The Contradictions of COP27
Fossil fuel lobbyists, politicians, organized labour and environmentalists have all gathered in Egypt to try and put their stamp on the future of climate policy.
International delegates gathered in the Egyptian seaside resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh from Nov. 6 - 18 to discuss the fate of the planet at COP27 — the 27th annual Conference of Parties on climate change.
Early on in the 12-day conference, former Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna presented a long-awaited report calling on governments to get serious about corporate “greenwashing” — a term used to describe a marketing strategy that puts a green face on policies, services and companies that aren’t in fact environmentally sustainable.
But many of these companies, which use the rhetoric of net zero to extract government subsidies, were representing their countries at the conference, pointing to a distressing trend of those who created the climate crisis being asked for self-serving advice on how to end it.
According to reporting from BBC News, there are 636 fossil fuel industry delegates at COP27, an increase from last year’s conference, and more than the total number of delegates from the 10 most climate-impacted countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Mozambique.
“These conferences have always attracted significant numbers from the coal, oil and gas industries, who are keen to influence the shape of the debate,” noted BBC environment correspondent Matt McGrath.
For the first time, Canada has its own pavilion at the conference and it’s using that opportunity to showcase how purportedly progressive and climate conscious its oil and gas industry is, bringing along eight fossil fuel industry delegates.
These delegates form the so-called Pathways Alliance, which offered a presentation to attendees on Nov. 11.
Canada is the only country in the Organization for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD) or G20 to have brought delegates from the fossil fuel sector.
The Government of Alberta also sent its own delegation to the conference, which might as well be a delegation from the fossil fuel industry, led by provincial Environment Minister Sonya Savage, who was an Enbridge lobbyist immediately before her election in 2019.
On Nov. 10, the day before the Pathways presentation, a coalition of Canadian climate-justice oriented organizations wrote an open letter calling on Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, who is attending in the absence of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to cancel the Pathways Alliance presentation.
The letter calls the organizations who compose Pathways the “biggest obstacle to climate action — both at COP and back in Canada.”
But Guilbeault, an environmentalist-turned-politician, says he’s fine with the presence of fossil fuel companies.
"[T]here could be 1,000 of these people here, I couldn't care less," he told CBC Radio.
Guilbeault touted his government’s forthcoming emissions cap for oil and gas companies, announced at last year’s COP conference in Glasgow, but the specifics of this plan are still being hammered out.
The Pathways event, of course, went on as planned, so environmentalists staged a walkout during the group’s presentation.
Julia Levin, who is at COP27 as the national climate program manager with Environmental Defence, told The Orchard there is an “imposing presence” of Big Oil lobbyists at the conference:
[T]hey aren’t here in good faith. They’re at COP27 to tout carbon capture and storage and fossil hydrogen: greenwashing schemes that are about justifying ongoing and even expanded production, not climate action. But civil society is pushing back, and governments are listening. From India, to the EU, to Colombia, to Tuvalu: the call for ending fossil fuels is louder than ever.
This is the contradiction at the heart of COP27.
Mike Morrice attended COP26 in Glasgow shortly after he was elected in Kitchener Centre as the first Green MP from Ontario in an otherwise disastrous election for the Greens.
He’s one of four parliamentary delegates to COP27, alongside Minister Guilbeault, NDP environment critic Alexandre Boulerice and Bloc Québécois environment critic Monique Pauzé. That there’s no Conservative representation is entirely unsurprising, but it is telling.
Morrice told The Orchard the atmosphere in Sharm el-Sheikh is radically different from last year’s.
“The biggest difference really is the lack of protest, which last time really contributed at least to putting needed pressure on decision makers,” he said.
The protests and disruptions led by youth and Indigenous leaders last year in Glasgow had a “real emotional impact on me as I'd walk in every morning,” Morrice recalled.
But this has been almost entirely absent in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Egypt is notably led by a military junta, which has arrested an estimated 60,000 political opponents and created an “assembly line” of torture, to borrow Human Rights Watch’s terminology.
Speaking from Egypt, Morrice was cautious with his words. “Certainly, I would attribute [the lack of protest] to a different reality here,” he said. “There is a significant police presence in and around the site.”
Morrice’s status as a member of the parliamentary delegation means he gets to be in the room as negotiations are made. He’s not a negotiator, but is able to add some degree of democratic oversight to negotiations.
Despite being part of the same delegation as the Pathways Alliance, Morrice said he hasn’t interacted with the oil and gas executives much. “I've spent a lot more time with civil society this year that I think is doing a pretty incredible job in terms of accountability and bringing the voices of Canadians to COP27,” he said.
Morrice said he’s mainly there to pressure Minister Guilbeault to increase “our level of ambition and, at the very least, follow through on the promises that were made last year, which hasn't been the case yet.”
The minister and Morrice go way back from when Guilbeault was an environmental activist with Equiterre, an organization which also sent delegates to COP27.
Morrice said Guilbeault’s transformation from an environmental activist to someone who’s working hand in glove with the fossil fuel industry reflects the “toxic nature of partisan politics,” which is by no means limited to Guilbeault, whom Morrice regards as a person of integrity.
The minister's much-touted cap on oil and gas emissions is a “sleight of hand” that doesn’t appreciate the international scope of the climate crisis, Morrice said:
What we actually need is to cap production. When the governing party talks about capping emissions, we have to recognize that the majority of the emissions comes not when you extract, but when you combust fossil fuels. And so capping emissions means we can continue to extract more and ship that oil to other countries who aren't going to just sit on it, they're going to burn it eventually.
Morrice also criticized the role the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), which in the past year had 147 meetings lobbying bureaucrats, ministers and MPs, played in shaping this policy. “It's hard not to make a connection between the amount of time that [CAPP has] had with various ministers and the fact that this cap hasn't been rolled out yet,” he said.
The biggest expenditure of the government’s emissions reduction plan is a 50% carbon capture tax credit, expected to cost $8.6 billion by 2030. Morrice said this is in effect a massive subsidy to the oil and gas industry to purchase unproven technology “so they can prolong the very crisis that we’re in.”
In other words, don’t get your hopes up. It’s going to be a long battle for environmentalists to outweigh the power of the fossil fuel lobby. But it can be done.
You might remember Calgary-based Dr. Joe Vipond as one of the most prominent advocates for COVID mitigation measures during Alberta’s ill-fated “Best Summer Ever” (™) last year. Vipond is also the president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), which brought him to Sharm el-Sheikh.
Vipond told The Orchard it was important for CAPE to send a delegation as public health impacts are increasingly at the forefront of discussions regarding the climate crisis.
These impacts are myriad — death from extreme heat, smoke from wildfires causing air pollution, and dissipating food security from changing weather patterns, among many others.
The mental health impacts of living in a constant state of crisis cannot be understated, Vipond said:
There's a lot of anxiety about what's coming down the pipe. It's very stressful for people. There's also depression that goes along with grieving some of the natural spaces that we've come to love. And of course, there's also the immediate mental health impacts from disasters.
While other environmentalists walked out of the Pathways Alliance presentation en masse, Dr. Vipond stuck around to grill the oil and gas lobbyists.
Will the alliance commit to building no new fossil fuel projects, as the International Energy Agency says must be done?
Will it commit to annual reporting on its emissions reduction targets?
Will it commit to third-party verification of its reporting?
He said the alliance’s answers were unsatisfactory and noncommittal.
“Unless you have a plan in place with specific interim targets, actual current technology to get you there, it's not much of a plan,” he told The Orchard. “You're relying on magical future technology and you don't have any interim targets to measure whether you're getting there.”
Vipond agrees it was inappropriate to invite oil and gas lobbyists to the conference.
“They're beholden not to the planet, they're beholden to their shareholders. And as such, they have a fiduciary responsibility to make as much money for their shareholders as possible,” he said. “That's their only responsibility.”
Their goal, ultimately, is to delay meaningful climate action as long as possible so they can “milk as much out of the fossil fuel era as possible,” Vipond added.
While Vipond and other environmentalists were at COP27, Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley took to Twitter to boast about her government having “built” the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which has yet to be completed.
In response, Vipond invoked the words of author and venture capitalist Tom Rand, who said the “fossil fuel party is over.”
“There's a massive hangover coming and we’ve got to survive the hangover,” Vipond added. “It’s time for the party to end and acknowledge that we have a responsibility as an oil-based jurisdiction to do the right thing and be a part of Canada's transition.”
Meg Gingrich, who works for United Steelworkers (USW), was at COP27 as an observer with the Canadian Labour Congress delegation.
Gingrich told The Orchard it’s crucial for organized labour to have a seat at the COP27 table, since “any efforts at decarbonization … has the potential to either leave our members out of work or have to shift to a new type of work.”
She said labour delegates must ensure that any climate plans that come out of COP27 have a “net benefit” for workers, particularly those in carbon intensive industries.
While many of these workers accept the need to ensure the planet has a future, they’re concerned about their economic well-being and fear losing their primary, or only, source of income.
The labour movement plays an important role in re-assuring workers that these ends are far from mutually exclusive, Gingrich said.
Construction workers, she cited for instance, are needed to build renewable public infrastructure, such as public transit.
However, USW teamed up with Calgary-based pipeline company Enbridge in February for a court challenge of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to shut down the Line 5 pipeline, which ships tar sands crude through the state and into southwestern Ontario while supplying refineries throughout the U.S. Midwest.
In a press release, USW Local 912 president Justin Donley, who represents workers at a Toledo, Ohio, refinery, called the pipeline “essential to both our environmental and economic future.”
According to Environmental Defence, Line 5 has leaked 33 times since 1953, spilling a minimum of 4.5 million litres of oil into surrounding lands and waters.
Gingrich isn’t outright opposed to the presence of fossil fuel executives at the conference, but said she’s concerned about the extent of their role in shaping the Canadian government’s positions.
“That’s not clear to us,” she said. “It’s very worrying that they potentially have an outsized influence on the delegation.”
Speaking from Toronto, Levin’s Environmental Defence colleague, Dave Gray-Donald, told The Orchard the prominence of the fossil fuel lobby in the Canadian delegation at COP27 demonstrates how the industry has “made significant inroads with the Canadian government and they've effectively inserted themselves into the climate policy creation process.”
“It sends the wrong message about the future of oil and gas,” Gray-Donald said, describing a “massive greenwashing campaign” to dupe governments into believing the industry wants to find a solution to the crisis it created.
He said former environment minister McKenna’s words were “extremely powerful” in her acknowledgement that there can be no new fossil fuel projects, given her past experience.
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But the greenwashing McKenna decried was exactly what the Canadian government she used to serve in came to do — to buy time for the fossil fuel industry to extract massive subsidies for unproven solutions while continuing to line its pockets.
“They're doing a huge PR offensive right now — advertising everywhere — and they're getting into the media very effectively to say that they are the solution,” Gray-Donald said.
This corporate onslaught completely contradicts the spirit of countries across the world coming together to peacefully solve a collective problem.
Expect these contradictions to be on heightened display next year, when COP28 occurs in Dubai.
Edited by Ximena González and Stephen Magusiak