But oil giant BP still given promotional platform linked to summit
For a shorter news post with the highlights of our investigation and the background on why this is a significant win, click here.
FOI documents and analysis
Back in 2020, we revealed how major oil companies such as Equinor, Shell and BP had been pushing to sponsor COP26 and to ‘partner’ closely with the UK government around its plans for the summit. One year on, and with the crucial climate negotiations now just weeks away, none of these oil and gas majors have secured the high-profile sponsorship deals they had been pushing for.
In fact, new emails and meeting notes released following our Freedom of Information requests (FOI) reveal just how decisively Big Oil has been shunned and sidelined by the organisers of COP26. They show that the COP Unit had concluded that oil giant BP ‘do not fit our success criteria’ in order to be given an official COP26 platform – to have adopted a credible “net zero” plan. BP has been eagerly promoting its net zero ambition ahead of COP26 but civil servants remain unconvinced that this is in line with the Paris Climate Targets, saying that ‘it’s unclear whether BP’s commitments stack up yet’.
And it’s not just BP that has been sidelined for falling short of the criteria. COP26 High Level Champion Nigel Topping has now said that ‘existing commitments from the oil industry are insufficient and don’t align with global climate goals’ and that COP26 ‘cannot offer a platform to entities that do not meet this level of commitment’. This is a major blow for Big Oil as firms such as BP, Shell and Equinor continue to misleadingly claim that they are on a climate-friendly path. And this sidelining of fossil fuel extractors is a significant win for the climate movement, which has opposed Big Oil’s influence over the UN climate negotiations for many years.
But these emails also expose a split within the UK government over its engagement with the fossil fuel industry and whether corporate claims of going net zero should be taken at face value. Documents show that the COP Unit developed a robust partnership policy with clear “climate criteria” for colleagues across government to follow. But other government departments have ignored the criteria and continued to offer BP opportunities to promote itself as part of official COP26 activity and events.
This briefing makes public new documents which reveal how:
- Ahead of an official COP26 event at the British Embassy in Poland, 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’ and ‘we strongly recommend not to use COP26 branding on the comms around your event if BP are speaking’.
Civil servants highlighted to their colleagues in Poland how ‘it’s unclear whether BP’s [net zero] commitments stack up yet’ and emphasised how there are ‘a whole range of UK and European businesses that are much more unambiguously following Science Based Targets or net zero plans’. But instead of dropping BP, organisers decided to drop the official COP26 branding from their event.
The COP Unit is clear that BP’s “net zero” plans don’t stack up. So why are others in government still choosing to prioritise their relationships with the oil industry over the UK’s hosting of COP26.
- Meanwhile, the Department for International Trade (DIT) has all but disregarded the COP Unit’s criteria for partnerships around COP26. In Australia, DIT invited BP to contribute an article on its “net zero” plan to be published under COP26 branding and then promoted on DIT’s social media channels. 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’.
DIT then invited BP to appear on a panel discussion – alongside COP26 High Level Champion Nigel Topping – as part of its ‘One Year to COP26’ series. When the COP Unit’s criteria had been developed with colleagues from across Whitehall and so clearly set out, why was DIT still failing to follow them?
- The ‘Race to Zero’ campaign, led by Nigel Topping, was launched alongside the UK’s official COP26 programme with the intention of galvanising climate action during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the murky distinction between official COP26 events and the ‘Race to Zero’ campaign has been exploited and allowed BP and other oil companies to be given prominent platforms closely tied to the UK’s hosting of the climate summit.
BP and other oil firms have taken part in numerous ‘Race to Zero’ events and when BP launched its “net zero ambition” in 2020, Topping himself tweeted an uncritical endorsement of the company’s announcement. Perhaps the clearest departure from the official COP26 criteria has been Nigel Topping’s appearance as a speaker at the launch of BP’s ‘Statistical Review of World Energy’ in July this year, an event that was coordinated, hosted and branded by BP.
- As well as setting out robust “climate criteria” for corporate partners, the government decided that firms with ‘serious violations of human rights and environmental law’ would be automatically excluded from the application process. This means that as well as being rejected because of their insufficient “net zero” commitments, firms such as BP and Shell might also have been excluded due to their significant environmental impacts.
The COP26 sponsorship criteria had originally been developed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and an early draft sets out how the government wanted to form partnerships that would ‘enhance the COP26 narrative and align with HMG policies, and minimise the risk of a partnership that detracts from COP progress and outcomes.’ Now it has said that it had an ‘adequate representation of the energy sector’ and was ‘not looking for fossil fuel companies as sponsors’.
With the COP Unit having adopted criteria that effectively bar oil companies from official involvement in the summit, is this also an admission that these firms aren’t aligned with the Paris Climate Goals and partnering with them would undermine the potential for real progress at COP26?
- COP organisers ‘not looking for fossil fuel companies as sponsors’
- Embassy told to drop BP as speaker or remove COP brand from event
- BP invited to ‘showcase net zero plans’ despite not meeting COP26 criteria
- High Level Champion promotes BP with prominent platforms linked to summit
- Violations of human rights and environmental law also a red line for COP26 partners
- A new ethical consensus: kick polluters out
1. COP organisers ‘not looking for fossil fuel companies as sponsors’
Since 2015, the annual climate negotiations have been focussed on putting the landmark ‘Paris Climate Agreement’ into action and ramping up the commitments being made by governments to curb their emissions. However, these summits have also offered major polluters an international stage where they can attempt to rehabilitate and “greenwash” their brands through swanky side events, prominent PR campaigns and high-profile sponsorship deals.
Last year, we revealed how major oil and gas companies Equinor, Shell and BP had been eagerly pushing to sponsor COP26 – before the government had even published its official call for corporate sponsors. One email we uncovered, sent from the Norwegian oil giant Equinor to a civil servant, demonstrated just how desperate these fossil fuel producers were to tie their logos to the crucial climate negotiations:
And Shell had sought to ‘partner’ with the government on COP26 since July 2019, even raising its COP26 plans over dinner with the UK Ambassador in the Hague:
Despite these efforts, none of these major oil and gas companies have been announced as official sponsors. There are certainly still some polluters among the list of official sponsors – including SSE, whose Peterhead gas plant is Scotland’s second biggest emitter and is currently planning to build a new gas-fired power station in Lincolnshire. But this sidelining of mega-polluting fossil fuel extractors represents a significant win for the climate movement.
And in response to our FOI request, the Cabinet Office has now confirmed that:
2. Embassy told to drop BP as speaker or remove COP brand from event
Emails disclosed by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) show how UK Embassy staff in Poland had to be reigned in by the COP Unit in London after they had invited BP to speak at an official COP26 event. Worryingly, BP’s involvement in the COP-branded ‘British-Polish Green Recovery Forum’ had even been “endorsed” by Jonathan Knott, the UK’s Ambassador to Poland, when he met with staff from the oil firm over dinner on the 22nd September 2020.
The following week, Bogdan Kucharski, CEO of BP Polska, was confirmed to appear on a panel as part of the Green Recovery Forum where he would promote the firm’s “net zero” plans and speak on the topic of ‘Green agenda in BP’s revised strategy’. Meanwhile, Kwasi Kwarteng, then an Energy Minister and now Secretary of State for BEIS, was confirmed as the forum’s keynote speaker.
But when Embassy staff in Poland sought suggestions for further speakers from their colleagues in London, BP’s involvement raised a red flag and staff from both BEIS and the COP Unit intervened:
And when a member of the COP Unit intervenes, they are unequivocal about its official position on BP – that the company ‘do not currently fit our success criteria for COP26, so any speaking appearance would not be appropriate under COP26 branding’.
The following day, an internal email among the Embassy Team confirmed that, rather than burn their bridges with BP, they would remove the official COP26 branding:
Since February 2020, BP has touted its “net zero” ambition far and wide. But multiple reports have shown that BP – like other oil and gas majors – isn’t aligned with the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement. In our own analysis of BP’s loophole-ridden “net zero” plans, we showed how the company’s claims simply don’t stack up and that BP remains on a collision course with the climate, continuing to invest in new oil and gas exploration and failing to curb its emissions at the scale and pace required. It’s therefore deeply troubling that the Embassy took the decision to not offend BP, rather than enforce the COP Unit’s climate criteria and drop the oil and gas firm from its event. That said, for BP to be shut out of official COP26 events – as well as the summit itself – is still a huge blow to the company, particularly as it attempts to rehabilitate its image and frame itself as a climate leader.
3. BP invited to ‘showcase net zero plans’ despite not meeting COP26 criteria
Despite the COP Unit having clearly set out its criteria for those companies seeking an official COP26 platform, emails reveal how other government departments – not just the Embassy in Poland – have also flouted the COP Unit’s criteria for corporate partners.
Rather than holding BP to account and scrutinising its “net zero” plans, the Department for International Trade’s (DIT) team in Australia invited BP to contribute an article to its official ‘COP26 – UK in Australia’ webpage. In an email to BP, they said they hoped it ‘would provide [BP with] a good opportunity to showcase/cascade your net zero plans’.
A week later, they follow up with BP about the proposed promotional article.
The subsequent article, written by President of BP Australia Frédéric Baudry, was then promoted on LinkedIn by DIT and on DIT’s official Twitter account.
And, just a few weeks later, BP was invited by DIT to appear on a panel discussion alongside COP26 High Level Champion Nigel Topping, as part of its ‘One Year to COP26’ series.
Significantly, BP’s “net zero” plan was also being promoted by the DIT team in Australia unprompted. Michael Ward, Consul General and Deputy Trade Commissioner Asia Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand, put together his own article on DIT’s official COP26 programme on LinkedIn, which uncritically referenced BP’s claims of going “net zero”.
Crucially, in all of these instances, BP was directly associated either with the official COP26 branding or referenced as part of the UK’s role as “COP26 hosts”. For example, DIT’s ‘COP26 – UK in Australia’ webpage features the following preamble and official COP26 logo at the top:
And BP’s article promoting its “net zero” plan sits underneath the official COP26 branding:
4. High Level Champion promotes BP with prominent platforms linked to summit
When COP26 was launched, it was accompanied by official branding – a marbled swirling green, blue and white globe – which would indicate events and programmes undertaken as part of the UK’s official hosting of the climate summit. Official events carrying this branding, such as the panel in Poland, would therefore be subject to the COP Unit’s criteria for corporate partners. The ‘Race to Zero’ campaign, led by the High Level Climate Action Champion for COP26 Nigel Topping, was launched alongside the UK’s official COP26 programme. Topping is also based in the Cabinet Office alongside the COP Unit, the organisers of the Glasgow summit.
The Race to Zero campaign was launched with the intention of galvanising climate action towards COP26 during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the distinction between the campaign – and the official hosting of COP26 – has often been blurred, thereby allowing various big polluters to appear on official-looking platforms linked to the summit. There initially appeared to be a lower bar for prospective ‘Race to Zero’ partners than for those seeking to sponsor COP26. In November 2020, Topping said that the Race to Zero ‘should be open for everybody’ and that ‘there should be no ideological exclusion’. However, Climate Home reported at the time that, ‘To join [the Race to Zero campaign], companies, investors and local governments need to demonstrate they have set science-based targets in line with limiting global temperatures rise to 1.5°C’ – criteria almost identical to those set out by the COP Unit. Currently, no oil and gas major has committed to a pathway in line with 1.5°C.
On the 21st September, Nigel Topping told the Wall Street Journal that:
‘It’s imperative that the Glasgow meeting calls for the highest levels of ambition in terms of immediate emissions reductions… 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.’
It’s the most unequivocal statement yet that Big Oil is not welcome at COP26. After years of campaigning against fossil fuel sponsorship – and against fossil fuel influence at the UN climate summits in particular – this is a hugely significant win for the climate movement.
Regardless, the murky distinction between official COP26 events and the Race to Zero campaign has been repeatedly exploited, and allowed BP and other oil companies to be given prominent platforms that are closely tied to the UK’s hosting of the climate summit. In fact, when BP launched its “ambition” to go net zero by 2050, Nigel Topping essentially tweeted an official endorsement:
BP has now had multiple ‘Race to Zero’ appearances during the run-up to COP26. An official ‘Race to Zero’ event in Aberdeen in Scotland included BP Vice President and Head of UK Peter Mather as a speaker, and in Hungary, Britain’s Ambassador appeared on an official ‘Race to Zero’ panel alongside BP. In the Caribbean, DIT hosted its own event with COP26 Envoy Dr. John Murton, where he said that he was ‘pleased to share a panel’ with Dev Sanyal, BP’s Executive Vice President, Gas and Low Carbon Energy, as well as Edward Daniels, Executive Vice President, Strategy and Portfolio at Shell. At Oxford University, Topping’s COP26 High Level Champions Team co-hosted an event on ‘the future of fuel and transport’, where speakers would include ‘a representative from BP, Shell, and of leading transport industry executives’. Topping promoted the event – and BP and Shell’s involvement – on Twitter:
Perhaps the clearest break with the official COP26 criteria has been Nigel Topping’s appearance as a speaker at the launch of BP’s ‘Statistical Review of World Energy’ in July this year, an event that was coordinated, branded and hosted by BP and promoted extensively in the media. Despite the probing arguments and critiques made by Topping during the event, his official appearance as the COP26 High Level Champion on a BP-branded stage gave the oil giant a clear association with the UK’s hosting of the climate summit.
What is particularly concerning though is that these appearances have come at a time when BP and other oil companies have enjoyed extensive access to government ministers. Environmental investigative 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. On the 18th January 2021, BP CEO Bernard Looney became one of the thirty founding members of the Prime Minister’s new ‘Build Back Better Council’ and in July, the Prime Minister participated in a photo op outside 10 Downing Street, promoting BP’s involvement in electric vehicle (EV) charging. While the UK’s EV network does need to be scaled up, the Prime Minister’s help in promoting this small part of BP’s overall business – and in the run-up to COP26 – undoubtedly helped the oil giant to deflect scrutiny from its continued investment in new oil and fossil gas. The images have already been widely used across the media and, as a member of BP’s communications team tellingly tweeted at the time, ‘Biggest comms win ever?’
5. Violations of human rights and environmental law also a red line for COP26 partners
The debate around whether fossil fuel companies – and the banks that invest in them – should have an official role at COP26 has largely focussed on whether these firms’ claims of going “net zero” stack up. And the emails and documents highlighted in this report make clear that the COP Unit is, quite rightly, sceptical. Crucially, reaching “net zero” by 2050 doesn’t guarantee the world a safe or stable climate, it only offers a possibility of mitigating some of the worst impacts of climate change. Aligning your business with the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement should be the baseline, not the limit, of your ambition.
While “net zero” commitments can be useful if combined with rigorous shorter-term decarbonisation plans, they only reflect one aspect of a company’s conduct in relation to climate change. As well as being behind huge amounts of historic emissions, companies like BP and Shell have been responsible for some of the world’s worst environmental disasters and violations of human rights, from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster to Shell’s repeated oil spills which have contaminated the Niger Delta.
In response to our FOI, the COP Unit makes clear that ‘all our sponsors have met our robust sponsorship criteria’:
In its response to our FOI, BEIS also highlighted that since drafting the document, the policy had evolved within the COP Unit. It set out that:
While we now know that oil companies like BP and Shell have been excluded from involvement in COP26 on the basis of their hollow commitments to going “net zero”, these criteria strongly suggest that BP and Shell might also have been automatically excluded due their serious infringements of environmental law as well. In 2015, BP agreed to pay the largest environmental fine in US history of $18.7bn to settle legal actions brought by the US and several states over its fatal Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. Meanwhile, Shell has repeatedly faced legal action and made significant financial settlements arising from its oil spills in the Niger Delta. And in a significant move in January, the UK’s supreme court ruled that in some circumstances communities in the Niger Delta can now sue Shell International directly in the UK – rather than being limited to trying to take action against its subsidiary company in Nigeria.
And while the Cabinet Office wasn’t prepared to disclose the full criteria it has been using to assess potential partners for COP26, following our FOI requests and challenges, it did agree to publish the official ‘Sponsors & Partners due diligence form’ on its website. That document strongly indicates the COP Unit’s “red lines” for potential partners as part of ‘Section 2: Qualifying Criteria’. Applicants are asked if their organisations have been ‘convicted for serious violation of environmental law’ or ‘serious violation of human rights law’, alongside whether they have ‘committed to or set Science-Based Targets’. To the COP Unit’s credit, this combination of criteria is significant because it recognises that the emissions arising from fossil fuel use and the operational impacts of extracting them must both be taken into account.
6. A new ethical consensus: kick polluters out
For years, the UN Climate Summits have been dominated by Big Polluters, from oil and gas logos covering conference halls to fossil fuel lobbyists securing secretive meetings at swanky hotels. Now, by barring Big Oil from official involvement, the organisers of COP26 have set a new standard, and in doing so have acknowledged that fossil fuel companies are continuing to fuel the climate crisis and not leading the energy transition. It’s also recognition of the impact the climate movement has had in shifting the acceptability of fossil fuels and shining a spotlight on how the oil industry’s claims of going “net zero” are full of loopholes, falling well short of what the science demands.
Even though the criteria for corporate sponsors of COP26 are more robust than ever before, the official partners still leave a lot to be desired. For example, Scottish and Southern Energy’s (SSE) Peterhead gas power plant was the biggest polluter in Scotland in 2019, emitting 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide during the year. SSE are also responsible for the only new gas power station currently under construction in the UK: Keadby 2 in Lincolnshire. Keadby 2 isn’t due to open until 2022 and is scheduled to continue burning gas for decades. NatWest Group has also been criticised for its involvement with fossil fuels. Despite making the positive commitment to phase out coal lending by 2030, a recent report found that the bank has still provided $13.39 billion to the fossil fuel industry since 2016.
And while Nigel Topping has now made it clear that oil firms aren’t aligned with global climate goals, other leading organisations continue to give these firms a legitimacy they don’t deserve. The Science Museum in London – which hosted the official launch of COP26 – is continuing to defend its prominent sponsorship deals with oil giants BP, Shell and Equinor, with its Director Ian Blatchford inaccurately claiming that ‘the three energy companies we work with have all made commitments to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement’. Blatchford is now out of step not just with the wider cultural sector on this issue but also that of the government’s own COP Unit, while the Science Museum’s ongoing series of ‘Climate Talks’ continues to carry the official COP26 logo. Meanwhile, the British Museum – which recently hosted a major exhibition on the impacts of climate change in the Arctic – continues to defend its BP sponsorship deal.
At the heart of government, there has been a clear ethical shift instigated and enforced by the organisers of COP26. But this now needs to go further.
- The UNFCCC – the part of the UN which oversees the annual negotiations for putting the Paris Agreement into action – must adopt a ‘conflicts of interest’ policy which prevents big polluters from getting a seat at the table. COP26 has set a new standard and we can’t go back.
- Major cultural and scientific institutions – like the Science Museum and the British Museum – must follow suit by cutting their ties to fossil fuel sponsorship and adopting ethics policies that rule out any future partnerships with Big Polluters.
- The government must provide more transparency around its engagement with the fossil fuel industry and comply fully with FOI requests. Even now, oil companies and industry bodies spend millions of dollars lobbying to obstruct and delay the climate action we so urgently need.