Halfway through the annual cycle of global climate talks between COP27 in Egypt and COP28 in the United Arab Emirates, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is holding technical meetings in Bonn through June 15 under a swirl of intensifying climate and political storms. 

On the climate side, life-threatening extremes like the recent Asian heat waves are happening more often than expected and are stronger than projected by even the most recent assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Just ahead of the meeting, extreme rain and flooding hit Italy, and thick smoke waves from wildfires in Canada drifted across New York.

Politically, a growing number of civic groups, as well as elected officials in several countries, say the growing influence of fossil fuel companies in the climate negotiations threatens the UNFCCC’s fundamental credibility, as well as its ability to help rein in the emissions from burning oil, gas and coal. 

At Bonn, a coalition of climate policy watchdog groups under the Climate Action International umbrella are intensifying their push to reform the U.N.’s climate framework to eliminate, or at least reduce, the role of fossil fuel companies in the process. For the first time, the United Nations climate secretariat seems open to change.

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“It’s time to understand that, as long as big polluters are engaged at the level that they are in COP, that we will never be able to have a real reduction of emissions,” said Thomas Joseph, part of the Indigenous Environmental Network climate team. “They are here to stop that. Their sole purpose for engaging in these COP negotiations is to make sure that they can continue business as usual. By kicking big polluters out we show that we understand the science and understand that climate chaos is caused by the burning of fossil fuel.” 

“Fossil fuel emissions are what’s causing my community to burn up. It’s burning up because big polluters are dictating the direction of climate resolve,” said Joseph, from unceded Hupa territory in part of northeastern California that is threatened by extreme fires. “And as they continue to dictate that, we will continue to burn, and it will not just be Indigenous peoples, but it will be everybody.” 

More and more people are angry because, “While the planet is burning, and floods are drowning people and people are losing their lives and livelihoods, big polluters are writing the rules of climate action,” said Rachel Rose Jackson, director of research and international policy with the NGO Corporate Accountability. “They are bankrolling the climate talks, and are undermining every meaningful attempt to deliver the action we need here and now.”

The concerns over the fossil fuel industry’s level of influence spiked this year when the United Arab Emirate’s Sultan al Jaber, who is also chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, was appointed to the presidency of COP28 in a process that lacks public transparency and accountability. 

It’s not only civil society groups that have taken notice. Late last month, more than 130 elected officials with the U.S. Congress and the European Union Parliament asked United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres to “withdraw” al Jaber’s appointment. The May 25 letter also requested the U.N. to “ institute new policies for corporate participation at COPs and UNFCCC processes more broadly,” including audited corporate political influencing statements to disclose climate-related lobbying and campaign contributions.

The UNFCCC should also consider additional reforms to bring “much-needed transparency to corporate climate-related political influencing activities around the world,” the letter continued. That would “help restore public faith that the COP process is not being abused by companies as an opportunity to greenwash.”

A Chance for Reform

The UNFCCC is an apparatus of its member states, so reform can’t be imposed from outside, said Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action International; the body will have to cleanse itself, hopefully in a process that is accessible and transparent to the public. 

Lobbyists don’t have to wear ID badges, so right now, it’s not always clear who represents fossil fuel industry interests at the talks. Some lobbyists are registered as members of national delegations or with observer groups. 

“We have to shine a spotlight on who comes into these processes in different disguises,” Essop said, adding that corporate lobbyists have also proliferated as the COP talks have morphed into something like a climate trade show, akin to the World Economic Forum in Davos, with hundreds of private companies trying to sell products and services or vying to tap into the growing pool of public climate funding. 

“We need to reclaim a multilateral United Nations process that addresses the climate crisis and is not an expo with a whole lot of external things like with corporate sponsorships and partnerships,” she said.

At the opening press conference of the Bonn climate meeting, the UNFCCC acknowledged, for one of the first times on record, the growing public concerns over fossil industry influence, and specifically answered questions about al Jaber’s controversial role. But Stiell said the U.N. climate secretariat doesn’t have unilateral power to change the way host countries and COP presidencies are picked. 

“We are there as custodians of the process … to support the incoming president,” he said. “The selection of the presidency comes from the parties and we’re there to provide support. Specific to COP28, we have a president who has significant experience in the oil and gas sector in an oil and gas producing nation. It provides an opportunity to ask some very difficult questions.”

He said the UNFCCC is at least thinking about reforms in connection with the apparent conflict of interest arising from having fossil fuel companies so deeply entwined in the international diplomatic process. Based on observations from COP27 and previous meetings, “the secretariat is looking at the process to ensure that there is transparency,” he said.

Some new measures could be put in place before COP28 this coming November, he added.

“We know the dilemma,” Essop said. “How are the COP hosts decided? They are decided by governments, actually, and there’s no criteria that guides the selection of COP hosts. Governments get together in a region, and they all put up their hands and the region decides: This one coming up now is an Asian COP, and so it went to the UAE.”

She said governments have to take responsibility for how they decide on COP locations and presidencies, but civil society must guide them with criteria. 

“We don’t want to go to a COP in a country that is fossil fuel friendly and will promote fossil fuels, and we don’t want to go to countries also that have dreadful human rights records,” she said. “We need to be firm, and these are obviously interlinked.”

Both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, host countries of the most recent and next COP meetings, have been criticized, including by the United States State Department, for arbitrarily arresting people and imprisoning people for political reasons.

“We have to be far more determined to get the system reset on the inside,” Essop said.

Credible Climate Promises?

The UNFCCC may also have a credibility problem with the climate promises already made under the Paris Agreement, according to a new study released as the first week of the Bonn meeting ended. The paper, published June 8 in Science, found that “the policies currently in play fall short of the promises made, opening the potential for global climate targets to be missed by a large margin.

“A critical question is whether we can believe that countries will deliver on the commitments they have made,” the authors wrote. When we consider the credibility of current climate pledges, our assessment shows that the world remains far from delivering a safe climate future.” 

Lead author Joeri Rogelj, a scientist with the Imperial College Grantham Institute, said the study evaluated the credibility of national climate pledges based on several criteria, including whether they are legally enforceable, and whether they are backed by realistic implementation plans. The bottom line, as other studies have shown, is the world is still on a path to hurl past the goal of limiting warming to a temperature close to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. 

Up to now, most assessments of future warming were based on either the assumption of following current policies, or, that policies will change to match up to the Paris pledges.

The first leads to warming of as much as three degrees Celsius, which is “a terrifying world,” Rogelj said. Under the second scenario, “if you look at all the pledges and the long term strategies for zero goals, well then we are already below 2 degrees, and we might be getting close to 1.5,” he said.

“These are two very different roles, and If I’m a planner, I want to know where we’re actually heading,” he said. “In the second case, where we project warming below two degrees, It sounds like we just need to do a bit more and then we have solved the climate crisis and averted disaster.” 

Rogelj also said having a fossil fuel executive in charge of the COP talks can make it harder to reach those targets.

“It without any doubt undermines the credibility of the presidency,” he said. “And it undermines the effectiveness with which it can build an ambitious outcome. I don’t know what their agenda is or what outcome they are pursuing. But this is definitely not helping with an ambitious outcome.”

He noted that the United Arab Emirates scored low credibility rankings in the new paper. Even though the UAE has a net zero target, they have no plan to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they put out and their emissions are still increasing.

“They are assessed to have much lower credibility, so that is not a good place to be as a presidency of COP,” he said. “You should be leading by example, showing best practices. Put together a plan and show how your promises are not just empty promises, but that you can translate them into policies and ultimately, emissions reductions on the ground.”

Stiell summed up the challenging path ahead for the climate negotiators.

“There is, at times, tension between national interest and the global common good,” he said. “I urge delegates to be brave. To see that by prioritizing the common good you also serve your national interests, and to act accordingly. As you deliberate, keep in mind this basic premise. No life is expendable.”

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