By: Alanah Torralba

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In September 2017, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which represents the interests of global businesses in intergovernmental meetings, was granted Observer status at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly.

It was the first time that a private sector group has been formally admitted into the UN system.  The Chamber praised the move as a step towards inclusivity and increasing engagement of the private sector, particularly in the realm of climate action.

“Business is central to national climate action plans that will affect domestic and international operations, supply chains, planning and investments,” the group said in a statement. 

It was a statement that has raised the hackles of the hundreds of organizations fighting to undo the damage from decades of unrestrained growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, much of it caused by members of the international chamber.  And, critics say, there was reason for the suspicion.

This year, the main objective of the United Nations-sponsored Conference of Parties was to craft the rulebook for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, the climate accord signed in 2015 that seeks to limit the rise of global temperatures well below 2˚C by drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In a statement before the start of the conference, the ICC declared that businesses are ready to tackle several pillars of climate action: mitigation as a source of new business opportunities, adaptation as a way to insure investments, and to even open the conversation on providing a pathway for workers from “dirty” energy industries into the age of renewable energy. It added that more businesses are committing to leadership in climate action than any other time in history.

Noticeably absent, however, in the ICC’s detailed support of climate action in the highest level of climate policymaking is “loss and damage,” one of the pillars of climate action in the Paris Agreement.

Irreversible impacts of climate change

In a nutshell, loss-and-damage refers to the inevitable impacts of climate change that simply cannot be addressed through mitigation or adaptation measures. Examples of these are deaths caused by extreme weather events like Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in the Philippines’ Eastern Visayas in November 2013, and displacements and loss of income due to slow onset events such as intense droughts.

Developing countries, especially those highly vulnerable to climate change including the Philippines, have been at the forefront of campaigning for finance for loss and damage. There had been optimism that this year’s conference could finally address finance since the host country, Fiji, is a small island nation that experienced incredible losses due to the onslaught of Typhoon Winston early this year.

Questioning climate change causes

During negotiations on loss and damage last November, representatives of Australia and the European Union (EU) blocked the inclusion of finance in the agenda, saying “not all disasters are caused by climate change.”

The assumption of liability for developed countries that had historically polluted the environment in their drive to industrialize has always been a controversial topic. Acknowledging fault would propel the debate for financial responsibility to the mantle of developed nations.

“Agreeing to loss and damage means admitting responsibility, which is the last thing the fossil fuel industry and developed countries that do their bidding want to do,” Jesse Brag, Media Director of Corporate Accountability (CAI), a US-based think tank.

Fossil fuel industry and its influence

A report released by CAI titled “Polluting Paris,” details how fossil fuel corporations influence the UN-led climate talks through proxy organizations.  The report details the wellsprings of funding – from ExxonMobile, for instance – for the US Chamber of Commerce, an event sponsor in the Business Day segment of COP 23.

Exxon Mobil, through the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), has repeatedly undermined scientific claims on climate change by spreading misinformation, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said. The AEI in the past has said that there is no consensus on man-made climate change in the scientific community.

The AEI received US$3.6 million from Exxon Mobil from 1998-2012 and more than US$1 million from foundations supported by the Koch brothers, which have business interests in the fossil fuel industry, the UCS said.

Climatic Change, a scientific journal, has also identified ExxonMobil and Chevron as among the top carbon emitting companies in the world.

A conflict of interest in the participation of these companies in climate policymaking is at the center of the study conducted by CAI. Should companies whose profits and existence depend on burning vast amounts of fossil fuels, the single most polluting activity on the planet, be allowed to participate in climate negotiations?

Lobbying against implementing the Paris Agreement

“If there is a time to lobby for big corporations, it is now,” Yeb Saño, executive director of Greenpeace Philippines, said during an interview in Bonn.

As countries have worked to create the roadmap for the Paris Agreement, multinational fossil fuel companies have sought to influence the talks through proxy organizations that sponsored events and even attended negotiations, CAI said.

Disappointing outcome

For many members of civil society organizations, the outcome for loss and damage in COP 23 was a disappointment.

Action Aid’s  global lead person on climate, Harjeet Singh, lamented the weak position adopted by Fijian Prime Minister and COP president Frank Bainimarama on loss and damage.

Advocates and several negotiators from developing nations campaigned for more funding for the technical group in charge of studies and meetings for loss and damage. Instead, COP 23 only provided for a one-off expert dialogue in May 2018, which may not be able to comprehensively tackle all the issues surrounding loss and damage.

“But even though vulnerable communities were in the spotlight [during COP 23], this still hasn’t translated into the support that they need,” Singh said.

Need for intervention

To be able to take the loss and damage agenda further in climate policymaking, there is a need to disengage private sector interest in the climate talks, CAI said.

While businesses and private sector organizations have a role to play in global climate action, there is an imperative for the UNFCCC to disallow their participation in the highest level of climate negotiations. The UN organization must invoke a conflict of interest clause, where groups with interests that run contrary to the goals of the talks must not be allowed to participate in the talks, CAI added.

The World Health Organization created a similar policy to preserve the integrity of its discussions on tobacco control in 2003.

“Government must reclaim its role as the arbiter of corporate behavior. For too long, corporations have eroded governmental power and convinced people that individual actions are the solution to the climate crisis,” CAI Brag said.

As the irreversible costs of climate change continue to destroy communities and take the lives of people who had no hand in the climate crisis, a thorough review of the UNFCCC’s policy of inclusivity is pertinent.

Alanah Torralba is a Manila-based journalist. She wrote this report on a fellowship with Climate Tracker, an independent NGO that tracks emission commitments and actions of countries.