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As fossil fuel execs descend on UN climate summit, some ask 'what are COPs about?'

A person walks past signs that read "stop war" and "go green" at the COP28 UN Climate Summit, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool) A person walks past signs that read "stop war" and "go green" at the COP28 UN Climate Summit, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
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TORONTO -

The world's major climate negotiations risk turning into a trade show spectacle of unchecked corporate influence, some observers warn, as a record number of delegates representing fossil fuel interests descend on the United Nations climate change conference known as COP28.

Hundreds of delegates with links to fossil fuel interests, including from Canada, are turning up at this year's climate summit currently underway in Dubai, according to recent analyses by climate organizations and news agencies.

Despite making up a small share of the more than 80,000 registered attendees, the fossil fuel industry's presence at COP28 could water down action when the world risks careening past its emissions targets, said political economist Gordon Laxer.

“It's the political power and influence of Big Oil which is stopping real action,” said Laxer, a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta who researches the industry's political influence.

“There should not be oil lobbyists - period - at these international conferences on climate change.”

At least 1,300 employees of organizations representing the fossil fuel industry are at COP28, according to an analysis by the Associated Press, three times higher than the news agency's tally from last year. Kick Big Polluters Out, a coalition demanding an end to industry participation, put the number of people with industry ties at this year's summit even higher, at 2,456.

And their presence extends to Canada's delegation.

Environmental Defence analyzed the UN's list of likely participants and counted 35 people with ties to the fossil fuel sector on Canada's list of badge holders, an increase from eight at last year's conference.

“They're there to protect their own profits, delay and weaken climate action and sabotage progress that is so desperately needed,” said Aly Hyder Ali, oil and gas program manager with the environmental advocacy organization.

At the heart of this year's negotiations is a question over whether countries will agree to a phase out of fossil fuels, a measure that was proposed but never debated at last year's conference.

A 2023 report co-produced by the United Nations Environment Programme called for the total phaseout of coal by 2040 and the reduction in oil and gas production by three-quarters by 2050 compared to 2020 levels to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said fossil fuel representatives were not hosting events at the federal government's Canada pavilion and their participation was limited to panels. He said oil and gas representatives were far outnumbered by those from “clean tech.”

“Provinces can decide to bring delegates who they feel represent them. The presence of few individuals does (not) stop any of Canada's ambitions and goals for COP28,” he wrote in a statement.

Leaders from Saskatchewan and Alberta - the only two provincial premiers to attend COP28 - have both used the global platform to promote the oil and gas industry's favoured plans to reduce emissions, including large-scale investment in carbon capture and storage technology.

Saskatchewan, which bought its own pavilion at COP28 for $765,000, hosted three events Tuesday featuring Premier Scott Moe alongside oil and gas representatives.

Meanwhile, the Pathways Alliance, a consortium of the largest Canadian oilsands companies, has a team at the talks as it plays up a proposed $16.5-billion carbon capture network, which would look to isolate CO2 from industrial smoke stack exhaust and pump it underground.

“It is naive to think we can find solutions to the climate and energy security imperatives without major industry engaged in these discussions” Pathways president Kendall Dilling wrote in a statement.

But several environmental groups have said overreliance on pricey carbon capture technology, when renewable costs are trending down, is a way to delay the energy transition.

Adding to the criticism, climate groups argue oil companies invest a fraction of their record profits on emissions reductions, while hedging their carbon capture plans on government tax credits and overlooking the massive emissions produced when their products are used.

Hyder Ali, with Environmental Defence, said the UN climate change convention, which has no conflict-of-interest policy, should treat the fossil fuel industry the same way as the tobacco industry is treated under the World Health Organization's convention on tobacco control. That convention obligates countries to shield its public health policies from commercial influence.

In a move welcomed by some corporate accountability groups as a first minor step to addressing corporate influence at the talks, participants this year had to disclose their affiliations or otherwise publicly refuse disclosure.

But those accountability groups have also been highly critical of the decision to appoint the head of the United Arab Emirates' state-run oil company to lead the summit. Just ahead of the conference, COP28 president Sultan Al-Jaber denied allegations the UAE team planned to use the talks to strike oil and gas deals, as detailed in a BBC report citing leaked briefing notes.

The rise in industry participation at COP28 comes as total participation in the conference is also set to reach new highs. More than 80,000 people were expected to attend, nearly double last year's record-setting attendance in Egypt.

The sheer number of delegates has raised questions about whether the conference had strayed too far from a focused mission on climate action. An easy target of those concerns this week included a side event titled “Responsible Yachting.”

Former federal Liberal environment minister Catherine McKenna, in an interview ahead of the talks, said the conferences were “becoming like massive trade shows.”

“That's why I think we need to think about what are COPs about? What are we trying to achieve here with all of these people coming? Including, why do we have so many fossil fuel companies,” said McKenna, who chairs a UN working group on net-zero emissions commitments.

“I would love to think that they want to be part of the solution and want to transition, but they've done nothing to demonstrate that.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2023.

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