May 9, 2018

ThinkProgress: US leads efforts to keep discussion of conflicts of interest off the table at UN climate talks

Despite opposition from the United States, more countries seem interested in getting fossil fuel influence out of climate negotiations.

By Natasha Geiling for ThinkProgress.

For nine days, representatives from governments across the globe have been meeting in Bonn, Germany, to hammer out details of the Paris climate agreement. But participating at the talks alongside diplomatic representatives and environmental groups are some perhaps unexpected parties — like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long opposed climate regulations and is a vocal proponent of fossil fuels.

A coalition of developing nations in Africa and Latin America had hoped to draw attention to the influence that the fossil fuel industry maintains over the climate negotiation process with a formal acknowledgement of conflicts of interest at the conclusion of the talks in Bonn this week. But developed nations — led largely by the United States — succeeded in preventing such a formal acknowledgement from being included in the meeting’s final notes.

Conflicts of interest within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) — the international treaty that dictates the UN’s annual climate conferences — aren’t a new phenomenon. In 2015, companies like Engie — a utility company that gets more than 70 percent of its energy output from fossil fuels — were financial sponsors of the Paris climate talks. But this year, developing nations — alongside environmental groups — have been working to make eliminating conflicts of interest a central part of the climate negotiations moving forward, much to the chagrin of countries like the United States and Australia.

“Every institution, especially of this scale, has some kind of policy to identify and mitigate internal conflict of interests,” Jesse Brag, media director for Corporate Accountability, which has been campaigning to make conflicts of interest within the United Nations climate negotiations a central issue since 2015, told ThinkProgress. “Right now, there is no acknowledgement [within the UNFCCC] that there could be problems that arise from the financial interests of businesses and NGOs operating here.”

There are a few ways in which fossil fuel companies — or industry groups that represent fossil fuel companies — have already influenced UN climate negotiations. At the Paris climate negotiations in 2015, for instance, fossil fuel companies that sponsored the talks were given access to “communications and networking” areas in rooms where negotiations were taking place.

The text of the Paris climate agreement, which calls for limiting global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) doesn’t mention the term “fossil fuels” once, despite the fact that burning fossil fuels is the primary action driving climate change. And the UNFCCC’s Climate Technology Network, which promotes the adoption of low carbon technology in developing countries, includes a member of the World Coal Association.

Developing nations, alongside NGOs like Corporate Accountability, had hoped to get parties on the record this year acknowledging that conflicts of interest exist within the climate negotiations. They had also hoped that such acknowledgement would be followed by policy suggestions aimed at helping root out conflicts of interest within the process.

That effort was largely waylaid due to intense opposition from the United States, which refused to allow any mention of conflicts of interest or fossil fuel companies into the meeting’s official notes.

But a coalition of governments representing 70 percent of the world’s population — largely from developing countries in Latin America and Africa — did succeed in getting parties to agree to keep talking about the issue at climate negotiations next year.

That might seem like a small victory, but Bragg argues it’s an important signal that the culture of the talks — as well as general recognition of the issue of conflicts of interest within the negotiations — is starting to change.

“Three years ago, no one wanted to talk about the fossil fuel industry’s role in climate denial in these talks,” Bragg said. “Now, it’s a discussion that is happening in every area of these halls. As the process advances, so does the culture around what needs to be done.”

It is unsurprising that the United States — which is still a party to the UNFCCC even as President Trump has promised to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement — would oppose efforts to draw attention to conflicts of interest between environmental treaties and fossil fuel companies. Under the Trump administration, several high-profile environmental regulator posts have been filled by people who previously represented the industries that they now oversee.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler, for instance, came to the EPA after working as a lobbyist for Murray Energy, the largest privately-owned coal firm in the United States.

Nancy Beck, who is currently the highest-ranking political appointee at overseeing regulation of the chemical industry at the EPA, used to work for the American Chemical Council , the chemical industry’s main lobbying organization.

And over at the Department of the Interior, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt came to the agency after working for years as a lobbyist in the natural resources department of the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

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