By: Ping Manongdo

With nearly 200 delegates to the latest round of climate talks in Bonn, Germany, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the participation of the business community, particularly Big Oil, has become a thorny issue despite a call for increasing openness and inclusion in the negotiations.

The representatives are meeting under difficult conditions. Meeting the targets to limit climate change to under 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 is looking like an almost unattainable goal, with scores of countries already far behind in meeting Nationally Determined Contributions, a term used under the UN Framework Convention for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and with the Trump administration in the United States having threatened to opt out of the pact. 

While concerned countries say they understand the importance of getting everyone involved to accelerate climate action, they are also calling on governments to recognize the risk that may arise when non-party representatives from the business sector are allowed to participate – that the people who created the problem shouldn’t be trusted to solve it.

Cuba, Ecuador, Senegal and Uganda respectively from the Latin America and Africa groups are pushing for a transparency framework for businesses joining the negotiations to ensure that they will contribute to, and not contradict, the purpose of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change that was ratified by 196 countries in an attempt to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Centigrade by 2030.

A conflict of interest policy is needed for the “benefit of enhanced participation” to make sure the commercial sector doesn’t take over the negotiations, according to Ecuador’s representative.

“There are a number of example of this framework. At this juncture of enhancing non-party participation in the negotiations, such conflict of interest rule is needed,” he said.

That has been met with opposition from New Zealand, whose delegate said stakeholder participation is an important element of good governance, and that commercial interests are stakeholders.

“Conflicting people and shutting the door on them is not the way to proceed,” she said.

The European Union and other big emitters including the United States, China, Canada, and Australia want non-party inclusion in the negotiations without the need to adopt a conflict of interest policy. The Russian Federation, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Japan and Switzerland agree.

“Engagement is valuable,” said the leader of the US delegation. “The United States embraces this process and continues to support this approach.”

As the discussions ensued, Norine Kennedy, vice president for environment, energy and strategic international engagement for the United States Council for International Business (USCIB), listened in.  She represents the large industry associations, including the International Chamber of Commerce, the International Organization of Employers which are global groups that include every sector, every nationality from small-medium-sized to multinational corporations, including fossil fuel industries.

“So we’re all here. It does seem to us that it is important to include the entire business community in these discussions,” she said.

Kennedy acknowledged that conflict of interest is a very important subject that must be addressed, adding that business groups would not be opposed to strengthening the conflict provision as long as it isn’t “discriminatory only to business.”

“We want to be part of the discussion,” Kennedy said. “We feel that if the outcome is a strengthening of transparency and due diligence and ensuring that everyone who is here, it is clear who they represent, where their funding comes from, etc., then there’s no problem with that. But if it’s an outcome that is only applied to business, we would oppose it very strongly.”

Asked what the business community, including Big Oil, would bring to the negotiating table that aims to reduce emissions, Kennedy said that just about every country that has prepared an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution has reached out to business groups in different ways, and that this partnership is important to help governments set out with its ambitions, whether it’s a 2-degree or even beyond that to 1.5.

“The UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement is a treaty about everything. It really is about restructuring the entire system of global commerce. And the system of global commerce is very interrelated, you cannot section out any particular sector, be it agriculture or be it fossil fuels,” Kennedy said. “As far as the fossil fuel companies go, it’s still, a major part of the energy mix globally, and will be for some time until other substitutes are affordable.”

Kennedy said that fossil fuel companies know that if they don’t change and if they don’t find ways to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, then “they’re going to be out of business. We know that. These are long-term, thinking companies. We feel that the fossil fuel industry is also looking into the crystal ball, understanding the future, and understanding that we need to change, and they, too, are moving towards cleaner options and other technologies that might help mitigate and sequester greenhouse gas emissions from using that kind of fuel.”

Polluters keep out

Jesse Bragg, executive director for US-based corporate watchdog Corporate Accountability, said that developing countries speaking on adopting the conflict of interest policy understand that this policy is necessary if negotiators are going to get the rulebook for the Paris Agreement implementation right.

“I really do think that at some point, the obstruction from these oil-fueled countries like the US, Australia, Canada will be overpowered by other countries banding together,” Bragg said.

With regards to fossil fuel interests and the threat that they could undermine the decisions governments will make in the climate talks, Bragg said government is meant to tell these industries what they should and shouldn’t do, and not the other way around.

“Corporations are accountable to governments, governments are accountable to people,” he said. “The idea that we need to include them in writing the rules that they need to operate by is ludicrous.”

On May 1, Max Andersson, a member of the European Union from the Greens/EFA also called for the European Commission to push for the adoption of the conflict of interest rule in the ongoing  negotiations and ensure that fossil fuel groups do not have a seat at the negotiation table.

At a press briefing, Andersson referred to a letter he delivered to European Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete and Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, who are leading the negotiations for the EU nations, that called for enhanced transparency. The letter was signed by 88 members of the European Parliament.

“We hope that we have managed to convince them that we need this rule. Fossil fuel industries and their economic interest would not undermine the goals that we are all fighting for here,” Andersson said.

He also urged the European Commission to step up the EU’s climate leadership, especially as only seven months remain before the rulebook for the actual implementation of the Paris Agreement will be finalized.

“Formerly, the EU was one of the organisations that was actually trying to block rules of conflict of interest. We have already managed them to stop actively blocking, but now we need the European Commission to start acting in favor of rules,” he said.

The Brussels-based nonprofit Corporate Europe Observatory also called for the EU delegation to support the adoption of the conflict of interest policy in the negotiations.

Pascoe Sabido, executive director, Corporate Europe Observatory said a letter signed by more than 100 Europe-based NGOs, including Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace, European Public Health Alliance, and European Environmental Bureau, has been handed to the EU delegation stating a demand for the climate negotiations process to be tackled.

“We need the EU to get behind 70 percent of the world’s population whose governments are calling for the conflict of interest policy.” He said. “If we are going to ramp up ambition, then we have to make sure that those who are trying to burn down the table of the climate talks are not going to be allowed to sit around that table. We need to ensure that the big polluters, particularly the fossil fuel industries, are kept out of these talks.” he said.   

Ping Manongdo is attending the Bonn talks as a representative of Climate Tracker. She is a correspondent for Eco-Business