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COP Secret: Corporate capture in Bonn

Dave Keating Bonn, Germany
November 10, 2017

Companies have a lot on the line at the Bonn climate summit - which is why they insert themselves into the negotiations. In the second installment of the COP Secret series, DW investigates lobbying at UN climate summits.

COP23 Klimakonferenz in Bonn
Image: DW/A. Agrawal

You get all types at a United Nations climate "conference of the parties" (COP). One night, in a corner of the summit's Bonn Zone for non-negotiating delegates, a group of long-haired activists strummed guitars and sang about protecting Mother Earth.

"The gift of life is given free, don't just sell it to me. Don't steal the future from the sea!" sang Kyle Lemle, director of the Thrive Choir and a specialist in spiritual ecology.

Just 10 meters away, some men in suits were extolling the benefits of coal plants that use carbon sequestration.

As DW reported earlier this week, now that the world has agreed it needs a global regime to limit emissions, these UN summits have become a lot more important. The 23,000 delegates accredited this year all want to influence the negotiations over the rule book of the Paris Agreement.

The agreement reached two years ago was like a constitution for the new regime; now it's time to pass the laws. 

And where there is law-making, there are lobbyists.

Man working on computer in crowded space
The Bonn summit is a busy two weeks of networking and negotiatingImage: DW/H. Kaschel

Read more: COP23: Is the Bonn summit worth the trouble? 

Of course, both nongovernmental organizations and industry representatives are lobbying at COP. But they are often not lobbying for the same things. Businesses have become ever more involved in the UN climate process — and this has led to some uncomfortable interactions between the two groups.

The business representatives say they want to be part of the climate solution. But many in civil society are suspicious of their intentions, and their power. A report published in September found that energy industries are the most powerful climate lobbyists.

"Are we really sure that they are good faith actors here at the climate negotiations at the COP?" asked Max Andersson, a Swedish member of the Greens in the European Parliament, who came to Bonn for the summit. "Are we sure they're not trying to delay, or offer bad solutions, or otherwise pour sand in the machinery?"

"Actually, we are quite sure that that is what they are doing," he concluded, answering his own question.

Do lobbyists have too much influence?

'Corporate capture'

Last week, the group Corporate Accountability released a report concluding that "corporate capture," a phenomenon it describes as big business driving the agenda of the Paris Agreement, is posing a "primary obstacle in the UN talks."

"Big polluters have insinuated themselves into almost every aspect of the UNFCCC," said Lawrence Samuel, one of the report's authors.

The report says industry representatives are steering the talks toward "faulty or fake alternatives to real solutions."

As examples, the report lists the increasing focus on market-oriented carbon trading mechanisms, "climate smart agriculture," and carbon capture and storage.

The huge price tag of these enormous events also means they need corporate sponsorship — and the report accuses these corporate sponsors, which include energy companies Suez and Engie, of "buying access" to the talks through their sponsorship.

CO2 capture at RWE power plant in Germany
Large-scale deployment of carbon capture remains a distant reality due to cost concernsImage: RWE AG

A place at the table

Many companies exert their influence through industry associations, such as the International Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a Business and Industry Day at COP23 Thursday.

Other influential organizations include the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), which has a large facility in the pavilion center among the national pavilions. Its members, which are business and investors in global carbon markets, include oil giants like BP and Chevron, and coal corporations like Duke Energy and Rio Tinto.

According to the Corporate Accountability report, IETA has inserted itself so deeply into the talks that one of its board members negotiates on behalf of Panama.

Lobbying behind the scenes at UN climate talks?

Other groups with corporate members include the Climate Technology Network, Global Carbon, and the Capture and Storage Institute.

The Business and Industry Day was a stoic, serious affair with suits and ties. People at the event expressed confusion as to why NGOs would view it as a bad thing that businesses have recognized the Paris Agreement as the main energy regulatory regime going forward.

Majda Dabaghi, a senior policy executive at the International Chamber of Commerce, says greater industry interest in being involved in solving the climate crisis should not be viewed as a problem but rather as an opportunity. Her organization was granted observer status with the UN earlier this year.

"We represent over 6 million businesses and business organizations all over the world," she said. "It's really imperative that business be a true partner, and work at the outset of policy planning."

Getting rich off delaying climate action

The NGOs say its fine for businesses to be involved in the process, as long as their potential conflicts of interest are made clear.

That call for transparency, and the push against corporate influence, is not new. At the Paris COP21 two years ago, the campaign group  Avaaz distrubited "Wanted" posters with images of energy lobbyists at the summit.

But the issue simmered to the surface in Bonn in May, at the start of preliminary talks in the lead-up to this week's summit.

UN-Klimakonferenz 2017 in Bonn Proteste
Thousands of people took to the streets of Bonn to protest against the fossil fuel industry ahead of COP23Image: DW/K. Wecker

A number of countries requested a conflict of interest policy. This request was not taken up by the UN climate secretariat, prompting the European Parliament to adopt a resolution last month calling on negotiators to address the influence of industry interests at these talks.

On Wednesday, the secretariat and the Fijian presidency held a meeting with civil society to discuss the concerns. Anderson was one of the delegates who attended the meeting.

"I focused in my intervention on the need for rules on conflicts of interest," he said.

"We have a problem in climate negotiations: There are lots of companies that have huge sums invested in practices that destroy the climate, for example the fossil fuel industry. And they could earn a lot of money by delaying climate action."