UK Government reps 'discussing potential COP26 sponsorship deals with oil majors'

Despite a promise to ensure that COP26's corporate sponsors are "making real contributions" to climate action, government representatives have reportedly been in discussions with some of the world's highest emitting firms, including Equinor, BP and Shell.

Pictured: A fossil fuel project in the North Sea

Pictured: A fossil fuel project in the North Sea

In emails and meeting notes published today (2 October) after a freedom of information request by campaign group Culture Unstained, it is revealed that BP set up four separate meetings to discuss potential sponsorship in March. Attendees included representatives of the COP Unit, including event President and Business Secretary Alok Sharma.

Then, in May, Equinor and the COP Unit met, the government told Culture Unstained. The group was provided with meeting notes revealing that an Equinor representative asked: “If I was to ask you – ballpark – how much money would you like from us, for what, and with what visibility for us, what would you say?”

The information disclosed also revealed that Shell first expressed interest in “partnering” with the Government on COP26 in July 2019 – two months before the UK received the formal backing of all UN member states to host the conference.

All of the meetings and emails were held and sent before the COP Unit made a public commitment to only sign sponsorship deals with businesses with “strong climate credentials”. The note defined “strong credentials” as net-zero targets underpinned with “credible” plans to achieve them, such as science-based targets.  

While BP, Shell and Equinor do have climate targets, they have been broadly criticised.

Equinor is aiming to reduce the net carbon intensity of its energy by at least 50% by 2050, against a 2019 baseline, across all Scopes. It has not set any numerical, time-bound targets on degrowth for its oil business or outlined its specific plans for dealing with residual emissions.

Shell, meanwhile, is aiming to deliver net-zero emissions across all Scopes by 2050. While the plan is regarded as one of the strongest in the oil and gas sector, the firm is the world’s seventh-largest corporate emitter of carbon dioxide equivalent and has relied heavily on offsetting in the past.

BP first announced a net-zero target in February and was met with accusations of greenwashing. It has since outlined plans to reduce fossil fuel production by 40% by 2030. Pre-pandemic, it was planning to grow its production of oil and gas by about a fifth by 2030, against a 2018 baseline.

Culture Unstained’s co-director Chris Garrard said that by allocating money that could be spent on shifting to renewable energy for event sponsorship, fossil fuel firms indicate that they are “more bothered about looking green than genuinely shifting their businesses away from fossil fuels as the climate emergency - and the Paris Climate Agreement – demands”.

One of 350.org’s senior campaign specialists Clayton Thomas-Muller, who has attended many previous COPs as a representative of Canada’s indigenous Pukatawagan Cree Nation, called the role of big oil in previous summits “destructive and problematic”.

“These companies paint themselves as good corporate citizens when, in truth, they're directly responsible for the global climate crisis and catastrophic impacts on local ecosystems, Indigenous peoples and their rights,” Thomas-Muller said.

“Big Oil must not be allowed to participate in any context that skews or creates confusion about the fact they will soon be held accountable in courts of law around the world.”

On his latter point, two major oil pipeline projects in North America were ordered to cease in July, with courts citing climate and human rights concerns. With around half of global GDP now covered by net-zero targets, the number of legal cases against high-carbon projects – and rates of wins for green groups – are widely expected to rise.

Industry response

Responding to the documents published by Culture Unstained, a BP spokesperson said the company will only “support the COP26 process” if it is “helpful to the UK government and the broader UNFCCC [United Nations framework convention on climate change] process.”

The spokesperson said the firm believes its climate targets are in line with the requirements for sponsorship set out by the COP Unit.

Equinor’s press spokesperson Erik Halaand issued a statement highlighting the company’s involvement in the UK’s offshore wind sector, including the Dogger Bank wind farm,

The statement argues that Equinor “fully supports” the Paris Agreement and the UK Government’s ambition for COP26, including its vision to encourage other nations to set legally binding net-zero targets.  This support can be seen, Halaand argues, through the firm’s investments in renewables, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage.

A Shell spokesperson said: “We have never asked to be a sponsor of COP26. We make no apology for being part of the conversation about meaningful change to the energy system – business must be part of the solution.”

Sarah George



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