The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is a binding multilateral agreement to tackle climate change at a global level. The Convention that entered into force in 1994 has the objective of “. . . stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

The Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention, comprising of 196 of the world’s countries and the European Union, is its decision making body and meets annually in order to review its implementation.

The 24th COP is slated to be held at the coal mining city of Katowice in southern Poland, one of the most polluted places in Europe. As if the symbolism of the venue wasn’t enough, the Polish parliament has passed a law that will ban all spontaneous protests at Katowice when the COP takes place in December. Apparently, only a select few demonstrations will be allowed to take place – those that have been previously registered with the local government, and those approved by the COP’s organising committee. The law also permits polish police to snoop on participants in the COP by collecting and using information, including personal data, “without the knowledge and consent of the people involved”, thereby raising serious concerns of privacy invasion. The controversial and troubling law has been condemned by UN experts in the strictest possible terms.

However, given Poland’s past record, this is not a very surprising development. Previously, at the 19th COP held at Warsaw in 2013, the role of the business community in UN climate talks was highly visible. Representatives of global businesses officially took part as observers and sponsors. ArcelorMittal, BMW, and General Motors were some of the major polluting companies present. The Polish Government also held a parallel ‘International Coal and Climate Summit’ highlighting supposedly ‘clean coal’ technology.

The Polish government will again extend explicit support for polluting companies to be present and be a part and parcel of the upcoming 24th COP. Tomasz Chruszczow, Poland’s climate change envoy and High Level Climate Champion, believes that in December, the focus of the world leaders should not be stemming the temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius. Chruszczow is not in favour of increasing climate ambition. He says, “Calls for ambition bring nothing. Instead of being driven by enthusiasm, let’s be driven by responsible common sense which is about poverty eradication, combatting hunger and security of energy supplies.”

This month, at the UNFCCC intersessional at Bonn, Germany, Chruszczow speaking for inclusion of fossil fuel companies in climate talks said, “We want everybody in this action. Even if they are now generating electricity from fossil fuels – the majority of electricity comes from fossil fuels – still it is changing, but it is a process. The call for exclusion of anybody from the process… I don’t think that is very useful. Let’s think how to incentivise the transition [to a low carbon economy].”

He also dismissed comparison of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) under which governments are obligated to exclude the Tobacco industry from influencing health care policies.

Pertinently, Tobacco consumption was once the leading cause of premature death with projected estimates of millions of more deaths in the future. Lobbying and interference by Big Tobacco were widespread and the industry embarked on a massive decades-long concealment and denial campaign, much like tactics employed by the fossil fuel industry. 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 in their dealings with one another.

The UNFCCC must take a cue from the FCTC and mobilise political will to alienate the fossil fuel industry from the upcoming COP. Poland’s hosting of the 19th UNFCCC COP in 2013 openly encouraged the co-opting of climate talks by large polluters. 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 countries’ 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-à-vis reduction of fossil fuel dependence. With only a few months remaining for the Paris Agreement’s ‘rulebook’ – the modalities, procedures, and guidelines of the Agreement – to be finalised, adopted, and operationalised, it is imperative for the UN’s climate change body to put in place a ‘conflict of interest’ policy. Without such a policy the Paris Agreement is most likely to end up as a failure.

(Zeenat Masoodi is lawyer living in Srinagar and also a Climate Tracker fellow)