Fossil Fuel Companies Are Still Influencing COP26, Despite Losing Their Official Role
It seemed that the corporations who played an important role in the creation of the climate crisis were not allowed to have a voice in how we get out. Unlike at previous climate summits, the organizers of COP26 in Glasgow didn’t give fossil fuel companies a formal role in the talks, a move that climate activists have interpreted as a reprimand for the companies’ lack of clear action to end their planet-warming emissions. Yet that doesn’t mean the oil industry has lost influence over the conference and its outcomes. In the weeks leading up to this crucial summit, several reports revealed how deeply fossil fuel industry connections have been. These include those involved in organizing it and with the people at the negotiating table.
The management consulting sector is one avenue for influence. U.K. COP26 organizers tapped Boston Consulting Group (BCG) for “strategy implementation” and other services, despite the fact that the firm also claims to advise 19 of the world’s 25 biggest oil companies, according to a report from the U.K.’s Channel 4 News.
“This is…highly unusual to have private sector involvement of any kind at that level in what is essentially an international diplomatic conference,” Transparency International UK chief executive Daniel Bruce told the network. “It’s hard not to ask the question, or to see that there is a very face-value conflict of interest here.”
BCG told the network that it “strictly adhered to” policies, including “staffing restrictions” that would prevent potential conflicts of interest. But the results of a bit of digging don’t inspire much confidence in BCG’s internal guardrails. The “Global Leadership Delegation” BCG is sending to Glasgow to “present, discuss, and explore ideas for strategies aimed at meeting the COP26 goals” includes managing director Michel Frédeau, who serves as the company’s Global Topic Leader for Climate and Environment. But there’s another aspect of Frédeau’s job: advising major oil and gas companies on “strategic, organizational and operational issues,” according to his LinkedIn page (he also works with renewable energy companies). Asked for comment, a BCG spokesperson would not confirm if Frédeau was involved in consulting for the COP26 organizers.
“Michel Fredeau specializes in helping to develop decarbonizing strategies for high emitting sectors,” the spokesperson said in a statement to TIME. “At BCG, we partner with clients in sectors where abatement is most difficult or where emissions are greatest, and feel it is our role to help them find solutions that will spark the greatest change and speed up progress toward net zero. We don’t work for clients who are openly indifferent or in denial of climate change.”
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One way fossil fuels have power over meetings like COP, is by the governments. Many of these governments are closely connected to the industry. In the U.S., Senator Joe Manchin, who has significant fossil fuel investments, was able to all but single-handedly gut President Biden’s initiative to force power companies to switch to clean electricity, leaving the U.S. with little domestic climate action to point to as it seeks to re-establish itself as a leader at the international talks. Over the seven-year period, Europe saw more than 70 people move between positions in the E.U. or national governments. This was according to an Oct. 25 Report from Corporate Europe Observatory. Friends of the Earth Europe and Food Water Action Europe. Researchers also found 568 meetings that took place between EU Commission officials, fossil fuel lobbyists or executives during these years.
Many governments at the COP negotiating tables believe that national and fossil fuel interests are essentially the same. Russia, which is dependent upon gas exports in its economy as well as its presence on the global stage, is likely to attend COP26. As my colleague Aryn Baker writes, the intention will be to slow down progress on climate change to maintain its domestic industry. Experts believe Saudi Arabia will have similar goals, with slow-walking net zero goals which could reduce its oil and gas exports. Some governments tried to hinder climate action by hiding behind leaked documents. These documents showed how Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia attempted to reverse U.N. scientists’ conclusions about how to combat climate change. Australia is Japan’s largest coal exporter. An Australian official, for instance, made a comment on a draft of the report saying that closing coal power plants, one of the main objectives of the COP26 summit, wasn’t necessary.
All that is not to say that denying fossil fuel companies a role at COP26 was a meaningless move—it blocked them from exerting the most overt kinds of influence over the talks, as well as an opportunity to burnish their climate credentials as they continue to pour billions of dollars into new fossil fuel investments. But it’s also clear that the world’s fossil fuel industry doesn’t need to be physically present at the summit to make its voice heard—plenty of the officials in attendance will be glad to speak up for it.