The objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is “. . . stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Every year, the member states of the UNFCCC - 196 countries and the European Union – meet for a Conference of Parties (COP) that reviews the Convention’s implementation. Member states have several commitments including maintenance of inventories of emissions’ volumes, sources and sinks, implementation of climate change mitigation measures through curbs on emissions and facilitation of adaptation to climate change. 

According to Article 4.1(f) of the UNFCCC, member countries are permitted to “Take climate change considerations into account, to the extent feasible, in their relevant social, economic and environmental policies and actions …” (emphasis supplied). This gives significant leeway to countries for interpretation to avoid measures aimed at climate change mitigation. This, in turn, is used by the fossil fuel industry to continue its dominance over the energy sector. It is noteworthy that the fossil fuel industry is the world’s largest environmental polluter and responsible for two-thirds of global carbon emissions. The Industry’s multinational presence, enormous economic resources and political clout, and billions of dollars at stake make it a formidable enemy. In order to protect its interests, the fossil fuel industry 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 (IPCC) proves that climate change is anthropogenic in nature, the fossil fuel industry continues its denial and misinformation campaigns and attempts to sway UN climate talks as well. Pertinently, the IPCC is also compiling a special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways. 

Of late the fossil fuel industry’s influence on climate change negotiations has widely been felt. Its behind-the-scenes lobbying and denial strategies are well documented. The industry has openly begun to sponsor the UNFCCC COP. This constitutes a clear case of inherent conflict of interest since the fossil fuel industry which is responsible for two-thirds of all carbon emissions is pretending to be a part of the solution. 

At the 2009 COP in Copenhagen the fossil fuel industry played a significant role by lobbying against tough emissions cuts. Unsurprisingly, the negotiations failed. The role of the business community was even more prominent at the 2013 COP held at Warsaw, Poland, 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. Corporate interference has since continued to grow. At the 2015 COP in Paris, sponsors including airliner Air France, chemicals giant Dow Chemicals, car maker Renault, water privatisation company Suez Environnement and coal companies Engie and EDF paid for nearly 20% of the event’s expenses. Subsequent COPs also saw the presence of fossil fuel industry and lobbyists. 

But lobbying and interference by big businesses is not new. A lesson may be learned from another powerful and manipulative industry with global reach – Tobacco. A public health catastrophe, Tobacco consumption was once the leading cause of premature death with projected estimates of millions of more deaths in the future. In the early 1950’s, American scientists showed links between smoking and lung cancer and later on with other diseases as well. By the late 1950’s the Tobacco industry was well aware that smoking caused lung cancer but denied the same publicly. To protect its interests, the Tobacco industry embarked on a massive decades-long concealment and denial campaign. 

It was in 1994, however, that the full extent of the Tobacco industry’s denial and deception came to light when a box containing thousands of confidential papers arrived mysteriously at the office of Professor Stanton Glantz at University of California, San Francisco. The documents were revelatory of the industry’s public relations and legal strategies - funding politicians, influencing anti-Tobacco legislation, sponsoring smoker’s groups and promoting contrarian research to cast doubt on scientific evidence of Tobacco usage being injurious to human health.    

To counter the Tobacco industry, the World Health Organization adopted the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2003. The FCTC directs governments to protect their 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.” It has effectively banished Tobacco companies from the public health arena and proved crucial to the Convention’s successful implementation. The guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 duly take into account 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.    

Article 13 of the Paris Agreement provides a similar window of opportunity for countries to show their true commitment towards climate action. It establishes “an enhanced transparency framework for action and support” the purpose of which is “to provide a clear understanding of climate change action in the light of the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2, including clarity and tracking of progress towards achieving Parties’ individual nationally determined contributions under Article 4, and Parties’ adaptation actions under Article 7, including good practices, priorities, needs and gaps, to inform the global stocktake under Article 14.”

A ‘conflict of interest policy’ has tremendous potential for keeping the fossil fuel industry out of the UNFCCC. The creation and inclusion of a ‘conflict of interest policy’ within the transparency framework will increase the chances of successful implementation of the Paris Agreement. Countries and their businesses will be compelled to declare any conflicts of interest with the goals of the UNFCCC. The framing of the Paris rulebook is still underway and countries must stress upon the creation of a ‘conflict of interest’ policy.    

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 domestic policies of states parties 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.

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