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At Paris climate change talks, corporate sponsors aim to warm reputations

Looking to greenwash their images, big companies associate their business practices with clean environmental policies

As politicians move to hammer out a deal at the U.N. climate summit in Paris, environmental groups have accused the conference’s corporate sponsors of being more concerned with the appearance of lessening their impact on the planet than taking concrete action.

On Monday, politicians began working from the 48-page draft text, signed by delegates on Saturday, to arrive at what has been dubbed the most important climate accord to date.

But environmental campaigners say big business sponsors at the summit — like EDF, Engie and Renault-Nissan — are guilty of greenwashing, calling for sustainable solutions while they continuing to lobby against policies that would help keep global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

“Corporate lobbying has always been and always will be present when it comes to climate talks,” said John Mitchell, an associate research fellow in energy and oil at Chatham House, a U.K.-based think tank.

Historically, businesses have fallen into three categories in their responses to climate change, according to Paul Hohnen, an international sustainable development consultant. There are the skeptics that challenge the underlying science, the activists that call on governments to step up and do more and the “watchers and waiters” that do not take a public advocacy position and wait for government action. “Numerically, most business was in this [last] camp,” he said.

Several of the climate summit’s French corporate sponsors have found themselves on the firing line for their participation in climate-polluting activities, namely fossil-fuel-intensive projects.

A study by the environmental group Corporate Accountability International showed that COP21 sponsor BNP Paribas, a French multinational bank, provided half the financial support — about 30 billion euros ($33 billion) — for France’s coal industry from 2005 to 2014, in addition to financing that sector around the world, notably for coal-fired power stations in South Africa and India.

The report also showed that French gas company Engie, formerly GDF Suez, was responsible for 131 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 and that French energy giant EDF produced 64 megatons of carbon dioxide in 2014, with just 8 megatons coming from France.

A separate study by the Multinationals Observatory, published by the French nonprofit organization Alter-Médias and the Bureau for Appraisal of Social Impacts for Citizen Information, said that only four of the 10 corporate sponsors they reviewed — BNP Paribas, Carrefour, Kering and LVMH — have published sufficiently transparent and coherent data on their greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, several of the summit’s sponsors have come under fire for their political interference and lobbying, which have been seen as attempting to block climate action by undermining emissions cuts.

Oil companies Total and Shell have promoted natural gas as the future of clean energy, even though extraction methods for shale gas result in high methane leakage from drilling wells. Total executive Jean-Michel Laverne sits on the board of directors of the American Petroleum Institute, which has gained notoriety for its promotion of climate change denial.

And Engie is a member of the pro-fracking group International Association of Oil and Gas Producers and the European Round Table of Industrialists, which activists have accused of interfering with climate change policy in the European Union in the name of strengthening industrial competitiveness.

All this led a collective of French environmental groups to serve up their Pinocchio Climate Award for 2015 to BNP Paribas, EDF and American oil company Chevron to denounce their responsibility for weakening climate change mitigation efforts.

Since the start of the talks, environmentalists have targeted corporate sponsors, with one campaign putting fake ads in Paris advertising spaces. Total, Shell and Exxon Mobile are among the accused, and a faux Air France ad read, “Tackling climate change? Of course not. We’re an airline.” The aviation and shipping industries account for over 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and without action, that number could increase to 10 to 32 percent by 2050, according to a study by Manchester Metropolitan University.

The International Civil Aviation Organization said it has taken action to bring down CO2 emissions, with hopes of improving fuel efficiency by 2 percent each year, but it has fought imposing reductions on emissions, including an industrywide cap.

Still, protests from rights groups at this year’s summit has not yet reached the scale of those at the 2013 climate conference in Warsaw — when environmentalists walked out over lobbying by fossil fuel companies.

This could be partly due to France’s current security situation. Since the government enacted a state of emergency after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, public protests of more than two people are banned, and 24 environmental activists have been put under house arrest since the start of the talks.

“In order for governments to act, you need public pressure, but as we’re trying to get our message out, the government has taken harsh action against a few individuals,” said Pascoe Sabido, a researcher at the Brussels-based nonprofit research and campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory, which has led self-described “corporate lobbying” tours throughout the Paris climate summit.

Business as usual is not good enough anymore, we need business as unusual.

Paul Polman

CEO, Unilever

Corporate sponsors have made passionate public appeals at this year’s climate talks about their intentions to reduce carbon emissions and work with governments toward that goal.

Over the weekend, Unilever CEO Paul Polman said it was unfair to ask politicians alone to find solutions to climate problems. “Business as usual is not good enough anymore. We need business as unusual,” he said. “Businesses and investors are committed to moving toward a clean and vibrant economy.”

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is a CEO-led organization that includes such corporations as Total and France’s EDF, Saudi Arabia’s petrochemical-manufacturing SABIC and Germany’s Siemens. Rasmus Valanko, the organization’s manager of climate and energy, said the power of large corporations to influence politicians should be seen as something positive as the climate talks move toward an agreement.

“Even if you didn’t believe the authenticity of company advertising before, now it’s huge that they’re supporting the COP21 publicly,” he said.

The Paris climate conference needed someone to pay its bills; about 20 percent of the 170 million euro cost of the summit has come from this year’s sponsors, according to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

Whether its image building or changing practices, no one thinks the process is going to be easy. Governments, afraid that mandating pricier renewable options would plunge their countries into economic ruin, are sometimes hesitant to clamp down on the biggest polluters.

For those corporate players hoping to outsmart the system, the consequences can be catastrophic. German automaker Volkswagen now owes billions of euros in fines after getting caught cheating with its emission software for diesel engines.

“We’re at a turning point, where business as usual doesn’t exist anymore,” said Mitchell. “Governments have to be honest about basic information. The less distortion, the better.”

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Europe, Paris
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