Fight Over Fossil Fuel Influence in Climate Talks Ends With Murky Compromise

Developing countries and green groups want to limit conflicts of interest in the global climate talks. Corporate lobbyists and rich countries oppose the plan.

UNFCCC climate talks in Bonn
Developing countries, led by Ecuador, pushed negotiators to address conflicts of interest among groups with access to influence the international climate talks. Credit: UNFCCC

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Participants in global climate negotiations will have at least another year to debate the role fossil fuel companies and other influential industries should play in the international talks, after negotiators at the latest round of United Nations talks kicked the can down the road.

After days of adamant debate, a murkily phrased compromise invited countries, businesses, activists and others to share their views by January 2018 on how to increase the “openness, transparency and inclusiveness” of outside observers at climate talks. It was approved as negotiators from around the world wrapped up the Bonn climate conference on Thursday evening.

The discussions of corporate conflicts of interest were among the most contentious at the mid-year talks, which largely focused on technical aspects of climate negotiations, such as building out rules for implementing the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Developing countries, led by Ecuador, repeatedly pressed the issue of conflict of interest.

“We need a set of rules and principles and procedures to avoid and manage a potential conflict of interest between certain actors and the purpose of the convention and the Paris Agreement,” said Walter Schuldt, Ecuador’s chief negotiator

But the idea of clamping down met resistance from corporate lobbyists and from rich nations, including the United States.

The conference also offered an opportunity for Trigg Talley, the lead U.S. delegate, to make clear to the rest of the world that the Trump administration is actively reviewing many climate policies and does not currently plan on further contributing to the Green Climate Fund, which supports developing nations’ efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

U.S. officials remained quiet about the Trump administration’s plans for the U.S. role in the Paris Agreement; White House advisors have been arguing over whether to exit the accord or stay in but let the U.S. targets slide. Delegates from developing nations repeatedly criticized the notion of backsliding. “The Paris Agreement is our lifeline … 2018 needs to trigger enhanced ambition for climate action if the Paris Agreement’s goals are to remain achievable,” an Ethiopian delegate, speaking on behalf of a group of nations that are highly vulnerable to climate change, said in a statement delivered in Bonn.

The influence-peddling discussions gained a little ground by publicizing efforts of developing countries and environmental groups that have long complained about the sway that companies that benefit from emitting carbon pollution have in policy talks to curb such pollution.

“We would have loved an explicit conflict-of-interest policy,” Jesse Bragg, a spokesman for the advocacy group Corporate Accountability International, told InsideClimate News. But “the fact that we were able to hold on to this call for submissions [and] able to make sure that we could continue to have this discussion in this space, it’s a huge win for the campaign, for people and for the future implementation of the Paris agreement.”

Johanna Gusman offered a parallel perspective. She is involved in the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a campaign to reduce tobacco use worldwide. “From our experience in dealing with the tobacco industry, policymakers need not question the lengths that certain trans-national corporations will go in protecting financial interests over interests they may claim to support that are public goods,” Gusman said in Bonn.

“Within the context of the UNFCCC … perhaps this means considering limiting the role of certain corporations that themselves drive the very climate crisis that the convention aims to stop,” she said.

Australia and other developed countries, however, passionately defended the inclusion of businesses in the climate talks, as they had done in similar conversations at last year’s meeting.

“This idea of excluding groups such as the private sector I think fundamentally misunderstands the concept of conflict of interest,” said Patrick Suckling, Australia’s ambassador for the environment. “Business has a very important view. Business will drive and is driving the technology, the investment, the transformation in a very fundamental and very significant way.”

Opening discussions on conflict of interest also raises questions: Should just fossil fuel companies be excluded from the policy talks? What about renewable energy companies and agriculture giants?

Corporate Accountability International’s Bragg thinks the answer is clear: “The best way to do this is to make sure that industries that have an interest, a financial interest, in the outcomes of this process have no seat at the table. Period.”

But others are not so sure.

“In general, it is a good idea to take into account the perspectives of all stakeholders while crafting a robust response to climate change—including all businesses, investors, cities and civil society,” Paula Caballero, global director of the World Resource Institute’s climate program, said in a statement. “If stakeholders were excluded from the UN climate talks, negotiators would be operating in a self-imposed bubble. The fact is that delegates will need to manage a wide range of interests when they return to their capitals where no such separation exists.”

There’s also concern among some advocacy groups that guidelines and rules on conflict of interest could possibly lead to some advocacy and research groups being excluded from the table.

There were repeated clashes about this issue during the conference. Last weekend, Ecuador proposed setting a deadline by which countries and other observers could share in writing their views and possible policies on conflict of interest to the United Nations, followed by a formal discussion about the submissions. Uganda, Costa Rica and China were among the growing number of developing countries that backed this recommendation.

Talley, the lead U.S. delegate, called the effort “well intentioned but deeply misguided.”

The resulting compromise was thin gruel. The words “conflict of interest” are nowhere to be found. Even the words “integrity, legitimacy and reputation” were stripped out of the draft texts, according to Bragg.

In a session about growing business involvement in the Paris process, Stephen Eule, vice president for science and technology at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spoke about the current situation in the U.S.

Eule called the Obama administration’s Paris pledge “unrealistically ambitious,” praised the Trump administration’s efforts to help the American coal sector and ran through the U.S. options relating to the agreement. According to Eule, there’s no chance Trump would stay in the agreement with the original U.S. pledge because “it would jeopardize America’s manufacturing renaissance”; he added one viable option is for the new administration to backslide on its original pledge.

This is exactly the type of business influence that Corporate Accountability International has criticized. The group recently released a report rating, mostly poorly, business groups linked to energy companies including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on their track record supporting rigorous climate policy.