One of the major treaties to combat climate change is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is a binding multilateral agreement that entered into force in 1994 with the objective of “. . . stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
Its implementation is reviewed annually by its decision-making body, the Conference of Parties (COP), comprising 196 countries and the European Union. Parties to the UNFCCC have several general commitments such as maintenance of inventories of emissions’ volumes, sources and sinks, implementation of climate change mitigation measures through emissions curbs, and facilitation of adaptation to climate change. Based on parties’ economic development, the UNFCCC further lays down differentiated levels of commitment.
Loopholes in UNFCCC and the Fossil Fuel Industry
Article 4.1(f) of the UNFCCC which permits parties to “Take climate change considerations into account, to the extent feasible, in their relevant social, economic and environmental policies and actions…” gives significant leeway for interpretation to avoid measures aimed at climate change mitigation.
This inherent loophole is used by the fossil fuel industry – oil, coal and natural gas – to its advantage. The fossil fuel industry is the world’s largest environmental polluter and responsible for two-thirds of global carbon emissions.
With transnational presence, enormous economic and political clout and billions of dollars at stake, it lobbies hard to influence policy making by blocking regulation, financing politicians’ campaigns and promising economic growth to governments.
While the Fifth Assessment Report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrates incontrovertible evidence of anthropogenic climate change (Fifth Assessment Report – IPCC), the fossil fuel industry continues to fund denial and misinformation campaigns. Conservative think-tanks and scientists funded by wealthy corporations have questioned climate change for years. Greenpeace, for instance, has unearthed years of systematic climate change denial efforts by companies such as ExxonMobil and businessmen such as the Koch brothers.
The key concern that has emerged in the past few years, however, is an increasingly open attempt by the fossil fuel industry to co-opt the negotiation process at the annual UNFCCC COP. At the 2009 COP, in Copenhagen, the fossil fuel industry played a significant role by lobbying against tough emission cuts. Unsurprisingly, the negotiations failed.
The role of the business community was even more prominent at the 2013 COP, held at Warsaw, where representatives of global businesses officially took part as observers and sponsors.
ArcelorMittal, BMW and General Motors were some of the major companies present.
The Polish Government also held a parallel ‘International Coal and Climate Summit’ highlighting supposedly ‘clean coal’ technology.
This corporate takeover continued at the 2015 COP in Paris, where sponsors, including airliner Air France, chemicals giant Dow Chemicals, car maker Renault, water privatisation company Suez Environnement, and coal companies Engie and EDF, bankrolled nearly 20 percent of the event’s expenses.
Tobacco Industry Precedent
But lobbying and interference by big businesses are not new. Precedents abound in businesses such as pesticides, asbestos and tobacco. The tobacco industry, in particular, is a good case in point. A public health catastrophe, tobacco consumption was once the leading cause of premature death with estimates of millions of future deaths. In the early 1950’s, American scientists showed links between smoking and lung cancer (Tobacco Epidemic, Editor(s): R Loddenkemper, M Kreuter). By the late 1950’s the tobacco industry was well aware that smoking caused lung cancer but denied the same publicly (Tobacco Explained, Clive Bates and Andy Rowell, WHO).
To protect its interests, the tobacco industry embarked on a decade-long concealment and denial campaign. It was in 1994, however, that the full extent of deception practised by the tobacco industry came to light, when a box containing 4,000 confidential industry papers arrived mysteriously at the office of Professor Stanton Glantz at University of California, San Francisco.
The documents were revelatory of the tobacco industry’s public relations and legal strategies – funding politicians, influencing legislation, sponsoring smokers’ groups and promoting contrarian research (The Cigarette Papers, University of California Press,1996).
Stress on Transparency in Dealings
Around the same time, the World Health Organisation began contemplating an International Convention on control of Tobacco, and in 2003 the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) was adopted.
The FCTC created history by mandating governments to protect health care policies from the tobacco industry’s influence. Article 5.3 of the FCTC provides that “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.”
The guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 duly note the irreconcilable conflict of interest between public health and the tobacco industry. They also exhort transparency and accountability from both governments and the tobacco industry.
UNFCCC Clause That Could Be the Game Changer
A cursory comparison between the tobacco industry and the fossil fuel industry shows striking similarities. The tobacco precedent, however, also has lessons.
Article 5.3 of the FCTC, crucial to successful implementation, has effectively banished tobacco companies from the public health arena. The United Nations Environment Programme must take a cue from the FCTC and mobilise political will to alienate the fossil fuel industry from the upcoming UNFCCC COP in Marrakech.
Just as there is a fundamental conflict of interest between tobacco and public health, so is the case with fossil fuels and climate change.
A binding clause in the UNFCCC, excluding the fossil fuel industry from influencing parties’ domestic policies or a protocol to that effect, can act as a game changer for the international climate regime and challenge the fossil fuel industry’s apparent invincibility.
A mandatory requirement of transparency will lead to much-needed public scrutiny of governmental action vis-a-vis reduction of fossil fuel dependence. With nearly 200 countries having diverse interests ranging from surviving rising sea-levels to reducing poverty, the fossil fuel industry must not be allowed to hijack climate change negotiations.
(The writer is a Lawyer from Srinagar. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)