PARIS, FRANCE — Engie, formally known as GDF Suez, is a massive energy company — according to the Brand Finance Brandirectory, it is the most valuable utilities company in the world, bringing in more than $80 billion in annual revenue. A lot of that value comes from its fossil fuel operations — more than 70 percent of the company’s energy output comes from natural gas and coal, compared to 13 percent from renewable energy. As a single entity, Engie emitted as much greenhouse gases in 2014 as the entire country of Belgium.
Engie is also a prominent sponsor of the current U.N. climate talks taking place in Paris, present everywhere from a wind-power installation outside of the negotiating complex at Le Bourget to a large stall at the Solutions COP21 exhibit at Le Grand Palais in downtown Paris. And Engie isn’t the only company with ties to fossil fuels to be included as a sponsor at the Paris talks — corporations like Électricité de France (EDF), which operates 16 major coal plants worldwide, and BNP Paribas, one of the world’s top banks for financing coal production, are also prominent sponsors of the event.
“These are actors that are still driving the climate crisis, and meanwhile they are sponsoring the very forum that is supposed to create the solution,” Katherine Sawyer, international organizer for Corporate Accountability International, told ThinkProgress. “We are at a critical juncture where we have no time to waste, and we need this agreement to work for people around the world whose livelihoods and cultures are at risk of being taken from them from climate change.”
CREDIT: Natasha Geiling/ThinkProgress
Organizations like Corporate Accountability International, Corporate Europe Observatory, Friends of the Earth, and 350.org worry that by allowing corporate sponsors like Engie and EDF, the climate conference is essentially helping the brands “greenwash” their image, lending them an air of environmental credibility that masks their real interests. Sponsoring the climate talks, Sawyer argues, also allows these corporations to position themselves as stakeholders in the process, which could ultimately have an impact on the final agreement.
“The idea that is prevalent within the general public, and unfortunately here in the negotiations, is that these corporations are stakeholders and need to be part of the solution,” Sawyer said. “With any other industry, that narrative isn’t the same. The idea is instead that we need to regulate the industry.”
Private sponsorships account for a relatively small part of the overall climate conference — 20 percent of the $185 million total cost, according to the Guardian — but a sponsorship still affords the companies a great deal of visibility. EDF, for instance, gets its name associated with a digital screen in Parisian metro stations that ticks of Twitter responses to COP21 and climate change, while Engie gets to hang a massive COP21 banner in front of its Paris headquarters.
— Lucky Tran (@luckytran) December 4, 2015
Paris isn’t the first climate talk to be sponsored, at least in part, by parties that might have more to gain from a broken climate treaty than a successful one. When the climate talks were held in Warsaw in 2013, Pascoe Sabido, an organizer with Corporate Europe Observatory (an organization that is also spearheading the crusade against corporate interests in the Paris talks) told the Guardian that the Warsaw talks were “perhaps the most corporate climate talks we have ever experienced.” Sponsors like General Motors, who until 2012 funded the climate-denying Heartland Institute, and Grupa Lotos, Poland’s second-largest petroleum company, caused 800 representatives from environment and development groups to stage a walk-out at the talks. During the talks, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres gave the keynote speech at the corporate summit for the World Coal Association — also held in Warsaw.
There have been no walk-outs at the Paris talks, but environmental groups have still managed to voice their displeasure with the French government’s choice of sponsors. At the opening ceremony of the Solutions COP21 exhibit, an event advertised as featuring “existing practical solutions to take us forward to the post-carbon era,” groups of protestors came carrying banners that read “Fausses Solutions COP21” (False Solutions COP21). Those protestors were forcibly removed by French police, as France is currently under a three-month state of emergency that has led to a ban on any public protests following the November 13 attacks that killed more than 130.
Even before the talks began, the U.K.-based Brandalism project staged a massive takeover of ad spaces in Paris, replacing existing advertisements with fake satirical ads aimed at criticizing COP sponsors whose business contributes to climate change.
“By sponsoring the climate talks, major polluters such as Air France and GDF-Suez-Engie can promote themselves part of the solution – when actually they are part of the problem,” Brandalism’s Joe Elan said in a press statement.
Some, however, view Brandalism and other groups’ opposition to the question of corporate sponsorship — or corporate involvement in climate action, period — as counterproductive.
“The world is imperfect and we are trying with a great sense of urgency to move in a better direction,” a French official close to the negotiations told the Guardian in May. “We think we should work with those who may be part of the problem for the time being but who are on the right track, and seriously interested in interested in improving the situation. It is not a perfect choice. It is a pragmatic choice, but we had to do it.”
At the COP21 talks, there has been much discussion about the private sector’s role in climate action — from creating their own emissions reduction targets, as many food companies have done in recent months, to lobbying for a price on carbon, which some energy companies argue would allow them to better plan for future markets.
But to Sawyer, those commitments — or suggestions that things like natural gas or clean-coal could be a part of the climate solution — simply delay the fact that the world needs to transition from fossil fuels to a carbon-free economy.
“We’re not at a point where we have time to waste and we can afford to be playing number games with how much we’re emitting — everyone needs to be cutting emissions,” she said, adding that things like fossil fuel subsides continue to make oil, gas, and coal profitable for corporations while hastening the climate crisis.
“The sponsorship of COP and other climate initiatives by corporations positions them as stakeholders and part of the solutions, when we really need to be regulating and changing the corporate structure,” Sawyer said. “We don’t have time to waste letting them be part of the solution to the problem that they have caused.”