Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Some of the event's sponsors might be part of the problem, not the solution.
Tim McDonnellDec. 2, 2015 1:37 PM
Corporate sponsorship logos at the entrance to the Paris climate summit.
You might not expect fossil fuel companies to pay for a conference designed to shrink their industry. But in Paris, that's precisely what's happening.
This week and next, roughly 40,000 diplomats, activists, policy experts, and journalists are gathering in the French capital for a round of high-stakes negotiations aimed at slowing climate change. They're packed into a regional airport that, as described by our Climate Desk partners at the New Republic, has been converted to resemble a cross between the United Nations headquarters building, Disney World's Epcot Center, and a natural history museum.
For two weeks, all these people need to be fed, housed, transported, entertained, and equipped with space to work. Unsurprisingly, it's an expensive undertaking—budgeted by the French government at nearly $200 million, according to EurActiv France. About one-fifth of that tab is being picked up by private corporations.
"Those corporations are able to say they're part of the solution just because they write a check," Jesse Bragg said.
Big international conferences frequently have corporate sponsors, but given the basic aim of the Paris talks—to dramatically reduce man-made greenhouse gas emissions—some of the event's sponsors are drawing criticism for their close ties to the fossil fuel industry. In other words, some of the companies paying to keep the lights on and the coffee flowing at the vital climate summit may have a vested interest in limiting the scope of the international agreement.
The event (known as COP21, short for 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) has more than 50 corporate sponsors. They include the likes of Google, 3M, Puma, and IKEA. In exchange for providing the conference organizers an undisclosed sum of money, corporate sponsors get their logo splashed across high-profile surfaces—from billboards to banners to handouts—and priority access to spaces to hold branded events. Corporate participants can also get direct access to top-tier diplomats. At last year's COP in Peru, for example, a lobbying group representing a handful of fossil fuel companies—including Shell and Chevron—hosted more than a dozen events, including one featuring UN climate chief Christiana Figueres.
According to a new report from the advocacy group Corporate Accountability International, several of the Paris COP's corporate sponsors have direct ties to the fossil fuel industry, and, the group argues, a conflict of interest when it comes to the purported goals of the summit.
"It's greenwashing," CAI spokesperson Jesse Bragg said. "Those corporations are able to say they're part of the solution just because they write a check."
In particular, CAI's report calls out three COP21 sponsors: Engie, a European electric utility company that is the continent's largest importer of natural gas; EDF, a French electric utility that operates several major coal-fired power plants; and BNP Paribas, a multinational bank with billions of dollars invested in coal mines and coal-fired power plants. All three have massive greenhouse gas footprints, according to the report. CAI also points out that the utility companies have participated in lobbying organizations that promote the use of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, another activist group has taken aim at corporate greenwashing with a slate of billboard ads across Paris mocking energy and transportation companies that purport to be progressive, while continuing to pollute:
Beyond greenwashing, Bragg said it's unlikely that these companies will be able to have a direct impact on the policy outcome of this COP, given how many of the nuts and bolts were worked out by diplomats in advance. But he cautioned that the creeping influence of corporations over the last two decades of climate negotiations has made diplomats overly sensitive to business-friendly solutions.
"We need to make sure these policies are created with the environment as the primary concern," he said. "With corporations involved, you move further and further from that target."
Spokespeople for EDF and Engie dismissed Bragg's assertions. EDF said that its electricity portfolio contains more renewable energy than any other European utility and that it plows hundreds of millions of euros each year into clean energy R&D. Axelle Lima, a spokesperson for Engie, pointed out that the company has recently committed to stop any new investments in coal and has publicly campaigned for a price on carbon emissions.
"We have to think of solutions with governments to replace coal with another kind of energy," an energy company spokesperson said.
"We have to think of solutions with governments to replace coal with another kind of energy," Lima said. "And together we want to find a climate solution."
Lima said it was "natural" for Engie to be a partner at the COP, given its role in the energy sector that is being reformed. She declined to specify how much money Engie had donated. BNP Paribas did not return a request for comment.
Erik Conway, a science historian who co-authored a recent book on the fossil fuel industry's climate science subterfuge with Naomi Oreskes, said that corporate infiltration of climate summits is less important than the lobbying that goes on behind the scenes back home.
"Of course [corporate sponsorship] is a conflict of interest, just as it is a conflict of interest to have fossil fuel producing nations participating in the COP," he said. But "I don't think the presence of fossil-fuel producing corporations at COP meetings has had much to do with their failure to achieve meaningful agreements. It's their economic sway with individual governments that's the actual problem."
To that end, Bragg thinks the UN's climate organization could take a cue from the World Health Organization's efforts to block tobacco lobbyists from influencing regulation of that industry. The WHO, in its international agreement on tobacco control, adopted specific protocols that require signatory countries to insulate their public health laws from tobacco industry "interference." The climate agreement currently being hammered out in Paris could include similar language, Bragg suggested.
"The first step is the [official] recognition, in text, of this conflict of interest," he said. "Then we figure out how we can mitigate that."
A video posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on
On Monday, in Paris, President Barack Obama pressed world leaders to adopt an aggressive international agreement to curb climate change. To do so, he said, would be an "act of defiance" against the terrorists who killed 130 people in French capital on Nov. 13.
Donald Trump, a leading presidential contender who seems to relish getting scientific information as wrong as possible, is not happy about this. It's a "ridiculous situation," he said in the new Instagram post above, that Obama is "worried about global warming" while "the world is in turmoil and falling apart in so many ways, especially with ISIS."
It remains unclear how those things are contradictory. Also, Obama hasn't exactly been ignoring ISIS while in Paris, as Trump seems to suggest: He has repeatedly framed his presence at the climate talks as integral to the international campaign against terrorism.
Just a few weeks after a national poll found that most Americans want the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint, the White House announced billions of dollars in new funding for clean energy innovations. Is solar paint the wave of the future? Will Republicans in Congress succeed in derailing the president's agenda for the climate summit in Paris? Zoe Schlanger of Climate Desk partner Newsweek and I visited the set of MSNBC's Greenhouse program this morning to discuss.
A major two-week summit on climate change opened on Monday in Paris, and President Barack Obama was there to urge world leaders to push for a strong international agreement to slow global warming.
In his speech (video above), the president also offered a rebuke to the terrorists behind the November 13 attacks in the French capital that left 130 people dead.
The summit, he said, is "an act of defiance that proves nothing will deter us from building the future we want for our children."
Obama acknowledged America's unique responsibility for ensuring success at the talks, which are designed to produce an unprecedented agreement between nearly 200 nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change. It's the first time nations have tried to reach that goal since the last major climate summit, in 2009 in Copenhagen, crumbled over disagreements between the United States, China, and developing nations.
In his second term, Obama has sought to make action on climate change a central part of his legacy; a strong agreement in Paris would be a vital component to that. "I've come here personally, as the leader of the world's largest economy and the second-largest emitter," Obama said, "to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it."
Prior to the speech, Obama met privately with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders have worked closely over the last year to advance a joint climate agenda. Xi also gave a speech, in which he said it was "very important for China and the United States to be firmly committed to the right direction of building a new model of major country relations."
Obama's remarks come a day after the White House announced a sweeping initiative to double public-sector investment in clean energy research and development from $5 billion to $10 billion by 2020. That new program, known as Mission Innovation, also includes more than a dozen major private-sector investors, including Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Mark Zuckerberg.
Finance for clean energy and for climate change adaptation is likely to be a major issue at the talks, as vulnerable nations in Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere urge the United States and other major emitters to pony up more cash. At the last major climate summit in Copenhagen, countries agreed to raise $100 billion per year for a UN-administered climate adaptation fund. That goal is only about two-thirds met.
In July, British tabloid the Daily Mail came out with a screaming headline: "EXCLUSIVE: Video shows Hillary Clinton boarding private jet just hours after launching global-warming push." Clinton's strategy to slash carbon dioxide emissions, the Mail gleefully reported, didn't preclude her from traveling on an aircraft that burns hundreds of gallons of jet fuel every hour.
Air travel by environmentalists has long been an easy punching bag for conservative pundits—and private jets like Clinton's probably deserve some sneering. But for those of us who have to make do with commercial airliners, flying is becoming much easier to defend. Michael Sivak, a transportation researcher at the University of Michigan, has found that from 1970 to 2010, the amount of energy consumed per mile, per passenger, on an average domestic flight dropped 74 percent. From 1968 to 2014, the fuel efficiency of new airplanes improved 45 percent, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
For this good news, we can thank airlines' obsession with fuel, which accounts for roughly one-third of their expenses. At Boeing, the world's largest aircraft manufacturer, there's a rule of thumb: A 1 percent improvement in efficiency adds up to $1 million in fuel savings over the course of a single-aisle plane's 25-year life span.