SHARM EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT — International negotiators have gathered here for the annual United Nations climate conference known as COP27 amid nearly unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty. Following the upheaval of a pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown global energy markets into chaos, and the dramatic ambition needed to meet the global climate change challenge was at best on shaky ground.
Even still, the talks playing host to a fossil fuel revival was likely not on anyone’s bingo card.
“This should not be a fossil fuel trade show,” David Tong, the global industry campaign manager at nonprofit Oil Change International, told Grid on Monday. “I’ve been to eight COPs. And this is different in many ways. One way that it’s different is the palpable presence of the oil and gas lobby.”
Negotiations toward a new global climate agreement continue this week, focused in theory on making bigger cuts and on securing massive amounts of funding for developing countries to address the impacts of warming, but the presence of the fossil fuel industry has been inescapable. The industry has increased its lobbying presence, there are whispers that the eventual diplomatic agreements will fail to even mention coal and oil and gas, and reports proliferate on the energy sources’ continued global expansion.
A report from Global Witness, along with Corporate Accountability and Corporate Europe Observatory, found that at least 636 oil and gas industry lobbyists are attending COP27 — a number they say is likely an underestimate, as it relies on specifically disclosed ties to the industry. That’s an increase of over 100 such delegates over last year’s talks in Glasgow, Scotland.
“This is something different,” Tong said. “And it is concerning.”
Before the world descended on this small resort city on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, there was some sense that COP27 might not improve the climate outlook all that much.
“My expectations for COP are very cautious,” said Columbia University Earth Institute Director Alex Halliday, in a press briefing before the talks began. “I’m not expecting a great deal from this.”
The war in Ukraine has contributed to a global energy crunch, with Russia cutting off natural gas sales to Europe. That has driven a push for more renewable energy but also for nuclear power, natural gas and even coal.
Meanwhile, the U.N. released a report in late October noting that only 24 countries had submitted updated emissions targets since last year’s climate talks — and that existing pledges would still result in 10.6 percent higher emissions in 2030 than in 2010. Yet a 45 percent cut is needed to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the target enshrined by all countries in the 2015 Paris Agreement and reaffirmed last year in Glasgow.
Add to this the fact that the meeting’s host country, Egypt, boasts oil and petroleum products as its most important exports, and one could say the stage was set.
An oily presence
According to the Global Witness analysis, fossil fuel lobbyists at the talks include members of official negotiating delegations. For example, Canada’s team has executives from Enbridge, the pipeline company behind a number of controversial projects including the Dakota Access Pipeline that spawned the extensive protests at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.
Outside the negotiation rooms, the industry has also made itself known. On Saturday, several paragliders circled down over the conference site, raising the obvious question of whether this was a protest pushing for climate action. But reports are that the gliders were connected to an oil and gas drilling services company. The day before, the theme of which was “decarbonization day,” an event called “From Commitments to Action: The Oil & Gas Industry’s Decarbonization Journey” featured industry executives. Critics said that sort of presence let them “shape the narrative.”
“The influence of fossil fuel lobbyists is greater than frontline countries and communities,” read a statement from Kick Big Polluters Out, a consortium representing more than 400 nonprofits and other organizations whose name speaks for itself. “Delegations from African countries and indigenous communities are dwarfed by representatives of corporate interests.”
Meanwhile, beyond the desert confines of COP27, fossil fuel expansion continues apace. A report released on Tuesday from Germany nongovernmental organization Urgewald showed that 200 companies are currently exploring new oil and gas projects in Africa alone. Much of this investment is from non-African companies — Total Energies, of France, and Eni, of Italy, are among the biggest investors — and most of the projected development is not intended for use to expand electricity and energy access on the continent. For example, 89 percent of the planned expansion of liquefied natural gas is slated for export.
“This is not to serve Africa — this is to serve energy interests of Europe and Asia,” said Heffa Schuecking, who led the report, during an event in Egypt on Monday.
She also called out the climate talks’ host country: “Egypt is actually also a hot spot for oil and gas exploration,” Schuecking said. “There are currently 55 companies prospecting for new oil and gas finds in Egypt alone.”
Omar Elmawi, coordinator of the Stop the East African Crude Oil Pipeline campaign and executive director of Kenya-based Muslims for Human Rights, decried the massive foreign investment in fossil fuels. “They are exploitative in many ways; they are also very colonial,” he said. “Africa is becoming a petrol station … that fits the interests of the Global North.”
Reasons for hope
Though the fossil fuel industry has made its presence known at COP27, hopes are still high that negotiators will make real progress at the talks.
The controversy over fossil fuel participation is “overshadowing some of the real progress that is happening in the negotiations and around the negotiations,” Tong told Grid.
For example, the small Pacific island nation of Tuvalu became the first to officially call for a fossil fuel nonproliferation treaty, a long-shot idea that nonetheless brings the concept of doing away with dirty energy into the halls of the U.N. Several countries, including Estonia and Kenya, have announced goals to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.
“And those are real breakthroughs happening,” Tong said. “We have to make sure that oil and gas lobbyists don’t stop that.”
Last year’s COP26 also saw a historic first in the inclusion of any mention of fossil fuels in the final Glasgow Climate Pact; the text included a call for a “phasedown of unabated coal power.” This year, some countries including India, which gets most of its electricity from coal and may have been involved with changing “phaseout” to “phasedown” in Glasgow (though possibly not), are calling to change the wording to specify all fossil fuels. There is a chance that this battle results in any mention at all being removed, but the discussion is at least on the table.
Still, it is a dark sign that the 27th version of these climate talks, taking place after a summer rife with catastrophic impacts across both the developing world and rich countries, is so overshadowed by the reasons the world is in this mess to begin with — and prospects looking beyond COP27 aren’t much better.
The Global Witness report on fossil fuel lobbyist presence here found the United Arab Emirates delegation included 70 people connected to oil and gas production. COP28 will take place in Dubai.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.