At COP28 and elsewhere an army of lobbyists are seeking to sway key decisions on the pace of climate policy, according to Faye Holder, Programme Manager for Oil and Gas at InfluenceMap.
COP28 in Dubai drew criticism on a number of fronts: for a lack of ambition regarding climate action; for the mixed motives of the host country, a major petro-state; even for the number of private aircraft used to ferry delegates to and from the proceedings.
Less remarked has been the very large number of lobbyists in Dubai acting on behalf of oil and gas companies, the very organisations with a vested interest, one may have thought, in blunting whatever initiatives emerged to limit climate change by reducing CO2 emissions.
Estimates of their numbers in Dubai vary considerably, from a lower bound of 475 up into the thousands. Part of the difficulty in quantifying the size of the effort arises from the problem in identifying who and what constitutes a lobbyist, as we shall see shortly.
First, though, how effective has the lobbying industry proved to be in the climate debate? Has real influence been deployed, or, as with much of the wider public relations sector, are corporate interests frequently pouring money down the drain?
“It is always hard to pinpoint the concrete impacts of lobbying activity because a lot happens behind closed doors,” says Faye Holder, Programme Manager for Oil and Gas at non-profit InfluenceMap. “But lobbyists’ influence can be seen, to take one example, in the use or non-use of expressions such as the ‘phasing out’ of fossil fuels.”
Tentative references to a phase-out of fossil fuels appeared in COP28’s official response to the first Global Stocktake, then disappeared, causing outrage among many, and resulting in an overspill of negotiations into an unscheduled extra day.
The final text called for a “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner”. But the lobbyists’ reach goes further, according to Holder.
“It is seen also in efforts to promote oil and gas as ‘part of the solution’ to energy problems rather than as a major problem in their own right.”
She adds: “In the final text, there is a reference to ‘transitional fuels’ in the energy transition. At COP28, it became obvious that there was heavy lobbying for a long-term role for oil and gas.”
It sounds as if the fossil fuel industry came off the defensive and made important gains in Dubai, but Holder thinks not. “Oil and gas overplayed their hand,” she says. “This COP has put us in an interesting place.”
Worst sort of greenwashing
One aspect, she says, is highlighted by drawing a dividing line between the oil and gas industry on the one hand and other sectors that have lobbied on climate action issues, such as steel, chemicals and cars. While less intensive than oil and gas lobbying, they have certainly been active.
However, says Holder, it is increasingly obvious that the interests of these sectors, especially the interests of carmakers, are diverging from the fossil fuel firms. “Climate action is an existential threat to oil and gas. The same is not necessarily true of other industries.
“In cars and steel, for example, there are possible climate-friendly plays available. Most obviously, you have carmakers trying to transition to electric vehicles.”
COP28 may have seen more fossil-fuel lobbyists in action than ever before, but influence-peddling on behalf of oil and gas interests is a worldwide phenomenon. And there have been successes, perhaps most notably in the European Union’s decision in late 2021 to classify gas as a ‘green’ energy source for investment purposes.
This controversial move provoked uproar inside the bloc, with Denmark, Spain and Austria denouncing the decision as the worst sort of greenwashing, while France, Hungary, Poland and Romania supported it. In January this year, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) cast doubt on some of the more extravagant claims made for the ‘green-ness’ of natural gas.
Said UNEP: “Research indicates that emissions of methane – the main constituent of natural gas – that occur during its extraction and transport mean natural gas isn’t as climate-friendly as once thought.”
Holder says the ‘gas is green’ controversy followed “a huge lobbying effort”. She adds that, across the Atlantic, US President Joe Biden’s administration is “treading a fine line between support for sustainable energy and approval for fossil-fuel projects”.
In the US, tussles over the desirability or otherwise of sustainable energy have been dragged into the wider ‘culture war’, pitting ‘red’ (Republican) states against ‘blue’ (Democrat-controlled) ones. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine, with its consequential interruption of energy supplies, could be used by some lobbyists to suggest that net zero was now a luxury that could no longer be afforded.
Crises never go to waste
“Post-Ukraine, this view became very present in the EU,” says Holder. After the war started, the International Energy Agency (IEA) made it very clear that it should not be used to justify more fossil-fuel exploration.
Indeed, in November, the IEA noted a beneficial side-effect of the war in terms of weaning Europe off gas. According to The Guardian: “The Ukraine crisis has marked a turning point for Europe’s gas consumption, which is expected to fall again this year as homes and firms embrace efficiency upgrades and heat pumps, according to the global energy watchdog.”
But, says Holder, oil and gas lobbyists rarely let a good crisis go to waste. “Even Covid-19 was used to lobby against climate regulations.” She laughs as she tries to recall what evidence was adduced to support the suggestion that the pandemic would justify weakening climate law, but adds: “The oil and gas industries are prepared to use any argument.
“Since Ukraine, there has been heavy lobbying in the EU on a range of topics, including energy-efficiency measures and the phasing out of gas boilers.”
Oil and gas lobbyists have also turned their attention to proposed and actual rules to tackle plastic pollution, given that modern plastics are derived from petroleum and natural gas. With energy-sector revenues undermined by migration to renewables, fossil fuel firms have increasing viewed plastics as an attractive substitute. Here too, the skills of lobbyists are urgently sought, due to a UN agreement that member-governments will finalise a global treaty on plastic pollution by the end of next year.
In October 2021, UNEP reported: “Global plastic production has risen exponentially in the last decades. It now amounts to some 400 million tonnes per year. Yet only an estimated 12% of the plastics produced have been incinerated and only an estimated 9% have been recycled.
“The remainder has either been disposed of in landfills or released into the environment, including the oceans. Without meaningful action, flows of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems are expected to nearly triple from around 11 million tonnes in 2016 to around 29 million tonnes in 2040.”
The presence of lobbyists has been noted at the three rounds of discussions held so far on the proposed global plastics treaty.
Time for action is now
Bizarrely – or perhaps not – businesses and their trade associations sometimes lobby against objectives that they themselves have publicly supported, playing, as it were, both sides of the wicket.
This has prompted many ESG-minded investors to demand at the very least that companies be entirely open about what they are lobbying for and why. Beyond this, the Global Standard for Responsible Climate Lobbying has been created to steer companies to take responsibility for the impact of their advocacy. Organisers say: “Where there is misalignment with the goals of the Paris Agreement, corrective action should be taken.”
They add: “The Global Standard builds on and acknowledges the work of all those across several continents who have been promoting attention to and action on corporate climate lobbying.
“The time for action on climate lobbying is now.”
This is all very well, says Holder, but it remains entirely voluntary and relies to a great extent on pressure from ESG-sympathetic investors. “Investors can play a role as positive advocates on climate lobbying,” she says, “but we definitely need regulations on board.
“Regulators and investors both need to get tougher.”
But with whom exactly? Unlike ‘dentist’ or ‘accountant’, lobbyist is not a job description that is easy to categorise, needing no professional qualification, for example. This may explain the widely differing estimates for the number of lobbyists at COP28.
When does a lawyer, communications consultant or PR executive become a lobbyist? And what if different jurisdictions draw up different rules for regulating those deemed to be lobbyists – could there be a race to the bottom as lobbying firms register in the most easy-going jurisdiction?
Holder is confident that action is on its way and that these difficulties can be overcome. With climate action centre-stage in global political debate – whether international agreements or allegedly-protectionist measures such as America’s ‘green new deal’ or the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism – the channels through which such discussions flow should be, if not beyond reproach, then at least clear for all to see.
InfluenceMap was founded in 2015 ahead of the Paris Agreement. Today it says: Our two work streams, LobbyMap and FinanceMap, are world renowned platforms that respectively hold the corporate and finance sectors accountable for climate performance.”
It may be easy to assume all corporate lobbying on climate issues is malign and against the broader public interest. But Holder takes a more optimistic view. Indeed, InfluenceMap tracks climate lobbying activities across all sectors, including those that stand to benefit from faster climate action.
“The impact of industry on climate action can be positive or negative,” she says, but she adds that regulatory action is needed to nudge matters from the latter to the former.