It’s official: COP28 has more fossil fuel lobbyists than ever
There are 2,456 fossil fuel interests at this year's U.N. climate summit, nearly four times more than any past year, according to a new analysis.
The number of fossil fuel lobbyists at this year’s U.N. climate summit is nearly four times higher than it’s ever been, revealing an extraordinary amount of influence from the biggest climate polluters on Earth.
Specifically, there are 2,456 fossil fuel representatives at this year’s United Nations Climate Change conference in the United Arab Emirates, according to an analysis of summit attendees published today by the Kick Big Polluters Out coalition.
There were only 636 fossil fuel lobbyists at last year’s COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, making the fossil fuel presence at this year’s summit “unprecedented,” the coalition said.
“The sheer number of fossil fuel lobbyists at climate talks that could determine our future is beyond justification,” said Joseph Sikulu, the Pacific managing director of environmental group 350.org, in a statement. “We come here to fight for our survival, and what chance do we have if our voices are suffocated by the influence of Big Polluters?”
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The analysis defines a fossil fuel lobbyist as anyone with ties to a fossil fuel company, fossil fuel foundation, or an organization with fossil fuel interests. The researchers also counted attendees from oil and gas industry trade associations, the majority of which came from the Global North.
The fossil fuel attendees at COP28 include representatives from some of the largest and wealthiest oil companies in the world, including Shell CEO Wael Sawan and Exxon CEO Darren Woods, who recently said that climate solutions “have been too focused on reducing supply.”
Several countries also brought oil and gas companies as part of their official country delegations; for example, the European Union brought employees of BP, Exxon, and Italian energy company ENI, while France brought employees from TotalEnergies and British energy group EDF.
For context, the number of disclosed fossil fuel delegates at COP28 is:
More than any single country delegation, with the exception Brazil (which is expected to host COP30) and the UAE
More than all the delegates from the 10 most climate-vulnerable countries combined, including Somalia, Chad, and Liberia
Seven times larger than the number of official Indigenous representatives
Four and a half times the number of lawmakers in the U.S. Congress
Nearly 14 times the number of representatives to the United Nations
The ballooning fossil fuel presence at the conference coincides with stricter regulations on the industry, including new restrictions on methane emissions and pledges to triple the world’s renewable energy—but not a phase out of fossil fuels.
The record number of lobbyists this year will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire from lawmakers and environmental groups who are calling for greater restrictions on oil and gas representatives, who they say have too much power at COP.
A plethora of oily influence
One reason there are more fossil fuel lobbyists this year is because there are more total attendees than ever before, more than 100,000 participants. But there’s another reason their number has nearly quadrupled—previous years underestimated the number of lobbyists, many of whom hid their company affiliations.
This is the first year that the U.N. has required participants to disclose who they work for, after years of pressure from advocacy groups.
But even without that transparency, research shows that a staggering number of people from the industry have shown up to the climate talks. Fossil fuel lobbyists have been given at least 7,200 passes to attend COPs over the last 20 years, according to research published last week by Kick Big Polluters Out.
The nonprofit found that employees of the world’s biggest polluters have observed negotiations at least 945 times, while fossil fuel lobby groups have attended at least 6,581 times. Last year, there were more lobbyists than the total number of delegates from the ten countries most impacted by climate change, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Mozambique.
“Their influence is very, very insidious,” said Patrick Galey, a senior investigator at Global Witness, who led the COP28 analysis. “And they are not pulling in the same direction as people who want to implement the Paris Agreement.”
How fossil fuel lobbyists influence negotiations—and why
Officially, only countries can negotiate the international climate agreements. But some lobbyists attend as party delegates, which means they are at the table when the world’s leaders are negotiating our climate future. Fossil fuel groups can also observe, and influence, the state actors at the table.
This influence may be subtle, or very obvious—at COP24, a Shell executive claimed credit for changing the 2015 Paris Agreement to include carbon offsets as a legitimate form of emissions reductions.
Carbon offset credits allow polluters like oil and gas companies to buy credits to “offset” their emissions—instead of simply emitting less. A growing body of scientific research has found that the unregulated carbon credit market has no environmental value and does nothing to curb climate change.
That’s another reason why fossil fuel lobbyists are showing up in record numbers this year: countries at COP28 will negotiate international trading for carbon offset credits. Fossil fuel companies try and influence these negotiations because, in a perfect world, they wouldn’t have to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels—they could use their enormous profits to buy their way out of the climate goals imposed on them.
That’s the same logic that makes oil giants eager to push technology like carbon capture and storage, which in a perfect world would capture all carbon emissions from fossil fuels. But if oil and gas consumption continues as projected, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius “would require an entirely inconceivable 32 billion tonnes of carbon captured for utilization or storage by 2050,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, in a statement. The amount of electricity needed to power that carbon capture technology—which isn’t yet built—would be greater than the entire world’s electricity demand today.
These solutions skirt the real problem—fossil fuels. And that’s the real reason there are so many fossil fuel lobbyists at this year’s COP, because they’ve never had more to lose. Experts say that fossil fuel use has to fall by a quarter by 2030, and by more than 75 percent by 2050. Any delay will endanger the path toward a liveable future, according to the world’s foremost scientists.
That path, however, significantly threatens the fossil fuel industry’s profits. So at COP28, “They will put forward any solution to the climate crisis apart from the one that we know will work, which is an equitable and rapid phase out of fossil fuels,” said Galey.
The case for change
This year, the fossil fuel industry isn’t just attending the climate conference—it’s hosting it. Not only is COP28 in a petrostate, but it’s being led by Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
Unsurprisingly, Al Jaber said in the lead-up to the conference that the fossil fuel industry should have a bigger seat at the table.
But asking the industry that spent billions on climate denial and delay is like asking the people who started the fire to help the firefighters, says Galey.
“Industry groups always say they need to be in the room because they are the technical experts that are going to implement these policy decisions,” said Galey. “We would say that we're here because of what they've done and we don't trust them to clean up the mess they've made.”
And there’s plenty of evidence that the fossil fuel industry isn’t changing. In 2022, the oil and gas industry only invested an estimated $20 billion in clean energy—or about 2.5 percent of its total capital spending, according to a new report from the IEA.
A separate report found that the same countries at COP28—including the U.S. and UAE—are planning to literally double down on fossil fuel production. Emissions from those fossil fuels will push the planet past a 2°C warming limit. That’s the point at which scientists say the climate becomes hostile to humans and other life.
“The uncomfortable truth that the industry needs to come to terms with is that successful clean energy transitions require much lower demand for oil and gas, which means scaling back oil and gas operations,” said Birol, in a statement released by the IEA before COP28. “There is no way around this."
But with trillions of dollars on the table, the oil and gas industry is not willing to get comfortable with the truth. At an event leading up to the conference, COP28 president Al Jaber said that there is “no science” that says that “the phase out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5°C.” Two weeks ago, Exxon CEO Darren Woods—who is at COP28—said that making Big Oil into “villains” would slow the path to net zero. On Monday, OPEC secretary general Haitham Al Ghais—also at COP28—said the IEA’s report “unjustly vilifies the industry as being behind the climate crisis.”
But the fossil fuel industry is objectively, factually, the main cause of the climate crisis—and the real injustice is inflicted upon developing nations on the front lines. As Emily wrote last week, those nations can’t afford to wait for a perfect climate conference.
Some climate advocates, like Al Gore, have proposed limiting attendance to fossil fuel companies that have a real net zero plan, spend their profits on the energy transition, and stop greenwashing and anti-climate lobbying. A letter signed by members of the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament recommends that any attendee with a conflict of interest should not be allowed to present, or participate in any COP activity.
But others, like Galey, say that the U.N. has to ban fossil fuel lobbyists altogether to make any meaningful progress on climate mitigation.
“Whatever equation you make, fossil fuels can't be part of it. And these guys know that,” said Galey. “They're just trying to keep the party going as long as possible.”
More news from COP28
Cop28 president says there is ‘no science’ behind demands for phase-out of fossil fuels. The Guardian, Dec. 3, 2023.
Al Jaber also said a phase-out of fossil fuels would not allow sustainable development “unless you want to take the world back into caves”.
The comments were “incredibly concerning” and “verging on climate denial”, scientists said, and they were at odds with the position of the UN secretary general, António Guterres.
Disinformation Is One of Climate Summit’s Biggest Challenges. The New York Times, Nov. 30, 2023.
The unfounded claims, the coalition warned in its report, have increased conspiracy theories, social divisions and harassment. The report noted an “alarming mobilization to violence” against those associated with climate change work, including Spanish meteorologists who reported on extreme spring weather and then faced ominous threats and accusations that they were “murderers.”
COP28 Climate Summit Takes Aim At Powerful Methane Emissions. The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 2, 2023.
From Texas to Turkmenistan, global leaders at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai are taking a big swing at cutting methane, a potent greenhouse gas produced by oil and gas drilling, livestock and rotting vegetation. They are using financial incentives combined with strict new regulations to get countries and energy firms on board.
Catch of the day: Let’s get cozy and curl up with Helena, who may be dreaming of a climate conference that comes up with real solutions for global warming.
When she’s not snoozing, Helena likes to hang with her pup pals Luna and Happy, says reader María.
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