Many oil and gas companies argue that they need to participate in these summits if they are to help develop solutions to climate change, pointing to their investments in clean energy. But climate activists and some Democrats say fossil fuel firms have had too much influence at these annual U.N. summits, known as the Conference of the Parties, or COPs, and have stood in the way of solutions.
“Corporate presence at COPs has been a long-standing problem,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), one of the most vocal climate advocates on Capitol Hill, said in an interview. “I do think that both the leadership of this COP and the attendance of so many fossil fuel interests and front groups will diminish this COP’s success.”
The Kick Big Polluters Out coalition conducted the analysis by combing through the official list of delegates, which includes attendees from governments, U.N. bodies, intergovernmental organizations and the media. The authors classified delegates as fossil fuel industry representatives if they listed an affiliation or membership with a fossil fuel company or trade association.
Among major oil and gas firms, Royal Dutch Shell sent the most staff to the talks, securing at least 115 passes from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change since 2003, according to the analysis. Shell’s chief climate change adviser, David Hone, previously bragged that the oil giant helped write the 2015 Paris climate accord.
“We put together a straw proposal. Many of the elements of that straw proposal appear in the Paris agreement,” Hone said at the U.N. climate summit in 2018 in Katowice, Poland.
Employees of fossil fuel firms around the world have attended the negotiations at least 945 times since 2003, the analysis found. The Italian oil major Eni sent staff to the talks at least 104 times, followed by Brazil’s state-owned oil producer Petrobras (68), Kuwait Petroleum (58) and BP (56).
Representatives for fossil fuel trade associations have attended COPs at least 6,581 times, the researchers said. The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), whose members include BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil, has received at least 2,769 passes.
All of these numbers are likely a “significant undercount,” Kick Big Polluters Out said in a news release. That’s because the United Nations has not historically required delegates to disclose their affiliation with a fossil fuel company or trade group, so any disclosures have been voluntary.
U.N. officials changed course in June, announcing that for the first time, representatives for polluting industries would need to identify themselves as such when registering for the Dubai summit, known as COP28. The decision followed years of pressure from the Kick Big Polluters Out coalition.
“It’s only this year that any delegate has to declare their affiliation,” said Brenna Two Bears, a lead coordinator of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a member of the coalition.
The 7,200 self-disclosed fossil fuel representatives “are just the tip of the iceberg,” she added. “That means there were so many more non-disclosed fossil fuel lobbyists who were there.”
Asked for comment on the analysis, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in an email: “Each year, a small number of Shell staff attend COP to gather insights and latest policy developments, engage with stakeholders and strengthen collaborations. Shell staff attend as observers.”
Smith added that the company aims “to do business in a clear, open way and promote transparency throughout our industry. This includes at COP.”
Mark Downes, a spokesman for IETA, pointed to the group’s official policy on participation in the climate talks. “Fundamentally, we believe that our businesses should be part of the climate negotiations — because we intend to be part of the solution,” the policy says in part.
Tuesday’s research builds on past findings on the fossil fuel industry’s presence at COPs. The industry sent more delegates than any country to the 2021 talks in Glasgow, Scotland, the advocacy group Global Witness reported that year.
At least 636 representatives of the industry registered to attend the 2022 talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, according to Global Witness and other groups. That dwarfed the number of delegates from any single nation except the United Arab Emirates.
The industry’s presence is not confined to climate talks. A total of 143 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists also registered to attend negotiations in Nairobi last week over a global treaty to curb plastic pollution, according to the Center for International Environmental Law. The negotiations ended Sunday with little progress toward a legally binding treaty on phasing out production of plastics, most of which are made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels.