Are Fossil Fuels out of Fashion at the UN Climate Talks?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) prides itself for including both Parties and Non-party stakeholders in their decision making processes. A perspective that is suspicious towards the legitimacy of that approach, however, has appeared during the climate negotiations. What would be its supporters reasoning behind excluding a particular group? The particular group’s interest being conflicted with the backbone of the primary agreement – to limit the production of harmful gases. The situation has continued developing during the UNFCCC gathering in Bonn, Germany, this month.

Photo-illustration: Pixabay

There are three categories of participants at the UN Climate Negotiations : countries (parties), media and observers. The observers are further divided in  the United Nations system and its specialized agencies, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The NGO sector encompasses a wide range of values, which are mutually contrasted – ranging from entrepreneurship, industry and agriculture, through environmental associations, local authorities, indigenous people and the academic community to workers’ federations, women’s unions and youth. Among them, the largest fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell and BHP are also found at the meetings of the United Nations on climate change, many of which have openly lobbied against the original mission of the UN climate convention: reducing greenhouse gases emissions.

Concerned about the impairing effects some of these lobby groups might have on the UN Climate talks, Ecuador, on the behalf of the Like-Minded Developing Countries, opposed the practice of universal access to negotiations for Non-party stakeholders in May 2016.

Ecuador and its like-minded colleagues think that the Paris Agreement on Climate Change has emerged as a mechanism that requires participants to “declare” any conflict of interest (COI) they might have. This block, which has Venezuela, Cuba, Uganda and others in it, is committed to creating a “transparency framework” for everyone associated with the UN negotiations, this to ensure that their role is not destructive, but is going hand in hand with the global climate partnership that was launched in the French capitol in 2015.

We spoke to Walter Schuldt who is the head of the Ecuadorian delegation at the UN Climate convention. “Respect for the objective of the Paris Agreement is needed among parties”, Schuldt said. The Paris Agreement clearly states the need for action towards lowering global emissions, and each organization actively counteracting this objective should be labeled as such. The Ecuadorian delegate stressed there is political will from both his country, the African negotiating group and the NGO sector to advocate for a clear regulating process when involving non-parties in the decision making process.

The United States, the European Union, Norway and Australia strongly oppose the idea. In their opinion, industry is a part of the solution, not the problem, and it should not suffer any restrictions that are being proposed by developing countries. It is normal that in certain situations the states and observers, even among themselves, have views fighting with each other. Non-discriminatory participation without interference of the proposed policy of conflict of interest was further supported by other major producers of pollutants during the negotiations – China, Canada, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Japan and Switzerland.

Although both are coming from a county that is not supportive of COI, Norine Kennedy and Jesse Bragg have different attitude on the subject.

Norine Kennedy is a vice president for environment, energy and strategic international engagement in the United States Council for International Business (USCIB). You might have concluded it yourself already but just to announce it officially: Kennedy represents the voice of business at the negotiations, including dirty fuel exploiters.

Kennedy acknowledges that conflict of interest is a very important subject that must be addressed, adding that the business world would not be opposed to building up the conflict provision as long as it is not intolerable only to it. “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.” She added that if the results of the process would be discriminatory only to the business sector, they would be strongly against it.

“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,” Norine Kennedy stated. “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.” She emphasized that they are long-term thinking enterprises and that they are aware of the exigency to become cleaner and reduce their carbon emissions in order not to be erased from the business map.

The seed of the fight for establishing rules and definitions regarding conflict of interest within the UNFCCC was planted by Corporate Accountability International (CAI) which presented the secretariat with a petition of 500,000 names calling for the exclusion of fossil fuel companies. CAI’s media director is previously mentioned Jesse Bragg.

He praised developing countries for speaking up on adopting the COI policy as it is necessary if negotiators are going to get the rulebook for the Paris Agreement implementation right and expressed belief that at some point the obstruction from these oil-fueled parties like the US, Australia, Canada would be overpowered by others banding together. “Corporations are accountable to governments, governments are accountable to people,” Bragg professed. “The idea that we need to include them in writing the rules that they need to operate by is ludicrous”, he concluded.

PUSH Sweden is a network for young Swedes, founded in 2013. It “pushes” (pun intended) youth from all around the country to engage in sustainability issues solving and its main channel of communication is internet. One of many focus areas of PUSH Sweden are international climate negotiations. When it comes to negotiating conflict of interest, their stance is clear – they want “people in, polluters out”.

On 8th of May, 8th day of the UNFCCC conference in Bonn, accompanied the Youth constituency, the organization protested in front of World Conference Center, where the event was held, shouting “No coal, no oil – keep the carbon in the soil”. They presented how the Paris Agreement is being torn between two sides – people and polluters.

Asked to put feelings and wishful thinking aside and say who would win in the fight, Tove Lexén, Sitha Björklund and Saga Jonsson agreed: “In the end, we do not think there will be a winner. For each they the negotiations are slowed down and fossil fuels continue to be used – we are in fact all losers.” But as the previous discussions in the UNFCCC raised the topic several times and many states realized the need for COI policy, PUSH Sweden said that they strongly believe that, with that support, people would end up winning.

Lexén, Björklund and Jonsson are explicit that there is no way of cooperation between big oil and people. “How could we cooporate with someone who wins when negotiations fail and humanity loses?”, they wonder.

In conclusion, inspired by PUSH Sweden, we object:

What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? NOW!

When are we going to get it?

We do not know yet.

For now, fossil fuels companies are still welcome at the UN climate talks. The argument on conflict of interest has ended on 8th of May with a resolution… to argue more this time next year.

Jelena Kozbasic