Report from COP27: The Fossil Fuel Industry Continues to Block the Path to Climate Justice

November 14, 2022 | 12:46 pm
L. Delta Merner
L. Delta Merner
Lead Scientist, Science Hub for Climate Litigation

The situation is dire. Entire neighborhoods are underwater, priceless cultural heritage has disappeared, and ecosystems have been destroyed. The destruction caused by climate change is directly linked to human activity, primarily burning fossil fuels. There are multiple realistic, tangible solutions that would rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, yet policy addressing anthropogenic climate change remains slow and insufficient. This dangerous delay in action is largely due to the fossil fuel industry continuing to increase carbon emissions and standing in the way of change

During the UN’s 27th Conference of the Parties—COP27—several nations, including Estonia, Guinea Bissau, Kenya and Tanzania, have announced their intention to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Colombia announced plans to stop developing oil and gas. Tuvalu endorsed the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. A UN report released at the start of COP27 clearly recommends that net-zero means ending fossil fuel exploration, expansion and production. And, on Saturday, during the negotiations, India called for a phase-down of all fossil fuels.  

All of these efforts show that the global community can come together and rapidly phase out all fossil fuels and build a better future for all of us. However, as the first week of the UN climate negotiations have drawn to a close at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, I’ve witnessed a few troubling things that are detracting from the conference’s essential work, notably, the fossil fuel industry’s dominant and problematic role.  

Fossil Fuel Interests are Shaping the Narrative  

First, it is important to understand that the basic framing and communication around COP27 is coming from Hill+Knowlton. Hill+Knowlton is a major public relations firm that works with a number of fossil fuel polluters—Chevron, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco and Shell—and a key international lobby group for the fossil fuel industry, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative. Hill+Knowlton’s London offices even serve as the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative’s headquarters.  

This relationship creates an unacceptable conflict of interest. In its work for COP27, Hill+Knowlton is responsible for accurately communicating this critical UN climate conference to the world. But the outcomes that the world needs and the outcomes that its oil and gas industry clients likely want are in conflict. These companies’ business plans call for increasing fossil fuel production, which is in direct opposition to the main goal of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is to establish a just, global process to limit the worst consequences of climate change.  

I joined more than 400 other scientists to call on Hill+Knowlton to drop its fossil fuel clients in light of its work at COP27. Hill+Knowlton cannot ethically represent companies that are profiting off of fossil fuels and spreading disinformation to block governmental action while handling communications for the UN climate negotiations that need to act to boldly transform our global energy policies.  

Hill+Knowlton has a long history of representing special interests that conflict with the public interest. One of its founders, John Hill, pioneered the tactic of creating seemingly objective, independent science to manipulate public policy. He created the Tobacco Industry Research Committee to promote pseudoscience to prop up the tobacco industry narrative that there were no health risks associated with cigarettes. This is the company, which provides the same function for the fossil fuel industry, framing COP27 for the world.  

Fossil Fuel’s Outsized Seat at the COP27 Table 

Historically, the fossil fuel industry has played an outsized role at COP negotiations. At COP26, for example, there were more than 500 delegates associated with the fossil fuel industry. The combined number of delegates from the fossil fuel industry was larger than the delegations of some countries. Rough numbers from COP27 are showing a 25 percent jump in industry representation this year, an increase of 160 delegates. There are 70 fossil fuel delegates in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) delegation alone, which does not bode well for next year’s COP28, when the UAE will be the host.  

What does the industry’s undue influence mean in concrete terms at the conference?  

One example, last Friday—whose theme was decarbonization—included a roundtable discussion called “From Commitments to Action: The Oil & Gas Industry’s Decarbonization Journey,” which featured industry representatives. But the discussion’s very premise is troubling. There can be no decarbonization without phasing out the main cause of carbon pollution: fossil fuels.  

When considering the role the fossil fuel industry is playing at the COP, it’s important to remember three key things:  

  • Research by UCS and others shows that oil and gas industry deception and obstruction have worsened the climate crisis. The oil and gas industry could have helped to prevent climate change if it had acted on what its own scientists knew 60 years ago. Instead it spent decades working to block and stall climate action.  
  • When oil and gas companies stand up at COP today they primarily talk about net-zero pledges, but, as UN Secretary General António Guterres said, Using bogus ‘net-zero’ pledges to cover up massive fossil fuel expansion is reprehensible. …The sham must end.” We need to remain focused on the carbon pollution that the industry is responsible for right now and keep emission reductions as the primary goal.  
  • If oil and gas companies really wanted to decarbonize, they could. This process would start with stopping new exploration and extraction projects immediately and launching a meaningful plan to rapidly lower their fossil fuel production and sales. Instead, many companies are proposing to increase extraction in the upcoming years.  

Decarbonization will rely on keeping big polluters out of policymaking. Fossil fuel companies need to be held accountable and made to pay for communities’ climate damages, not provided a global platform to greenwash their image.   

Disinformation About Loss and Damage  

For decades, scientists have known that burning fossil fuels has resulted in global warming emissions that warm the planet, driving massive climate change and harmful impacts. Despite this knowledge, privately owned and government-owned fossil fuel companies continued to invest in and support the burning of coal, oil and gas. Because of those decisions, communities today are facing significant losses and damages.  

As negotiations around loss and damage continue this week at COP27, it is essential that we ensure that loss and damage funds are equitable repayment for real climate change-related losses. An analysis by Climate Action Against Disinformation shows that some groups are already trying to reframe the debate through a negative lens, but the reality is pretty straightforward.  

When a party makes an intentional decision that inflicts harm on another party, it has a responsibility to try to repair those damages. Accountability is not a difficult idea. Today, the United States and other nations must stand up and take ownership of their actions by ensuring that COP27 conferees establish a process to collect and distribute new funds for loss and damage.  

Loss and damage is not a new idea. Island nations brought up concerns about loss and damage back in 1991. And, as a negotiator from Vanuatu pointed out, if climate change had been addressed in 1991, there would be no need for significant loss and damage funds today. Now, 30 years later, loss and damage is officially being negotiated at COP.  

At COP26, there were intense negotiations around loss and damage, but there was minimal interest in the topic beyond a narrow slice of journalists, politicians and activists.  

It is a very different story at COP27. As negotiators make progress on defining the structures that could facilitate loss and damage payments, opponents are attempting to rebrand loss and damage as “climate reparations” to politicize the idea. They are using a classic strategy to try to foment division and spread disinformation around loss and damage by cherry-picking facts and pitting nations against each other.  

At COP27, nations are calling for the fossil fuel industry to pay for the losses and damages they caused by fueling climate change. These calls for action are coming from Pakistan and a coalition of 39 small island and low-lying coastal developing states, known as the Alliance of Small Island States. 

Industry is Still Twisting the Science  

When talking with brilliant negotiators and passionate climate leaders from around the world at COP27, it feels so obvious to me that we can come together to limit the worst consequences of climate change. But, as I have detailed above, the oil and gas industry in standing in the way of this future. The last UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report chapter on North America acknowledged for the first time that “vested economic and political interests have generated rhetoric and misinformation that undermines climate science and disregards risk and urgency which resulted in the political misperceptions of climate risk and polarized public support for climate action.” The fossil fuel industry’s nefarious role is still very much evident at COP27.  

The industry is continuing to distort the narrative and shape the very science policymakers rely on to make informed decisions. A study just published last week in Nature reviewed scientific studies on natural gas and found that reports by research centers funded by the fossil fuel industry were more favorable toward natural gas than renewable energy. Taking a page from the playbook written by John Hill decades ago, the industry is still influencing the science.  

The global community needs to follow the nations leading the charge for a fossil fuel-free future—and the oil and gas industry needs to get out of the way.