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Rule for COP28: Don't Trust the Fossil Fuel Companies

The oil, coal, and gas industries have a lot to lose in the negotiations at COP28, and a lot to gain from continued diversion, distraction, and delay.

The 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN FCCC) is set to begin in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, next week. One of the most crucial indicators of success will be whether the nations of the world reach agreement on a fast and fair phaseout of fossil fuels.

Progress on this front depends on protecting the negotiations—and national and subnational policies based on them—from fossil fuel industry interference. This will not be easy. Fossil fuel interests have had a heavy hand in international climate negotiations since they began more than three decades ago. A growing body of evidence amassed by academic research, investigative journalism, congressional investigations, and climate accountability litigation shows that ExxonMobil, Shell and other corporations have conducted campaigns to delay and block climate action. Those campaigns continue today.

As fossil fuel corporations rake in record profits and roll back their pledges to invest in renewable energy, it’s past time for a paradigm shift.

As we near the end of a year of devastating climate change-fueled disasters and record-breaking global average temperatures, the options to limit the worst potential impacts of climate change are narrowing. The fossil fuel industry has a lot to lose in the negotiations at COP28, and a lot to gain from continued diversion, distraction, and delay. Below are my dos and don’ts for COP28 negotiators to give the world the best chance to meet the climate Paris Agreement’s climate goals.

DON’T Trust the Fossil Fuel Industry

Fossil fuels—coal, gas, and oil—are by far the largest contributor to human-caused climate change. Peer-reviewed research by Richard Heede traced two-thirds of all industrial carbon dioxide and methane emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution to just 90 entities—coal, gas, and oil producers and cement manufacturers.

It stands to reason that international climate change negotiations would tackle fossil fuels head on. Yet until two years ago in Glasgow, Scotland, no COP agreements or decisions mentioned fossil fuels, much less did anything to rein them in. The vested interests of investor- and state-owned fossil fuel companies ensured that glaring omission.

Christiana Figueres, who helped negotiate the Paris Agreement as head of the UNFCCC, once believed that the fossil fuel industry should help set climate policy. Earlier this year, she disavowed her previous position. “I thought fossil fuel firms could change,” she wrote. “I was wrong.”

As fossil fuel corporations rake in record profits and roll back their pledges to invest in renewable energy, it’s past time for a paradigm shift. The United States and other nations negotiating in Dubai must recognize that corporations hell-bent on squeezing every nickel of profit out of the planet’s coal, gas, and oil resources have a conflict of interest with climate action. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which obligates parties to protect their public health policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry, provides a valuable model for insulating national and international policymaking from corporate conflicts of interest.

DO Watchdog Fossil Fuel Industry Presence and Participation

Without protections against conflicts of interest at COP28, the fossil fuel industry will be out in force.

Two years ago at COP26, there were more than 500 people with links to fossil fuel interests accredited as participants, according to an analysis by Corporate Accountability, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), Glasgow Calls Out Polluters, and Global Witness. If the fossil fuel industry had been a delegation, it would have been larger than the delegation of any country.

At COP27, civil society watchdogs combed through registration lists to identify more than 600 oil and gas industry lobbyists. A more recent analysis by the Associated Press found nearly 400 people with fossil fuel industry ties attended last year’s talks.

In response to demands from elected officials and civil society, new transparency rules are in place for the first time at COP28. Participants must disclose their affiliation, which will be listed publicly. These disclosures are a step forward, necessary but not sufficient for true accountability.

Concern about fossil fuel industry influence at COP28 is heightened because the head of this year’s negotiations is Sultan Al-Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. The company plans to invest $150 billion to expand its oil and gas production over the next five years.

DON’T Fall for Fossil Fuel Industry Disinformation and Greenwashing

Under Chair and CEO Rex Tillerson (who served as secretary of state in the Trump administration), ExxonMobil supposedly acknowledged the risks of climate change and claimed to stop funding groups that promote climate denial. But a recent Wall Street Journal investigation of internal ExxonMobil documents revealed that the corporation has continued its efforts to cast doubt on climate science by, among other things, trying to influence the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the independent scientific body that provides the latest science to help inform nations participating in COP negotiations.

According to the internal documents, Tillerson dismissed the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—and striving to limit it to 1.5 degrees C—as “something magical.” And just months before the agreement was signed, Tillerson asked, “Who is to say 2.5 [degrees C] is not good enough?”

Today, most major investor-owned oil and gas corporations claim to be aligned with Paris Agreement goals, and most have pledged to reach net-zero global warming emissions by 2050, but their actions belie these claims. BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and other major fossil fuel corporations continue to expand fossil fuel exploration, extraction, processing, marketing and sales while spreading climate disinformation and seeking to block climate action.

A 2022 peer-reviewed study led by Mei Li that drew on the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Climate Accountability Scorecard found that BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell continue to depend on fossil fuels, with insignificant and opaque spending on clean energy. The researchers concluded that the transition to clean energy business models is not occurring, and that accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded.

These companies have responded to investor demands by setting emissions reduction targets and publishing glossy climate reports. According to Net Zero Tracker, two-thirds of fossil fuel firms have net-zero commitments, but most are largely meaningless because they do not fully cover Scope 3 emissions from the use of their products, which account for 80 to 95 percent of heat-trapping emissions from the oil and gas sector. ExxonMobil, for example, still refuses to take responsibility for reducing emissions from burning its oil and gas products. Moreover, fossil fuel companies’ climate targets that do not include plans to phase out oil and gas are misaligned with the scientific and policy consensus. A report by a UN expert group clearly recommends that credible net-zero targets must include “specific targets aimed at ending the use of and/or support for fossil fuels.”

DON’T Grant the Fossil Fuel Industry Social License

Disinformation and greenwashing pose a growing legal liability for the fossil fuel industry. Dozens of cities, counties, and states across the United States and its territories are suing the fossil fuel industry over climate damages and fraud. The latest climate accountability lawsuit, filed by California in September, documents and seeks to end ongoing climate disinformation campaigns by five investor-owned oil and gas corporations and their main trade association, the American Petroleum Institute. (Read more about the synergy between climate litigation and UN climate talks in this blog by my colleague Delta Merner.)

Fossil fuel defendants are pulling out all the stops to evade accountability and delay justice for people and communities harmed by their products and business practices. Last week, a self-described “hacker for hire” was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison for his role in a large-scale spear-phishing operation that targeted UCS and other public interest organizations exposing disinformation campaigns by ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests. While the investigation has not yet revealed who hired the hacker, ExxonMobil has used some of the hacked information in its efforts to thwart legal and public accountability.

At the same time, ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel corporations are trying desperately to frame themselves as part of the solution for climate change and regain their “social license”—their perceived legitimacy among consumers, workers, communities where they operate, investors, policymakers, and other key audiences. At last week’s Asia-Pacific Environmental Cooperation CEO summit in San Francisco, ExxonMobil Chair and CEO Darren Woods dismissed evidence of the company’s climate deception as “what was said 30 years ago or what they think Exxon knew back then.” Then he doubled down on his company’s deception by insisting that the problem is emissions, not oil and gas.

Woods wants us to believe that ExxonMobil can solve the climate change problem with such technologies as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS). He claims that ExxonMobil has the intellectual and financial resources to “bend the curve on emissions.” But the world’s most profitable oil and gas corporation had that technical and financial capacity decades ago, when its own scientists warned top management of the threat of climate change. Not only did Exxon decide to not apply its resources to leading the energy transition, it instead chose to fund a deliberate campaign of deception. Decades of delay have made the challenge the world faces between now and 2030 much bigger.

DO Secure a Fast and Fair Fossil-Fuel Phaseout

Ahead of the UN Climate Ambition Summit in September, tens of thousands of people marched to end fossil fuels. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has clearly stated that countries must progressively phase out fossil fuels, “leave oil, coal and gas in the ground where they belong,” and massively boost investment in renewable energy. Guterres also has called for fossil fuel companies to “cease and desist influence peddling and legal threats designed to kneecap progress.”

While ExxonMobil’s Woods has falsely claimed that phasing out fossil fuels would prevent people in the Global South—who have contributed least to climate change—from accessing energy, Global South activists and advocates are among the most committed and powerful voices for a fossil-fuel phaseout. Extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels is exacerbating health, environmental and social injustices in Black, Brown, Indigenous and low-income communities in the United States and around the world.

As my colleague Rachel Cleetus writes, the phaseout must be fast and fair and must cover all fossil fuels—gas and oil as well as coal. It also must include rapid, deep, direct cuts in fossil fuel use, and the default position of governments at every level should be to reject the expansion of fossil fuel production and the buildout of infrastructure that could remain in place for decades to come. Such approaches as CCS, carbon dioxide removal, and alternative combustion fuels may play a limited role to meet long-term climate goals, but they are not likely to play a material role in meeting 2030 targets, they would not fully reduce environmental injustices and public health harms of fossil fuels, and they are no substitute for immediate, sharp reductions in fossil fuel production and utilization that are necessary now.

Ahead of COP28, more than 650 scientists signed a letter to President Biden urging him to commit to a fast and fair phaseout of all fossil fuels with clear timelines and science-informed targets for the near- and long-term, and supported by finance for low- and middle-income countries for a clean energy transition. The scientists also called on the United States to publicly resist interference by fossil fuel interests, as well as their greenwashing that delays and impedes a fossil fuel phaseout, in the final agreement at COP28.

You can add your voice to this call for bold climate action at COP28 here.

© 2023 Union of Concerned Scientists