The United Nations conference on climate change is supposed to be civil society’s last best hope for developing a global plan to cope with the global crisis. But this year’s conference in Katowice, Poland has disintegrated into part-diplomatic soiree, part-energy industry trade show. And it remains hostile terrain for the environmentalists and community advocates agitating on the sidelines.
While the summit is designed to take stock of global progress on core provisions of the Paris Agreement—the policy blueprint hammered out by about 200 member states in 2015—this year’s gathering is marked by two major differences: first, there’s been a monumental worsening of the climate crisis, with emission rates accelerating far more rapidly than anticipated; second, right-wing and nationalist movements have swept across the United States and other ecologically critical regions, from the Brazilian Amazon to Central Europe. So while more extreme mitigation measures are needed to stay on pace with the 1.5C target for global warming, political momentum is rapidly evaporating. In response to the flagging political motivation for international cooperation, grassroots groups are advancing a list of “People’s Demands” to counter the corporate capture of the UN process and call for a transparent, democratic, and community-focused vision for a decarbonized future.
The six-point program for climate justice—developed by a coalition that includes Friends of the Earth, Indigenous Environmental Network, and the watchdog group Corporate Accountability—calls for a comprehensive, “people first” transition to renewable energy sources by 2030, led by front-line communities, starting with an immediate halt to fracking projects and coal extraction and a moratorium on new fossil-fuel developments. The goals align with the UN climate-science panel’s recommendations for a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030—and run counter to the agenda of Trump and other anti-science, hard-right nationalists.
More broadly, the coalition demands a long-term program of environmental restoration, mitigation, and reparations, underwritten by a democratic policy-making process free of corporate corruption. That means barring industry lobbying through comprehensive conflict of interest regulation. Although not every instance of conflict of interest is preventable in climate policy—which often involves some cooperation with industry—advocates say the UN process has rolled out a red carpet for corporate green-washing. Unlike other international conferences such as World Health Organization meetings, the climate negotiations use a definition of “non-state” actors that might include civil-society groups or might include private-sector lobbyists for Exxon or pro-business think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
The groups behind the People’s Demands submitted a formal request in January to the UNFCC to restrict corporate influence peddling, demanding a new conflict of interest framework aimed at blocking “entities that either have, or represent those that have, financial interests requiring them to emit large quantities of greenhouse gases in order to continue to maximize profit” from “[using] its access to a public institution to slow, derail or direct the outcomes of negotiations toward the interests of its members.”
There is also rising internal pressure to get moneyed interests out of the climate talks, according to AFP. In recent months a coalition of conference participants known as African Group of Negotiators as well as the European Parliament have also requested conflict of interest rules be established for the climate conference. (So far, the conference has only adopted vague language that recognizes “the importance of enhancing the engagement of non-party stakeholders.”) When AFP sought out about a dozen business groups registered as “non-party stakeholders,” all refused to comment.
Then again, corporate influence in the COP process has long been something of an open secret. The site of this year’s talks, Katowice, is the heart of Poland’s coal country. The conference is sponsored by three of Poland’s biggest state-owned coal producers, and Central European oil giant Orlen.
The fate of the Green Climate Fund is another stark illustration of the disconnect between the investment priorities of wealthier member nations and the unmet social needs of vulnerable communities. The Paris accord established the financing pool to provide, in theory, $100 billion in donations for various mitigation and adaptation projects. But it has lately fallen into disarray amid bureaucratic infighting.
The progressive climate-justice groups have also criticized the role of the US Chamber of Commerce as an active political presence at the Katowice conference. The group lobbies ministers on behalf of fossil-fuel companies while promoting climate-denialist claims, even as the Trump administration itself has pointedly distanced itself from the summit.
Another corporate player involved with the UNFCCC is the International Emissions Trading Association, which represents objective non-state observers like BP, Chevron, Shell, and Bank of America. According to Corporate Accountability’s analysis of its lobbying activities around the Paris Agreement, it is a major promoter of controversial carbon-trading schemes, which seek to marketize token environmental-remediation programs in lieu of encouraging comprehensive emissions reductions.
Similarly, business groups have championed the controversial REDD+ program, a voluntary forest-conservation scheme that allows polluters to “offset” environmental harms with various projects that count as “credits” toward deforestation limits.
Meena Raman, legal advisor for Third World Network, says via e-mail from Katowice, “Instead of heeding the unequivocal science and urgent needs of people now, developed countries are spending their time here trying to escape their historical responsibility to this crisis. Developed countries are trying to default on the debt that they have to developing countries for driving this crisis.”
The corporate capture of the UNFCCC process has compromised the integrity of the negotiations, according to Corporate Accountability advocate Jesse Bragg. And though getting rid of business lobbyists at the conference space itself is “a first step,” he says, comprehensive conflict-of-interest guidelines are also needed on the domestic level, within the governments of member states, in order to establish “common-sense firewall policies that limit industry interference in policy-making. For example, requiring publicly accessible minutes after meetings with industry representatives or limits on revolving door cases.”
The ongoing negotiations…are shifting the focus away from the pathways to real solutions: the lands, territories, and forests where indigenous peoples, communities, and women are on the frontline, vulnerable to climate shocks, but resilient enough to respond with their own actions, using their customary practices, traditional wisdom and knowledge.However, our rights, governments, conservation, and restoration practices are not recognized and supported, since they neither bring credits nor profits.
The conference corridors may be awash in oil-slicked cash, but on the sidelines a new internationalism is being forged. While they have no corporate sponsorships, they’re hell bent on making polluters pay.