The news that the fossil fuel industry sent more delegates to COP26 than any single country was shocking and disappointing in equal measure. Matt Gillett investigates the long-standing and complicated relationship between fossil fuels and the fight against climate change.
Midway through the COP26 climate conference last November, a report was released revealing that the fossil fuel industry had sent more delegates to the Glasgow summit than any single country – 503 in total. This might seem an inherent contradiction: an industry largely responsible for the current climate emergency sending hordes of lobbyists to a conference designed to make their existence redundant. Yet the fossil fuel industry has a long, murky history of involvement in climate change mitigation.
In the run-up to COP26 I asked why 25 annual climate change conferences had not succeeded in preventing the climate crisis. Although it’s doubtful that he read my article, Murray Worthy from Global Witness believes he has an answer to that question: the influence of the fossil fuel industry at COP. “Their influence is one of the biggest reasons why 25 years of UN climate talks have not led to real cuts in global emissions”, Murray argues. The news that so many fossil fuel lobbyists descended on Glasgow certainly backs that claim. More than 100 fossil fuel companies turned up to COP26, including giant multinationals such as BP and Shell, and 27 countries had fossil fuel lobbyists in their delegations. This not only demonstrates the scale of the influence of the fossil fuel industry in climate conferences, but also the complexity of the relationship between the two.
The role of the fossil fuel industry in causing climate change is well established. Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas, are extracted and then burned for a variety of uses, such as heat and electricity. As fossil fuels have a high carbon content, burning them emits vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon in turn traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to climate change. So much so, in fact, that the IPCC has estimated that fossil fuels contributed up to 85% of global CO2 emissions in 2018. Not only are fossil fuels a source of environmental devastation, wrecking the atmosphere and therefore the planet, they are also a source of immense profit for the companies that exploit them.
As a result a vast industry has sprung up over the past century to maximise this potential. Fossil fuels have sat in the ground for millions of years – the name comes from the fact that they originate in the fossilised remains of ancient plants and animals – and the earth has not spent the past few million years heating exponentially. Fossil fuels themselves do not cause climate change, the fossil fuel industry causes climate change. The wealth created by the extraction of these resources on a massive scale has not only been used to pay ludicrous bonuses to executives and reward shareholders, it has also been used to fight the greatest existential threat to the industry: climate change mitigation.
The conspicuous presence of the industry at COP26 is just the latest indicator of the long-running involvement of fossil fuels in climate crisis mitigation. As a hugely lucrative enterprise, companies extracting and burning fossil fuels have sought to protect their profit margins, not by transitioning away from coal or oil, but by making moves to water down efforts by states and international organisations to place restrictions on the use of fossil fuels. They do this by hiring legions of lobbyists. These lobbyists often work overtly, attending conferences such as COP, meeting with political leaders and running public campaigns supporting the use of fossil fuels, primarily by emphasising the economic benefits: more jobs, substantial financial investments and lower energy prices. Lobbying in and of itself is not necessarily a malign influence: lobbyists can help educate politicians about key issues and raise awareness of problems in policy and legislation. But in reality the close relationship between lobbyists and politicians often creates a ‘revolving door’ between public office and the private sector, breeding corruption and an unhealthy degree of interdependence.
This revolving door is particularly popular among fossil fuel lobbyists. Lobbyists often enter politics, and politicians frequently become lobbyists after the end of their political careers. They funnel money to political campaigns, both to influence policies and to promote politicians who favour fossil fuels. They run smear campaigns against environmental groups and pro-green politicians, seeking to discredit anti-fossil fuel policies, and support climate change sceptics and deniers. In 2020 Shell gave more than $10 million to the American Petroleum Institute (API), which advocates for climate change denial and works to block climate legislation in the US Congress.
However, most oil and gas ‘supermajors’ refuse to release the figures about their contributions to pressure groups and political campaigns, so the true scale of the effort is unclear. But the extent of Shell’s contribution to one group in one year is one indicator of the staggering scale of covert climate lobbying, estimated to be worth around $2 billion in the United States alone between 2000 and 2016. Furthermore, this is not a recent trend: the fossil fuel industry has been holding back progress on the climate for decades. The API has been at the forefront of attempts to water-down major climate conferences since the very start, such as at the Rio Summit in 1992, and it worked furiously (and fairly successfully) to torpedo the Kyoto Protocol in the late 1990s.
As well as battling moves to reign in fossil fuel use, the shrewder fossil fuel companies engage in the fine art of ‘greenwashing’, essentially marketing spin that tries to appeal to the environmentally-conscious public by highlighting their pro-sustainability credentials and efforts to combat climate change. They do this through advertising campaigns on TV, online and in newspapers. Of course, some fossil fuel companies are making real moves to transition away from burning coal and oil, and even if just for cynical PR purposes, these moves are to be modestly applauded if they lead to real and tangible reductions in CO2 emissions.
However, these moves rarely go anywhere near far enough to offset the devastation that decades of burning fossil fuels has done to the environment, and these companies continue their existing operations on a vast scale that dwarf any green initiatives. But by ‘greenwashing’ these companies seek to excuse their behaviour and garner public and political support to stave off anti-fossil fuel policies and perpetuate the burning of fossil fuels.
This is not to suggest that there is some massive evil conspiracy within the industry to prevent action on climate change and fossil fuels, rather that these companies, like any profit-seeking enterprise, are trying to protect their revenue in the most efficient manner possible. For now that includes paying lobbyists and running PR campaigns, instead of undertaking a meaningful and wholesale transition away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy.
The hordes of fossil fuel lobbyists at climate conferences will only shrink in number by concrete action. The overwhelming financial muscle of the fossil fuel industry could be weakened by raising the costs of extracting raw materials from the earth and converting them to fuel. This could be achieved through a variety of methods, such as stronger government regulation, ending fossil fuel subsidies (currently worth $5 trillion a year, or $10 million a minute) or a carbon tax. This is not a guidebook to bringing down the fossil fuel industry, so more in-depth discussion on this topic will have to be saved for another day. In the shorter-term though, a more achievable aim is to end the debilitating influence of corporate lobbyists over policymakers, placing restrictions on political funding, advertising and access to climate conferences, which might go some way to undoing the crippling inertia that has seized COP and other efforts at climate change mitigation. In the meantime, the vicious cycle of lobbying and spin will continue to distort reality, cover-up climate change and exacerbate the climate crisis.
About the author: Matt Gillett is Online Editor at WILD and has just finished a degree in History and Politics at the University of York. He now spends his days honing the art of doing absolutely nothing at all, all the time, which comes naturally to him. He is feeling rather smug about it.