Story by Kate Willson Video by Kate Willson and Andrew Green
of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for The
They call them BINGOs - business and industry non-governmental organizations. And for two decades they have played a key role in shaping the global debate on climate change. Industry groups are operating under United Nations rules that exclude individual corporations from attending the climate summit, instead requiring businesses to join associations to represent them.
They are in Copenhagen in force this week, making their case, but they're also looking well beyond the current talks. If the agenda of the various BINGOs on climate change seems clear, their strategy can be harder to discern. And the results of their efforts are often intangible. In other words, this is not lobbying as it is commonly understood. "What we do here is we loiter," said John Scowcroft of the European Union of the Electricity Industry. "It's loitering with intent."
Nick Campbell, a chemist and lobbyist for French chemical company Arkema, who also represents thousands of companies for the International Chamber of Commerce has been attending the U.N. climate talks since 1991. But he said he saves his actual lobbying for the national and regional level, including at the European Union in Brussels. "As a BINGO, you can have very little effect at these meetings," he explained in October at a U.N. climate talk that proceeded Copenhagen. "The only way you really get leverage is if you can convince a delegation at home that it's in their interest to have their instructions say this or that."
Executives of carbon-intensive industries once denied that their emissions contributed to climate change, and some fought for years against a global agreement to curb emissions. But as the scientific consensus hardened, and as government and public opinion turned, business began to shift its approach. Following passage of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the world's first treaty limiting carbon emissions, industry groups began to accept the growing body of evidence on warming and clambered to make their voices heard. "Not a lot of companies still lobby openly against regulation," said Irja Vormedal, a research fellow at the University of Oslo, who studies industry influence in climate negotiations. "That ship has left the dock. Now they try to prepare for this new transition. They say, 'If we do that, we'll have a chair at the table and can influence regulation.'"
At the heart of Big Carbon's current strategy, say industry delegates, is admitting that emission controls are needed. While conceding the need to de-carbonize, industry representatives have prevailed on national governments and delegations to the U.N. to use language that would slow implementation of the resulting accord. Many carbon-intensive business associations -- among them coal, oil, and electric companies -- seek long-term emission reduction targets instead of near-term goals. They want governments to provide, free of charge, plentiful allocations of the allowances they'll need to discharge carbon under the treaty. And they want as much leeway as possible to "offset" emissions instead of reducing them, through investments in lower-cost projects in developing countries such as reforestation. They also are pushing for the U.N. to include as one of those approved offsets any investments they make in the still-nascent technology known as carbon capture and storage -- a controversial process in which carbon emissions (largely from coal plants) would be trapped and stored underground.
When it comes to climate change, the international business lobby is not monolithic. A new industry voice has emerged over the past few years in the form of associations of wind and solar industries, and of financial companies eager to profit off of emerging carbon markets. But some new industry voices say they are overshadowed by the veteran network of heavy industry representatives, their Rolodexes crammed with 20 years' worth of business cards and their faces familiar to government officials around the world.
One old industry hand is Brian Flannery, the climate guru for energy giant ExxonMobil who, along with Campbell, is a representative of the International Chamber of Commerce. Environmentalists have long cast Flannery as one of the worst climate-change deniers. "The only way to get to these low levels is for the whole world to act together with common targets and a common carbon price," he said, while arguing that such an approach is unrealistic. "We're not going to have everyone with the same target, the same price on carbon... It does raise fundamental questions about whether the negotiating process should aspire to unachievable targets and work in an area of confrontation and dismay, or try to work towards achievable targets."
Remi Gruet of the European Wind Energy Association -- which supports more ambitious targets -- said Flannery's stance is a predictable go-slow corporate approach. "The usual industry you will find in the BINGO groups are the oil and gas industry, the chemical industry," Gruet noted. "Anybody who doesn't want to have their emissions reduced has been coming to this process to try to disrupt it ever since the beginning." Thus, Gruet said, the alternative energy industry has to look elsewhere for allies, to the growing number of companies pushing for an international carbon market.
How then, does a business -- or an entire industry -- convince a government delegation to adopt its position? It's not about campaign contributions and office visits, as it is on a national level. "It's a combination of sitting down with delegates or legislators, organizing presentations for groups of them or their staff," explained David Hone, climate advisor for Royal Dutch Shell, now the world's largest publicly-traded oil company. But the most direct results come from lobbying on the national level, he said. For instance, the Brazilian government doesn't want carbon capture and storage approved as an "offset" because the country isn't implementing the technology. Shell does want it approved. "So we have put some effort into talking with the Brazilian government to understand their concerns and see if there's a way around that," Hone said.
Hone doesn't lobby at the international climate negotiations, he said. He listens to delegates' concerns then he alerts representatives of Shell's subsidiaries, who can use the information as they lobby the national government. "Talking to the delegates opens doors for people back in Shell Brazil, who may then go and have a follow-up conversation," he said in October.
ExxonMobil's Flannery said anyone who comes to the international talks in hopes of wooing a delegation is "just going to get heartburn... This isn't a place for lobbying. All the industry associations recognize their key issue is to work at home, with their governments, in their capitals." The U.N. talks are strictly for networking, he added. "You form contacts all over the world, people you know who will answer the phone because they respect you. To me, that's tremendously valuable."
The reward for a career of schmoozing comes in nuanced changes to the treaty text and delegation requests for industry input, industry veterans say. And they're taking the long view. Despite years of negotiation, the agreements coming out of Copenhagen will likely be vague and open to interpretation, experts say. "One thing we can say for sure is that there's going to be two more years of detailed nuts and bolts to work out," observed Doug Russell, a former delegate from Canada turned private consultant. And that will be the next big battle. "That's where the real interest will pick up. It's in those details that business will become very active to make sure the rules are written in such a way that favors what they're going to want to try to do."