France - Cop21

Business role in climate negotiations welcomed by some, questioned by others

Olivier Petitjean shows Engie across from the French Environment Ministry at La Defense
Olivier Petitjean shows Engie across from the French Environment Ministry at La Defense Sarah Elzas/RFI

In recent years, businesses have been indirectly part of the United Nations climate change conferences as observers or lobbyists. But this year they are more involved than ever; some say too much.


On Thursday morning, Olivier Petitjean of the French Multinational Observatory, was giving a tour of La Defense, Paris’ business district, to about 20 people in town for the Cop21 climate conference.

The goal of the tour is to show the influence of energy companies on climate policies in France.

“Here you have the French ministry for the environment, and as you’ll notice it stands in the middle of a lot of big energy companies,” he says, pointing to a tall building north of La Defense’ main plaza.

Around it are office towers housing nuclear giant Areva, oil company Total, and Engie, formerly known as Gaz de France, the French gas company.

“You can see how the French building of the ministry is opening its arms to Engie,” says Petitjean. “And that’s pretty much what’s happening now with Cop21.”

Indeed, France, as the host to the Cop21, has made it clear that non-state actors, including business, are welcome to contribute to reducing global emissions.

Companies themselves say it makes sense for them to be involved, as they are the ones that will implement any policy decisions made at the conference.

Maria Mendiluce, the climate and energy director of the World Business Coalition for Sustainable Development, says every sector knows it needs to introduce new technologies to address carbon emissions.

“Excluding the sectors that are more energy intensive is not a good idea,” she said.

They need to be encouraged to find solutions of their own: “The oil and gas industry should look at carbon capture and storage, which is a technology that would allow them to continue to burn fossil fuels, but then capture the CO2 and store it underground.”

Pasco Sebido of the Corporate Europe Observatory, which organised the tour of La Defense, is skeptical of this argument.

He considers that oil and gas companies being involved with the negotiations, even on the level of lobbying negotiators is a conflict of interest.

“If business and let’s not lump all business together but those most polluting industries causing climate change - if they’re the ones causing the problems, surely they shouldn’t be the ones writing the solutions,” he said.

And yet businesses appear to be making it in their interest for the Cop21 to come up with an ambitious agreement to curb carbon emissions.

Nigel Topping, the CEO of We Mean Business, a coalition of business organisations, says that companies that want to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels need to know they will be backed by the right public policies.

His organisation and others have backed policies cutting fuel subsidies and implementing carbon pricing, which would put a price on emissions.

These policies would “send a very clear investment signal” to businesses, he said, adding that it “will allow businesses to invest in renewable energy, knowing there is going to be a market for those services in the future, and that the playing field isn’t going to be tilted backwards towards the old, dirty forms of producing energy.”

And this means that oil and gas companies, will “be really challenged in the years to come.”

And those companies often have state interests. In France, 84 per cent of EDF, the electricity company, is owned by the French state, which also has a 34 per cent stake in Engie.

That is why Pascoe Sebido is worried: “We’ve ended up in a position where accountable governments have given power to unaccountable corporations,” he said. “What we’d be arguing for is a far greater role for not just government, but actual people’s voices to be heard in this process.”

Business leaders, like Topping, say that businesses should be among those voices.

“Historically it’s been true that the business voice round climate has been dominated by a small number of people who don’t want action. But what we’re seeing now is the vast majority of businesses who, many of them see the moral case for action, and more importantly they see the economic case for action,” he said.

“A lot of this is aligning the normal profit motives of business with what we as civilization need to get done.”

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