Revealed: oil firms officially excluded from COP26

  • FOIs reveal BP excluded from sponsorship or official role at the climate summit because it does ‘not fit success criteria’ 
  • COP organisers unconvinced by oil majors’ claims of going ‘net zero’, in major blow to the industry
  • Campaigners celebrate ‘significant win’ and call on UN to follow suit at future summits
  • News comes as Science Museum faces backlash for signing sponsorship deal with coal giant Adani

For analysis of the materials and to view the FOI documents, click here

Today, it has been revealed that major oil companies have been barred from sponsorship deals and official involvement at the COP26 climate summit, due to doubts over their claims of going ‘net zero’. Emails and documents made public by Culture Unstained and covered in the Guardian show that summit organisers concluded that oil giant BP ‘do not fit our success criteria’ for an official COP26 role while other civil servants highlighted that it’s ‘unclear’ whether the firm’s climate commitments ‘stack up’. This is a major blow for oil firms such as BP, Shell and Equinor that continue to misleadingly claim that they are on a climate-friendly path. Campaigners have called it a ‘significant win’ for the climate movement and are now calling on the UN to adopt a ‘conflict of interest’ policy that excludes major polluters from all future summits.

Excerpt from email by COP26 organisers

The emails, released following Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made by campaigns and research organisation Culture Unstained, expose a split within government, with summit organisers opting to exclude firms such as BP and Shell from the summit while other government departments have continued to offer promotional opportunities linked to COP26. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Sir David Attenborough at the launch of COP26 at the London Science Museum in 2020

The emails show that:

  • Ahead of an official COP26 event at the British Embassy in Poland to which BP was invited to speak, the COP Unit informed colleagues organising the event that:

‘BP do not currently fit our success criteria for COP26, so any speaking attendance would not be appropriate…we strongly recommend not to use COP26 branding on the comms around your event if BP are speaking’. 

This follows pressure on the COP Unit to categorically exclude fossil fuel companies from using the summit to promote themselves after emails revealed by Culture Unstained in the Guardian last year showed that BP, Shell and Equinor were all lobbying the UK government for a significant role.

  • Civil servants highlighted to their colleagues in Poland how: 

‘It’s unclear whether BP’s [net zero] commitments stack up yet…there are a whole range of UK and European businesses that are much more unambiguously following Science Based Targets or net zero plans’. 

However, instead of disinviting BP as a speaker, the Embassy decided to remove the official COP26 branding from the event.

  • The Department for International Trade (DIT) disregarded the COP Unit’s criteria for partnerships around COP26 and in Australia, invited BP to publish an article on its ‘net zero’ plan on its COP26 webpage. In an email to BP, DIT said they hoped writing the article would: 

‘Provide [BP with] a good opportunity to showcase/cascade your net zero plans’

  • The ‘Race to Zero’ campaign, led by ‘COP High-level Champion’ Nigel Topping, was launched alongside the UK’s official COP26 programme with the intention of galvanising climate action during the Covid-19 pandemic. But BP and other oil firms have taken part in numerous ‘Race to Zero’ events. 

When BP launched its “net zero ambition” in 2020, Topping himself tweeted an uncritical endorsement of the company’s announcement, while the Prime Minister later hosted a photo opp for the oil giant outside 10 Downing Street and invited the firm’s CEO to join his ‘Build Back Better’ council.

UN High Level Champion for COP26 Nigel Topping

Dr Chris Garrard, Co-director of Culture Unstained, said:

‘For years, oil companies have been given prominent platforms at the UN climate negotiations, promoting themselves as climate leaders while they continued to pour millions into new fossil fuels – so this is a big step forward. Last year, we revealed how oil firms were desperately pushing to sponsor COP26, but their efforts have been in vain. By excluding these firms, the organisers of COP26 have conceded that the oil industry’s claims of going ‘net zero’ don’t add up and that their actual business plans directly undermine the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement.

This is a significant win.for the anti-oil sponsorship and divestment movements, who have brought about a dramatic shift in public opinion and caused fossil fuel companies to increasingly be seen as the unacceptable partners they are. It’s therefore an embarrassment that the Science Museum, British Museum and others in government are still promoting these Big Polluters when almost everyone else is showing them the door.’

The reality that fossil fuel majors are being excluded from COP platforms appears to have been confirmed by Shell CEO Ben van Beurden on 14th October when, speaking at the TED ‘Countdown Summit’, he commented that the oil industry had been ‘disinvited’ from the climate talks in Glasgow. During the panel discussion in Edinburgh, youth climate activist Lauren MacDonald denounced the decision to invite Van Beurden to speak, and walked off the platform to join others protesting outside the event. UN High Level Champion for COP26 Nigel Topping also recently commented that, ‘Existing commitments from the oil industry are insufficient and don’t align with global climate goals. It [COP] cannot offer a platform to entities that do not meet this level of commitment.’

Scottish climate campaigner Lauren MacDonald (right) confronts Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden during the TED Countdown Summit in Edinburgh on October 14, 2021. Photo: Stop Cambo.

However, despite adopting more robust ‘climate criteria’ for who it partners with around COP26, the UK government has continued to engage closely with the fossil fuel industry. Environmental investigations organisation DeSmog recently revealed that Shell and BP were present at ministerial meetings 57 and 58 times respectively between 22 July 2019 and 18 March 2021. BP, Shell and other oil majors are continuing to invest in new fossil fuel exploration, despite the International Energy Agency making it clear that investment in coal, oil and gas must end this year in order to meet that target. The UK government intends to issue new drilling licenses to BP and Shell despite growing opposition.

Eilidh Robb, a member of Glasgow Calls Out Polluters (GCOP), said:

‘Keeping these oil firms out of COP26 is a significant step forward but the government’s incoherent approach to Big Polluters still looks more like it’s running away from scrutiny than genuinely recognising that these firms are responsible for the climate crisis. Fossil fuel companies like BP are continuing to do everything in their power to greenwash, ‘net zero’ wash, and youthwash their way out of taking any meaningful action. And this also goes for some of the companies that have been accepted as COP sponsors. It’s time the UK government treated all Big Polluters like the climate criminals they are.’

COP26 President Alok Sharma

On Tuesday, the Science Museum announced that coal giant Adani would be the sponsor of its new climate change gallery about ‘energy transition’, prompting a huge backlash. Campaigners had already been calling on the museum to adopt the same stance as the summit organisers and end its existing sponsorship deals with BP, Shell and Equinor. The announcement coincided with the museum hosting the government’s ‘Global investment Summit’ in the run-up to COP26 which featured the owner of the Adani Group among the invited speakers, as well as several major funders of fossil fuels attending.

Since the Science Museum controversially announced oil giant Shell as sponsor of its current flagship climate exhibition, ‘Our Future Planet’, in April, a major backlash has unfolded with scientists, exhibition contributors, Greta Thunberg and the wider public speaking out through protests, petitions and a youth-led boycott of the exhibition. In August it was revealed by Channel 4 News, based on an investigation by Culture Unstained, that the museum had signed a ‘gagging clause’ with Shell committing not to “damage the goodwill or reputation” of Shell, despite major controversy surrounding the sponsor’s climate impacts.