The final, overtime hours of the COP27 global climate talks in Egypt last year were marked by breathless huddles and cajoling in side rooms and lounges as fatigued negotiators tried to finalize a loss and damage deal and decide whether to mention a fossil fuel phase-out in the final conference documents.
In those settings, lobbyists for fossil fuel industry interests have long-obstructed and delayed the actions needed to curb global warming, said Rachel Rose Jackson, with Corporate Accountability, a nonprofit policy watchdog group. But that will change with new transparency rules taking effect for the COP28 registration process starting this week, she said.
“When people log in to register for badges, there will be an announcement that says there’s a new rule,” she said. “Disclosure of affiliation will be mandatory and will be listed publicly.” The rule closes a small but significant loophole that enabled lobbyists to participate under the banners of nations or organizations without disclosing corporate ties publicly, she said.
The new procedure includes optional questions about the details of registrants’ relationships with the entities they represent, for example whether they are on the board, or an employee. While registrants can opt out of those questions, doing so “will be made public for the world to see,” she added.
Questions about growing petro-industrial influence at the climate talks have been percolating for years and spiked in 2022 at COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, where more than 600 lobbyists for petro-industrial interests dwarfed the delegations from many countries, which were literally outnumbered because they can’t afford to send representatives to every one of the numerous and often simultaneous meetings.
Then Sultan al Jaber, a United Arab Emirates state industry minister and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, was appointed to the presidency of COP28, set for early December in his home country. COP stands for Conference of the Parties—the 197 nations that agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.
Notably, Al Jaber has not even temporarily relinquished his position with ADNOC, said Sébastien Duyck, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law who tracks the climate talks. Instead, COP28 organizers are ramping up a public relations campaign designed to showcase the importance of the fossil fuel industry in the talks, Duyck said.
A COP president shapes the agenda and at least partly controls the flow of information, and potentially, disinformation, surrounding the talks, and the fossil fuel industry has a documented history of misleading the public about global warming. The presidency also allocates the civic space surrounding the actual negotiations, determining how many lobbyists will be invited, as well as which, and how many, corporate sponsors attend.
Al Jaber’s appointment raised big questions about a potential conflict of interest, not just from watchdog groups, but from more than 140 elected officials from the U.S. and Europe who signed a letter to the United Nations and to national leaders asking that Al Jaber be removed, an unprecedented step in the 30-year history of the talks.
“Over a half century …not one of 39 major global oil and gas companies, with collective market capitalization of $3.7 trillion, has adopted a business strategy that would limit warming to safe levels,” the lawmakers wrote. “In short, in the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, ‘We seem trapped in a world where fossil fuel producers and financiers have humanity by the throat.’ It is time to alter this dangerous course.”
It’s Not Just About Badges
Given the history of some attendees hiding their connections to industry, Duyck said the public listing of affiliations will give watchdog groups and the media a chance to compare what’s publicly known about a person with the information that they give when they register.
“We’ll be able to say, OK, let’s see how many of the lobbyists actually reported who they are lobbying for, or if they are trying to hide an indirect sponsorship,” he said. “Clearly there are some actors that don’t want to be held accountable, and that’s a problem. They probably shouldn’t be part of the process.”
In the bigger picture, the new rule is just “a timid step forward, but it is the first breakthrough in terms of highlighting that yes, we have a problem,” he said. “Finally, the UN Secretariat has acknowledged the problem rather than trying to depoliticize it.”
The new rules resulted from a year-long internal review process by the climate secretariat, which has little decision-making power other than over procedures and logistics. In remarks at the Bonn climate talks this month, Simon Stiell, United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convention executive secretary, acknowledged that fossil fuel influence was fundamentally undermining the credibility of the climate talks. The UNFCCC had hoped to enact additional transparency measures, but ran out of time before the COP28 registration opened.
Duyck said there’s a lack of transparency at basic levels of UNFCCC decision-making, including in the selection of host countries, that undermines credibility. Essentially, the COP sites rotate through the five designated United Nations regions in which countries agree among themselves on a host, often after much political horse-trading, Duyck said.
That process lacks transparency and public participation that could prevent the annual climate talks from ending up in countries with poor human rights records or countries that are dominated by fossil fuel interests like the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
The selection process for the host country of COP29 in 2024 is faltering. The conference is set to rotate to the U.N.’s Eastern Europe region, but the final selection has been delayed by regional squabbling triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leaving Armenia and Azerbaijan as the final candidates.
“Talk about authoritarian petrostates,” Duyck said.
The example shows the problems of trying to choose host locations without any set of firm criteria to guide the selection, he added. The UNFCCC could improve the process simply by establishing guidelines based on human rights and climate policy to ensure that COPs are held in places where everybody is welcome, and can lead by example.
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That message resonated Friday as United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres met with climate leaders from around the world who were asking the U.N. to help accelerate climate action to avoid even more dangerous global warming.
“We are hurtling towards disaster, eyes wide open,” he said. “It’s time to wake up and step up. I see a lack of ambition. A lack of trust. A lack of support. A lack of cooperation. And an abundance of problems around clarity and credibility. The climate agenda is being undermined.”
Guterres called for immediate global climate action, starting at “the polluted heart of the climate crisis: The fossil fuel industry. Let’s face facts. The problem is not simply fossil fuel emissions.
It’s fossil fuels—period.”
He said fossil fuel companies should invest their “massive profits” into renewables and the green economy, enabling them to thrive in the energy transition and remain relevant actors.