Cancun Conference a Success In Spite of Oil Company Efforts

CANCUN, Mexico — Most observers agree that the Cancun deal is a tremendous achievement for UN climate process and a testament to the dogged diplomacy of the tireless Mexican hosts. After reaching what was a seemingly impassable divide over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, negotiators worked into the early hours this morning to produce two compromise texts that were agreed upon by all but the Bolivian delegation.

All that has been widely reported. What has been less discussed in the growing influence of large multinational corporations over the UN climate process. This is, as I wrote yesterday for The New Republic, “cause for concern.” Because businesses are quarterly-driven entities beholden primarily to their investors – not the long-term public interest – it is dangerous to allow them a prominent role in the climate negotiations. This risk was made evident by a letter Greenpeace uncovered shortly after the story was published.

While the government of Mexico worked hard to include corporations in the climate protection discussion that occurred here over the past two weeks, some big businesses used the platform they provided to push their narrow self interests. Shell was a particularly dishonest actor. On Wednesday its executive vice-president Graeme Sweeney joined Mexican Secretary of Economy Bruno Ferrari at a panel sponsored by the national development agency to discuss the role the private sector can play in preventing catastrophic climate change.

“Sweeney used every opportunity to emphasize the importance of funding R&D for carbon capture and sequestration—a promising but completely unproven technology to reduce emissions from coal plants,” I wrote of the event. “While Shell’s commitment to climate action is nice, it also seems to be a glorified form of lobbying.”

But, as I learned later, pushing for dubious solutions to the climate crisis wasn’t the only thing the oil company was doing to undermine the negotiations. Greenpeace discovered that days earlier, a trade group in which Shell is a prominent member, wrote an “urgent proposal” to the Japanese Government pressuring it not to compromise on avoiding a second Kyoto commitment period.

“We urge JPN government to not accept the extension of the Kyoto Protocol under whatever circumstances,” the Petroleum Association of Japan wrote, according to a rough translation of the letter by the Japanese office of Greenpeace. Had the government of Japan followed the trade group’s advice, it is very likely the Cancun Agreements would never have come to pass – an outcome that would have been tragic for most, but beneficial for Shell and the PAJ.

From now until the end of the Durban summit, there are many contentious international climate issues to be resolved if the UN process is to produce a new binding treaty. Chief among them is how to extend the Kyoto Protocol while also curbing emissions from rapidly growing emerging economies like China. As the actions of Shell at the Cancun conference make clear, governments negotiating solutions to this and other climate problems would be wise to not confuse the best interests of corporations with those of the public at large.