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The Corporate Polluters Paying for COP21

Companies with ties to the electric, car, and coal industries now have the “COP21 seal of approval.”

Image via Flickr user Paris Climate. Credit: Joel Lukhovi | Survival Media Agency

Intuitively, it’s probably pretty obvious that getting 190 countries with competing interests to agree on a single global deal to fight climate change is a challenge. Throw 40,000 delegates, observers, and members of the press into the mix, and the difficulty multiplies by orders of magnitude. The venue is massive, and there’s electricity, catering, transportation, and security to think of. The total price tag for the whole lot: approximately $190 million. Who’s supposed to pay for it all?

The United Nations simply doesn’t have that kind of money lying around. So for better or worse, French Foreign Minister and president of the conference Laurent Fabius has turned to corporations for support. Getting private companies involved in the U.N. climate negotiations has been a contentious matter, especially this year, when many see the nearly 64 sponsors’ lobbying-through-sponsorship to be a bad influence on negotiators who are set to sign a final agreement next week.


COP21’s headline sponsor is premium automobile company BMW. Another major sponsor is electric company EDF, which is 84 percent state-owned, according to Pascoe Sabido, researcher and campaigner for Corporate Europe Observatory. Nissan-Renault is providing the electric vehicles transporting delegates, observers, and press. Engie, Air France, and BNP Paribas are also listed on a huge banner at the entrance to the venue. BNP Paribas is one of the world’s biggest coal financiers, and Air France and Nissan-Renault routinely lobby around the world for less stringent emissions standards on their industries.

Sabido says that this kind of corporate sponsorship isn’t about climate change as much as it is about boosting the French economy. Many activists argue, however, that taking money from these corporations is contrary to the spirit of the negotiations. After all, one of the largest issues at stake this year has to do with the economic struggles faced by developing countries, encouraging them to rely on more sustainable and cleaner energy systems, so they don’t make the same mistakes as developed countries, which gained economic power largely by relying on harmful fossil fuels.

But is it really such a bad thing to get a little help from the private sector? Sabido says that sponsorship of the conference, whether through direct means or contributions-in-kind (such as free electricity, internet, and building materials), doesn’t get funders much, other than access to special events or advertising. Rather, he says, it’s “more a matter of prestige,” explaining that these companies now effectively have “the COP21 seal of approval” and can use it in their marketing materials to say, “‘Hey, we’re actually helping!’”

The logic is like having “tobacco companies sponsoring a health conference or writing health policy,” notes Sabido. It may be “shocking” to some, but it isn’t anything new. Back in 2013, the U.N. climate change body took a hit when the agency’s executive Christiana Figueres gave the keynote address at the Coal Summit on the sidelines of that round of climate talks, allowing known polluters like Mittal Steel to be a huge sponsor. Coal’s close tie to COP19 in Warsaw that year was one of the reasons that several hundred NGO observers walked out of those talks in protest.

Yet the talks need to go on, and civil society—and all those delegates and members of the press—should feel welcome to attend. Is there a solution? Jesse Bragg, the Media Director of Corporate Accountability International, suggests that countries should be footing the bill themselves. “It’s a country-driven negotiations process… And yes, it costs a lot of money, but not when you consider what countries like the United States and EU spend $200 million on.”

Bragg’s point may be a valid one—but these countries spend a good part of the negotiations trying to limit the amount of money they “owe” developing countries for polluting the world as much as possible. Would they really be willing, or even able, to pay for it? Plus, footing the bill for COP21 wouldn’t make up for years of historical polluting and climate damage caused by the majority of countries in attendance.

Perhaps if developed countries opted to pay for future COPs, it would be a show of good faith, demonstrating that major global powers really are willing to shoulder the bigger-picture burden. But by that standard, India and China—two of the world’s largest polluters—would be pressured to chip in, too.

Whether you think “the private sector—from inventors to investors—will have a seat at the table,” as President Obama said at Le Bourget on Monday, or if you believe that corporate funding is a “greenwashing” of dirty business, one thing is clear: A global climate agreement is really a matter of human life. If the World Health Organization thought it was wise to block private companies' access to the tobacco control body, then maybe it's in the best interest to do the same to polluters.

It would likely be quite complicated to set up appropriate criteria for such a move, and would inherently involve some naming and shaming—something the U.N. climate change body's executive Christiana Figueres has said she doesn't want to see. Still, it’s time to face the harsh reality of corporate pollution, as island nations drown, lakes dry up, forests are demolished, and natural disasters become more rampant by the day.

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