No room for fossil fuel executives at climate negotiation tables

Until their actions align with their words, we should not work with them.

A view shows the 'Cop28 UAE' logo on a globe, during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), in Abu Dhabi, UAE, January 17, 2023. REUTERS/Rula Rouhana
A view shows the 'COP28 UAE' logo on a globe, during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, on January 17, 2023 [Rula Rouhana/Reuters]

For decades, fossil fuel industry executives have managed to get a seat at the table when it comes to negotiating climate policies. Now, they are hosting the table with the appointment of oil executive Sultan al-Jaber as president-designate of the next United Nations global climate conference, COP28. Given the fossil fuel industry has repeatedly proven they have no intention of addressing the source of the climate crisis – oil, gas and coal – it’s time to stop inviting them to climate talks. These companies are not going to manage their own decline. At COP28 Sultan al-Jaber has the opportunity to show the world that governments understand the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels and that he will ensure his position as a CEO of a national oil company will not undermine the greater public good. We hope he does.

I’ve worked on environmental and climate protection for more than three decades and I’ve been in many meetings and events with oil and gas executives. I used to buy into arguments that it was important to work with the fossil fuel industry given the scale of the climate crisis, that a transition to clean energy and other low-carbon solutions would not be possible without them. Yet each day, it becomes more evident that oil, gas and coal companies are only working to falsely entrench themselves as a necessary part of the economy and our lives moving forward, despite clear evidence that oil, gas and coal are harming people now and threatening our future. We have no choice but to move away from them.

Directly negotiating climate policy with oil and gas executives in Canada is the biggest mistake I have ever made. For years, I sat at the table with many good people from the industry as well as from Indigenous communities, labour, government and civil society, trying to come to a consensus on the design of climate policy in the oil sands. We were successful in coming to an agreement on a set of collective recommendations for carbon pricing and a cap on emissions from oil and gas. Yet before the ink was dry, oil and gas associations launched campaigns against the recommendations, and oil companies donated to political candidates who promised to eliminate any climate policy once elected.

I returned to advocacy, but kept churning over what had happened at those tables. Despite their willingness to come to an agreement about carbon pricing, fossil fuel executives were working actively to derail progress behind the scenes.

I started looking into international climate negotiations and what I found was shocking. The words oil, gas, coal or even fossil fuels were absent from the text of the Paris climate agreement, but the presence of the fossil fuel industry at UN meetings was easy to detect. Fossil fuel companies and interests have been sending delegations larger than the size of most country delegations to these meetings. They show up, positioning themselves as part of the solution with false promises that they can capture enough carbon pollution from their oil, gas and coal production to justify continued expansion while standing firmly in the way of any meaningful progress to address the main source of the climate crisis.

This motivated me to work with a team of civil society, academic, Indigenous, faith, health youth and other leaders around the world to launch the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. This initiative is advocating for a treaty to help meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and facilitate the phase-out of oil, gas and coal and accelerate the adoption of clean, abundant renewable energy and other low-carbon solutions. Over the past three years since the launch, almost everywhere I have been invited to speak about the Fossil Fuel Treaty, whether it is policy roundtables, net zero panels or conferences, the fossil fuel industry has been there. Somehow they are still being taken seriously despite having plans in place to expand production at rates that would result in 110 percent more carbon pollution than what our planet can take if we want to meet the 1.5C climate target.

The fossil fuel industry is obscuring the truth and slowing down progress. There has been extensive documentation by academics, lawyers and even the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) that has been reviewed and accepted in multiple courts of law that shows that oil and gas companies have been denying climate change despite their own scientific evidence to the contrary, as well as delaying and blocking climate ambition and weakening climate policy for decades. No wonder we are failing miserably to cut absolute carbon emissions and phase down production. This failure is costing us our present and our future.

Ideally, the fossil fuel industry would be part of the solution given their resources and expertise. Only, they are not. They continue with business as usual with marginalised communities bearing the brunt of the pollution from oil refining and processing.

Oil, gas and coal companies suppress the truth while making bank. In fact, the industry is making record profits on expanding production of oil and gas despite the clear science calling for an end to expansion. The top 20 companies have plans on the books for $930bn in new oil and gas development between now and 2030. Despite their “commitments” to net zero and the billions spent in advertising campaigns about being part of the solution, recent data shows that the oil and gas industry plans to spend less than 2 percent of their capital expenditure on diversifying to renewable energy versus 98 percent on expanding fossil fuel production and use.

These are not companies in a transition. They are instead deploying sophisticated communications strategies to convince us that our consumption is the problem – even the personal carbon footprint is a concept popularised first by BP, that they are the answer to everything from cheap energy access to keeping our roads paved and hospitals open.

Increasingly the opposite is true. Subsidies to these companies who are making record profits are going up, leaving our governments with less money to spend on electrification infrastructure to replace fossil fuels, or on cooling facilities and other climate adaptation solutions. The truth is: we are paying a small number of companies to kill us while they profit.

Every tonne of carbon we save from going into the atmosphere right now will save millions of lives. Pipelines, new gas facilities and oil drilling is infrastructure that is not required to meet our energy needs given there is enough renewable energy capacity in every region of the globe to deliver energy security. Instead, it is infrastructure that locks in climate, health, economic and global security risks.

So no, we don’t need oil and gas representatives at the tables where climate conversations and negotiations are taking place. If there are good people in the industry who want to help craft solutions and work to meet climate targets then they need to have the courage to convince their executives to manage a wind-down of fossil fuel investments – and, if they fail, to leave the companies doing such harm to the world. Anything less at this moment in history is simply immoral. Unless their actions align with their words, don’t work with them. Including them in the climate space will only waste real negotiators’ time, as it wasted mine, and, much worse, costs lives. Every day.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.