At Un Climate Talks, Fossil Fuel Interests Have Hundreds Of Employees On Hand

FILE - Demonstrators display signs reading "end fossil fuels" at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)
FILE - Demonstrators display signs reading "end fossil fuels" at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)
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At least 1,300 employees of organizations representing fossil fuel interests registered to attend this year's United Nations climate talks in Dubai, more than three times the number found in an Associated Press analysis of last year's talks, as new rules took effect requiring attendees to disclose their employment.

Aside from the new disclosure rules, the figure may have been boosted by a surge in attendance as Earth staggered through a year of record heat and devastating extreme weather attributed to climate change — conference registrations are nearly double that of last year's talks. The United Nations body responsible for running the conference also released the details of far more attendees than in past years, including people not considered part of official state delegations.

The hundreds of fossil fuel-connected people make up just a tiny share of the 90,000 people who registered to attend the climate summit known as COP28. But environmentalists have repeatedly questioned their presence at an event where meaningful negotiations have to take aim at the heart of their businesses.

Bob Deans, director of strategic engagement for the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said his group is hoping this year's talks are the point where oil and gas "might begin to shift from being the biggest part of the climate problem to finally being part of the fix."

“The industry needs to turn away from a business model that relies on destroying the planet," said Deans, whose own group registered nearly two dozen people to attend. "That business model needs to change. Dubai must be the starting point.”

The companies represented by the 1,300-plus employees make up a big part of global emissions — which is also why they should have a place at the conference, they said.

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber fielded criticism in the months leading up his role presiding over COP28 because of his other job — heading up the United Arab Emirates' national oil company. Al-Jaber alluded to the question about the proper role for fossil fuel companies in his opening remarks.

“Let history reflect the fact that this is the Presidency that made a bold choice to proactively engage with oil and gas companies,” al-Jaber said. He went on to praise many of those companies for commitments to reduce emissions, but added: “I must say, it is not enough, and I know that they can do more.”

On Saturday, al-Jaber announced that 50 oil companies representing almost half of global production had pledged to reach near-zero methane emissions and end routine flaring by 2030. Experts and environmentalists called it significant and meaningful, but still not enough.

COP28 comes as the planet faces a mounting imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Global warming reached 1.25 degrees Celsius in October compared to pre-industrial levels, according to the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. And the UN warned in a pivotal September report “the window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all is rapidly closing.”

Fossil fuel companies have long had a hand in the talks, the first of which was in 1995. Research by the advocacy group Kick Big Polluters Out Coalition shows four of the “big five” oil and gas companies — Shell, Chevron, TotalEnergies and BP — have sent representatives to the annual climate talks nearly every year.

The four companies each said in statements they attend COP in order to advance green or low-carbon technologies and work toward their net-zero commitments. Low-carbon can mean such things as biofuels, hydrogen development and carbon capture and storage. All four have pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The AP arrived at its tally for COP28 by analyzing the United Nations list of likely attendees to review details they offered upon registration, including the company they represented. Those details were checked against lists of operators and owners of coal mines, oil fields and natural gas plants, as well as manufacturers of carbon-intensive materials like steel and cement. It also included trade associations that represent those interests.

TotalEnergies registered to send a dozen people to COP28, the UN data shows. Paul Naveau, the company’s head of media relations, said TotalEnergies would have six experts on climate, carbon markets and biodiversity at the talks, and its CEO Patrick Pouyanné is speaking at a side event.

“The subjects broached at these events lie at the heart of the company’s ambition; our experts attend to listen to the discussions and support collective action,” Naveau said.

Naveau said in response to AP questions that no TotalEnergies employees take part — or are even present for — the negotiations between countries.

Naveau highlighted the company’s plans for a third of its capital spending through 2028 to go toward “low carbon” energy. He also said the company is transparent about its attendees in Dubai “in order to kill the (false) idea that our company’s presence could be negative.”

The Kick Big Polluters Out analysis, which covers 20 years, showed that Shell has sent the most people to the talks overall and most consistently. The company averaged six people over the last 20 years, though that's likely an undercount since the U.N. didn't require attendees to list their “home organizations” before this year.

Shell's international policy positions support phasing out coal, expanding renewables, and treating natural gas as a “partner” to renewable sources of energy. Natural gas emits less carbon than most other fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency, but it still contributes to climate change. The IEA describes it as having “a limited role” in transitioning from coal to renewables.

The Kick Big Polluters Out research also identified the most frequent attendees.

Arthur Lee, a 30-year employee of Chevron, has been to every COP since 1999, he said on his LinkedIn page, and is registered to attend COP28. He was a contributor to the fourth IPCC assessment, the official UN climate report, as an expert on carbon capture and storage.

David Hone, Shell's chief climate adviser, is in Dubai for at least his 17th appearance at the annual climate talks. Hone wrote in a blog post ahead of the talks that net-zero emissions goals “will require a major emphasis on the development of carbon removal practices and technologies.”

Neither Shell nor Chevon would make the two men available for interviews.

Fossil fuel companies are depending heavily on carbon capture to meet their net zero targets, even as some experts have expressed doubt about scaling it up sufficiently. At the moment, it's preventing about 0.1% of the energy sector's carbon emissions from reaching the atmosphere, according to the IEA.

Rachel Rose Jackson is director of climate research and international policy at Corporate Accountability, a group in the coalition that produced the Kick Big Polluters Out analysis, said carbon capture and storage are unproven technologies at the scale that would be required.

“It’s a massive diversion of resources, capacity and money that could be going to solutions that we know work, that are cost effective, that do reduce emissions and keep fossil fuels in the ground,” she said. “These so-called solutions are often dangerous distractions.”

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