By: Renee Julienne Kurunungan

The past few days of United Nations-sponsored climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany, have been the focus of heated discussions over whether or not private companies should be allowed to participate as observers in the Conference of Parties (COP) 22 in Marrakech.

Last week, a group of developing countries — Ecuador, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Nicaragua — called for rules on the participation of observers, especially for private companies with commercial interests or conflicts of interest. At the Paris negotiations over climate change, known as COP21, fossil fuel companies, which had sponsored the biggest climate conference to date, were accused of greenwashing – spending more time and money on advertising and obfuscation than on working on environmental remediation.

Private Companies influence on negotiations

That has now led to widespread debate. with civil society NGOs supporting a call to avoid companies with conflict of interest. What was a concern raised by mostly Latin American countries is now supported by the African group as well. Uganda, speaking for the group, notes that “we must keep the integrity of these negotiations.”

Australia, on the other hand, said that the convention is “playing a dangerous game” if it excludes people with an interest in the process. “We support engagement with all private sectors,” the Australian contingent added. Representing civil societies, Hindou Ibrahim, a representative of the Mbororo pastoralist community of Chad, said it is clear there is no adequate process to address conflict of interest.

“Commercial interests can direct the outcomes of the negotiations,” she said. “These negotiations affect the income of these industries and naturally have conflict of interest. We must protect the legitimacy of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

Conflict of Interest 

According to Jesse Bragg of Corporate Accountability International, one of the concerns is that there is already a welcoming place for groups and corporations representing the fossil fuel industry, but the Paris Agreement takes it a step further. It extends an invitation for the private sector to get deeply engaged and involved in climate action.

“This can be a good thing, but it can also have challenges,” Bragg said. “If we are going to do that, we need to have policies in place, before that level of engagement begins”.

For Bragg, “climate action should be based on the interests of citizens and the planet, not those of the industry. The private sector will definitely have a role in climate action. The question is whether it is also going to be allowed to write the rules for it”.

Bragg also warned about what he called the dangers of “short term memory” and forgetting that these are the same companies that for decades, undermined attempts to find solutions to climate change.

“Now that they are singing a different tune, we can’t just take them on their word because in large part, this has been a 20-year process because of some of the things they have done,” Bragg said. “We need more realistic conception of whether the PR that certain corporations are putting out actually reflects what their intentions are. And if your business model is predicated on extraction and burning of fossil fuels, do you really have a role that’s consistent with the interest of this convention?”

Keep Big Polluters Out

Corporate lobbying is no longer new. The tobacco industry has already done this and has proven corporate influence in legislations, critics say. A recent study by the University of Bath reveals that lobbyists for the tobacco industry “massively” shaped the regulation of cigarette and other tobacco products in Europe.

Fossil fuel industries have certainly gone from funding climate deniers to claiming that they are “part of the solution.” Their insistence to be part of the climate negotiations, which is meant to be about saving the planet and not corporate interests, will potentially have a big impact on governments.

However, the critics say, the industry covered up their knowledge on climate change for decades, when they could have been actively involved in searching for a solution. Instead, they sowed doubt in people’s minds, offering “clean carbon” as a solution when studies show it isn’t a solution.

Now they want to be part of the negotiations. There are serious concerns that those who have played an integral role in damaging the  planet and kept their own research on climate change a secret should simply not be allowed to influence the world’s attempts on trying to save it.