendly power dynamic plays out in the negotiations, too: at Cop25, much unfruitful time was spent on Article Six of the Paris Agreement, which focuses on Carbon Markets. Carbon Markets suit corporate polluters as they allow emissions to continue unabated, while companies look towards emission “offsets” by planting trees or through other complex market mechanisms. Oil and gas major Shell actually claimed to have helped write Article Six of the Paris Agreement..
We need to change the game, and we need to change the power dynamic that underpins international climate negotiations (and politics in general). It’s a process dominated by the rich and powerful, which sees some become wealthier, as others are expected to deal with the consequences.
What can we do as hosts? The UK government is keen to look like climate leaders. However, posturing on the international stage should not be confused with climate leadership: instead, we need examples of meaningful action to curb emissions. But there is a large elephant in the room, a big polluting elephant, that should be swiftly removed.
This process is not straightforward, however. The UNFCCC – that is, the treaty between nation states that guides the Cop process – is a complex process requiring cross nation collaboration and consensus. For example, it is difficult for a nation like the UK to unilaterally exclude big polluters from the talks, even as hosts. However, there are serious steps the UK government can take as outlined in our open letter, if they are interested in taking responsibility.
As hosts of Cop26, the UK government could make a polluter-free Cop one of their key priorities; they could facilitate meetings on a “conflicts of interest” policy (which would remove big polluters from the UNFCCC) and do so fairly, giving priority to countries who have been calling for this for years, while avoiding filibustering from the Global North.
As hosts, they will likely have the largest allocation of tickets to pass onto dignitaries and they can choose not to give any of these tickets to big polluting companies. While they may accuse our demands of being unrealistic, I would accuse their own priorities for Cop of being either strikingly unambitious or inconsistent with government policy. Either way, not great for a government who recently held a climate ambition summit.
They have already failed to meet one key demand: by accepting sponsorship from big polluters, namely SSE (whose gas plant is Scotland’s biggest individual emitter) and NatWest (another fossil fuel financing bank). Although it was pleasing to see no oil and gas majors as sponsors, this followed embarrassing revelations that the UK government held secret meetings with BP, Shell and Equinor around visibility at Cop26.
The Cop process has been disrupted by the unwholesome marriage of corporate friendly politics and meek politicians. As ever, the climate crisis is not a technical but a political problem. With enough will, we can shift in the right direction. We can start by moving to lock out big polluters and rejecting the agendas that support business as usual. If it can be done with big tobacco, it can be done with big polluters.
Scott Tully is a climate justice organiser at Glasgow Calls Out Polluters, working on corporate capture of Cop26 and fossil fuel finance
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