Activists are calling on the United Nations to remove Coca-Cola as a sponsor of the year’s most significant global climate summit, calling the partnership “pure greenwash” and pointing to the soft drink giant’s outsized contribution to the global plastic waste crisis and its role in perpetuating climate change.
Late last month, the U.N. announced Coca-Cola was sponsoring its COP27 climate talks, the world’s cornerstone annual conference on global warming, where nations discuss their progress toward achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and update their pledges under it. Microsoft, IBM, Boston Consulting Group and Vodafone are also corporate sponsors of the event, which will be held next month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
But the announcement faced swift backlash from the environmental community, which has accused Coca-Cola for decades of a litany of environmental harms and human rights abuses. A petition created this month, demanding the U.N. remove Coca-Cola from the sponsorship list, already had more than 233,000 signatures as of Tuesday. And a separate letter, signed by more than 240 environmental organizations from around the world, is also demanding Coca-Cola, as well as Microsoft, be removed from the list.
“The world’s largest plastics polluter” and “the world’s largest tech partner to the oil and gas industry” should not be allowed to “buy their way out of culpability for a crisis they have caused,” the groups, which include 350.org, the Center for International Environmental Law and the World Fair Trade Organization, said in their letter.
In 2019, Coca-Cola admitted that it was responsible for 3 million metric tons of plastic packaging that year. And an annual audit of corporate brands by Break Free From Plastic, a global coalition of environmental groups, has named Coca-Cola “the world’s top plastic polluter” four years in a row and accused the company of spending far more money on publicizing its environmental initiatives than on funding the actual programs themselves.
For example, Coca-Cola spent $4.24 billion on advertising and marketing in 2019, the report said, while spending just $11 million that year on a program to clean up rivers polluted by plastic waste. And a leaked recording of a recent American Beverage Association conference also revealed that Coca-Cola had quietly lobbied for decades against policies like bottle bills, which aim to hold companies responsible for the plastic waste they create.
“Plastic is suffocating our planet and, year after year, one company leads the pack of polluters—Coca-Cola,” said Georgia Elliott-Smith, an environmental activist and former COP26 delegate who created the online petition to remove Coke as a corporate sponsor for next month’s climate summit.
“Coca-Cola spends millions of dollars greenwashing their brand, making us believe that they are solving the problem,” Elliot-Smith said in the petition. “But, behind the scenes, they have a long history of lobbying to delay and derail regulations that would prevent pollution, keeping us addicted to disposable plastic.”
The global beverage purveyor was also responsible for emitting the equivalent of 5.18 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2021, according to the company’s latest report. That’s roughly the same amount of CO2 emitted by more than 1.1 million U.S. cars over the course of a year, according to annual averages calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The company has also been accused of human rights abuses at some of its facilities outside of the United States, including a 2001 incident in Colombia where Coca-Cola was accused of hiring “a right-wing paramilitary group” to intimidate and even kill factory workers who were attempting to unionize. And activists have regularly criticized Coca-Cola—and other top beverage companies—of using too much water at a time when climate change is exacerbating drought conditions across large swaths of the world. In 2014, for example, authorities in northern India were forced to order the closure of a Coca-Cola plant after the company excessively depleted the region’s groundwater twice.
Coke didn’t respond to questions from Inside Climate News in time for publication, but the company and COP27 organizers have both responded to the recent criticism by pointing to Coca-Cola’s ongoing efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and clean up plastic trash in the ocean. That includes reducing the company’s total carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020 from its 2010 baseline, as well as reducing it by another 25 percent by 2030—with the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Coca-Cola accomplished its 2020 goal. But like most emissions targets linked to a 2020 deadline, it’s unclear how much of Coke’s reductions that year were the result of pandemic-related shutdowns. In fact, a closer look at the company’s emissions since 2010 reveals a more complicated and less flattering story.
Coca-Cola initially set its goal to slash company emissions by a quarter in 2013. But over the next several years, its greenhouse gas contributions—excluding the “emissions from franchise bottlers”—actually climbed from 5.53 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2013 to 5.56 million metric tons in 2019, according to Coke’s own internal calculations. And when the company used a separate calculation method, which includes the electricity Coca-Cola purchases from utilities and other energy providers to power its operations, its 2019 greenhouse gas emissions clocked in at 5.71 million metric tons—a notable increase.
In that sense, it’s reasonable to see why some critics might view Coca-Cola’s huge dip in carbon emissions between 2019 and 2021 as merely the result of a broad swath of the world’s economy shutting down to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
That interpretation can be backed up further when looking at the rise in Coca-Cola’s carbon emissions between 2020 and 2021, as businesses began opening up in larger numbers. The company reported 4.77 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020, a record low since at least 2010. That number then rose to 5.18 million metric tons last year, following the larger global trend of the global economy essentially returning to pre-pandemic levels.
More broadly speaking, activists also take issue with Coca-Cola because of its ongoing role supporting the plastics industry—one that some experts believe is essentially replacing the coal industry as a major climate threat. Not only is 99 percent of all global plastic made from fossil fuels, fostering collaboration and support between the two industries, but the process of manufacturing plastics—known as “cracking”—also generates plenty of greenhouse gas emissions and harmful air pollution.
In 2020, the U.S. plastics industry was responsible for at least 232 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a report from the environmental advocacy group Beyond Plastics. That’s roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 100 average-sized coal-fired power plants. In fact, the plastics and petrochemical manufacturing industries are set to account for more than a third of the growth in world oil demand through 2030, and nearly half the growth through 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. Those industries are also spurring new development of natural gas, the non-partisan international energy agency said, calling plastics and petrochemical production “the blind spot” of the world’s efforts to monitor global energy’s climate impacts.
As my colleague James Bruggers reported, the plastics industry is attempting to address that issue by promoting increased recycling efforts, specifically through a burgeoning process called chemical recycling. But environmentalists have criticized that idea, calling it a “false climate solution,” and accusing the industry of peddling the concept as a way to quell public outcry while selling more of its products.
Plastics recycling in general has largely been considered a failure. A new report from Greenpeace, released Monday, found that just 5 percent of U.S. plastic waste—roughly 51 million tons—was recycled last year. Experts say that’s in large part because it’s far cheaper for companies to buy new plastic made from fossil fuels than it is to buy recycled plastic, making such efforts financially unattractive. In fact, a 2020 investigation by National Public Radio and PBS Frontline found that Big Oil was largely behind the idea of recycling becoming popular in the U.S., with industry executives promoting an idea they knew wouldn’t work—and all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.
With COP27 now just weeks away, activists worry corporate polluters, such as Coca-Cola, could similarly influence global climate policies under the Paris Agreement, potentially convincing nations to adopt solutions that environmental advocates consider flawed or watering down support for stringent policies that are backed by science.
“Coca-Cola sponsoring the COP27 is pure ‘greenwash,”’ Emma Priestland, a coordinator for Break Free From Plastic, told the Guardian. “It’s astounding that a company so tied to the fossil fuel industry is allowed to sponsor such a vital climate meeting.”
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That’s how many liters of water Coca-Cola used in 2017 to produce approximately 151 billion liters of Coke, Diet Coke and other beverages it sells, according to the company. That’s nearly a 2-to-1 ratio for water use to make Coca-Cola products, which the company says it is striving to improve.