Late-November early-December is when other people normally start getting christmassy. I, on the other hand, head to the UN climate talks to call out corporate lobbyists. The “conference of the parties”, or COP, is a yearly circus that sees people from governments, universities, environmental organisations and industry descend upon a city and spend the next two weeks stuck inside brightly-lit, hastily-constructed negotiating halls that could be anywhere in the world. This year is COP24.
The official goal is agreeing how to tackle climate change in a fair way: those that historically polluted the most pay and do the most. But in reality, those that got rich polluting are not so keen on stopping, let alone paying. Domestic dirty energy corporations – the Shells, BPs, Chevrons, Exxons of this world – are definitely not keen. For the past two decades, as emissions keep rising, their political interference has been the elephant in the room. The UN climate talks are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of corporate influence, but what a tip they are.
This year the conference takes place in Katowice, Poland. Coal country. Exactly where you’d want climate negotiations to be. It’s the second time the Poles are hosting it in five years. Last time at COP19, we saw coal companies sponsoring the talks themselves, backed by the Polish government. The hosts went as far as co-organising the parallel “International Coal and Climate Summit” with the coal lobby, hosting it at the Ministry of Economy at the same time as the real climate talks. This year we had to wait until two days before the negotiations begun before finding out the sponsors, but they didn’t disappoint: more coal, oil and gas companies, as well as the banks and insurance companies backing them. This was their chance to pretend to give a shit about climate change.
I arrive in Katowice the day before COP24 started, touching down into a world of grey bleakness. Walking down the metal steps, I look at the truck refuelling the plane, and the logo on its side. “Orlen” – one of the COP24 sponsors. Orlen is the largest petrol retailer in the country, supplying Katowice and ten other airports in Poland. But at least it planted 568 tress and 158 shrubs in 2017 (it counted them all!) among other Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. It puts the irony of flying to a climate conference into perspective – individual lifestyle choices are not going to sort this out.
Getting into Katowice, the air is grim. The greyness is not just winter. Southern Poland has the worst smog in the EU, and Katowice is surrounded by coal mines and power plants. It hurts to breath deeply, but according to a local resident, it’s much better than 25 years ago. God have mercy on the local residents of 25 years ago. I have a phone conversation with a Polish journalist who signs off with an unnerving, “good luck and take care of your lungs, it’s dangerous”.
After 20 years of COP being on a treadmill (lots of huffing and puffing, no moving forward), the organisers have identified what would break the deadlock: an extra day. And so, despite taking place in a Catholic country, the conference is starting on a Sunday rather than waiting until Monday. Is nothing holy anymore? As it happens, the official opening plenary is still delayed two-and-a-half hours.
I head to the country pavilions – the exhibition spaces put on by governments. Most are half-finished, but the UK’s is pretty much done, proudly plugging its “clean growth” credentials. The year before at COP23 in Bonn, Germany, the UK’s pavilion was sponsored by Barclays, a bank involved in funding the controversial practice of “fracking” for gas. This year they weren’t quite so stupid, even though the UK government has recently given the green light to fracking, despite widespread local and national opposition.
A further snoop through the labyrinthine COP24 reveals what appears to be a bit of a business zone. A massive billboard shows off the “United Nation Climate Change Partners of COP24”, with the logos of Facebook, Google, IKEA, Visa and some others. By merely “partnering”, these companies give themselves a bit of distance from the official sponsors.
With the pavilions fully operational, their true purpose becomes apparent: they’re there to promote domestic industries. It’s a trade fair in the middle of the climate talks. Poland excels – the Katowice pavilion is made of coal. Literally. Walls of it. And on the shelves, soap. Made of coal. For years industry has been claiming that coal can be clean. What’s cleaner than soap? Job done.
The coal and gas sponsors are all present in the Polish government’s pavilion, even hiring models with branded sashes to wander around promoting their corporate social responsibility schemes (remember the tree planting?). But then again, they give out free sausage. Swings and roundabouts. Burn down the planet, give free food. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
The official COP24 bus to the venue is plastered in the logo of the Polish gas company PGNiG, which is also sponsoring the talks. They claim the bus is clean, being run on natural gas, but recent research by the group Transport & Environment shows gas-powered cars are just as bad for the climate and for air pollution as petrol and diesel cars.
Activist and civil society groups from around the world used the conference to launch their “People’s Demands” for COP24. The fossil fuel industry is still setting the terms of the debate, so as well as keeping fossil fuels in the ground, activists also call for the fossil fuel industry to be kicked out of the talks.
At a press conference later that day, the UN praised the "huge dynamism in the business community" which is "understanding the need of change", without acknowledging the businesses that are still a barrier to urgent action. After 20 years, we’re further than ever from reaching where we want to be.