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Sultan Al Jaber cop 28
November 29, 2023
Climate Justice

COP 28, Universities, Sports Championships, and Museums: how Oil and Gas Companies deceive citizens to maintain their pollution business

Insight by Stella Levantesi

Ferrari, the 2023 Rugby World Cup, London's Science Museum, Sanremo, and the NBA. What do these five things have in common? They are all sponsored by one or more oil and gas companies. From the world of sports to art, cultural events, academia, and institutions, fossil sponsorships are omnipresent globally and, above all, strategic.

"[Fossil companies] want us to believe they're giving something back to society. It's a way to make us accept their polluting activity and their profits, to say 'it's okay that they're doing a little bit of harm here if it results in a little bit of good over here'", explains Voice Over Foundation Duncan Meisel, director of the Clean Creatives campaign at Fossil Free Media.

A social license to survive

According to Meisel, fossil sector sponsorships have many elements in common with advertising. "Most [fossil company] advertising is intended to develop and enhance their reputation. Many of these sponsorships do the same. They revolve around the idea of a 'responsible' company conducting responsible business, while in reality, it's quite the opposite", Meisel continues.

Despite having similarities to advertisements, fossil sponsorships are mainly about promoting a positive association. "It involves associating with things that people love or that can enhance the company's credibility. Why sponsor a football championship? Because people like football. Why sponsor the United Nations climate negotiations? Because it makes me seem as if I care about the climate and I get to wrap myself in the colors of the UN flag", clarifies Voice Over Pascoe Sabido, researcher and campaigner at the Corporate Europe Observatory.

Sponsorships are also instrumental because, with them, oil and gas companies ensure that "people go and work for them," Sabido emphasizes.

According to the researcher, sponsorships also conceal something else: access to decision-making levels. "I think there's a very important element often overlooked, which is [that sponsorships are]  a significant lobbying opportunity. If I’m sponsoring the World Cup and I’ve got boxes for the final, for the semi-final, I can wine and dine with whoever I want. So this is where a lot of the influencing takes place.
A significant part of the [sponsorship] mechanism is a kind of 'soft lobbying,' we could call it that"
, he says. In fact, oil and gas companies spend huge amounts on sponsorships because, through them, they gain legitimacy. "It's about providing a social license and presenting themselves as a 'good' company", emphasizes Sabido.

COP 28 and the influence of oil & gas

The strategy to acquire social legitimacy isn't just about reputation or image; it's crucial for the industry's very survival. "The goal of a fossil fuel company today is to continue drilling, transporting, and burning fossil fuels for as long as possible. These companies have a business model tied to pollution, and their [goal] is to extend the duration of this polluting business model", explains Meisel. "So, when they sponsor events like the United Nations climate conference, they're trying to buy time for their polluting business model, promoting the idea of being part of the solution, so that regulators and other corporate actors move slower to restrict their ability to pollute over the long term".

In 2022, at the United Nations climate conference known as Cop27 held in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt, 18 out of 20 sponsoring companies collaborated with or directly supported oil and gas companies, according to an analysis by Corporate Europe Observatory and Corporate Accountability, based in Boston.

This year, among the sponsors and partners of Cop28 starting on November 30th in Dubai, some of these same companies are present again, including Siemens, IBM, and Microsoft. Among them are also two banks, HSBC and Bank of America, considered among the world's largest investors in oil & gas, having respectively spent over $144 billion and $279 billion on fossil fuels between 2016 and 2022.

In addition to this, most of the companies sponsoring the Cop in Dubai have not committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions in line with global climate targets, according to a recent analysis.

The choice of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the United Arab Emirates' oil company, ADNOC, as the president of Cop28 has also raised criticisms. According to an analysis by Global Witness, it would take 343 years to capture the CO2 emissions that Al Jaber's company will produce in just the next six years.

A recent investigation of internal documents leaked by a whistleblower also revealed that Al Jaber used his role in the Cop to promote his company's interests in meetings with foreign governments in order to increase Adnoc's fossil fuel exports.
"Cop28 is in a petrostate. Last year it was in Egypt. This is the result of decades of presence of the oil and gas industry in climate conferences. It's not just that Al Jaber heads an oil company. Naturally, this gives a higher level of access and the ability to set the agenda when ADNOC is, quite literally, in the driving seat. But it's a global phenomenon. The entire sector has leveraged these last two Cop meetings to bring itself back on the agenda and clean up its own image", Sabido emphasizes.

The influence and presence of the fossil fuel industry in global decision-making processes on climate action don't stop at sponsorships. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company is using its consultant position at Cop28 to promote the interests of its clients in the oil and gas sector, according to leaked documents.

In the past twenty years, delegates close to the largest oil and gas companies and their trade groups have attended UN climate conferences at least 7,200 times, according to an analysis by the Kick Big Polluters Out campaign. Lobbyists from trade associations representing the world's major fossil fuel companies have attended Cops at least 6,581 times. According to the analysis, these groups have used their presence at Cops to lobby for fossil fuel interests. The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), for example, founded among others by Exxon, Chevron, and BP, obtained at least 2,769 passes to participate in climate conferences since 2003.

"I don't think the public has a clear understanding of how irresponsible most fossil fuel companies are. I believe this disconnect leads to all kinds of negative outcomes that delay regulatory action and ultimately deceive the public. That's the main problem. If people don't understand the nature of the problem and who is responsible for it, we can't support an effective solution", says Meisel. "Having a group of representatives from the oil industry at the United Nations climate conference is clearly a central issue. It impacts everything, but the core of it is  a misleading messaging".

The "halo effect," from tobacco to fossil fuels

Oil and gas companies associate themselves with sports championships, musical events, art exhibitions because, through them, they enhance the "halo effect" of the company. Similarly, this occurs through companies' agreements with universities, research centers, or academic institutions. In Italy, Eni maintains "collaborations" with about ten universities, research centers, and academic institutions across the country. According to a recent report by Greenpeace Italy and ReCommon, the company "extends its influence even to Italian public high schools and universities" through teacher training and student involvement - even on the topic of climate change - curriculum internships, "career days", funding, purchasing research and patents, and partnerships in organizing master's and undergraduate programs. In October 2022, Marco Grasso, author and professor of political geography at the University of Milan-Bicocca, resigned from his position as director of a university research unit due to the institution's partnership with Eni.

In the United States, fossil fuel companies have a decade-long history of sponsoring educational materials to influence elementary, high school, and university curricula. Oil companies have used these tactics since the 1920s "to shape how American kids think about society, the economy, and the environment", reports Drilled, a climate investigative podcast by journalist Amy Westervelt.

"Collaborating with an academic institution can also lead to the development of research results favorable to the company and can serve multiple purposes beyond reputation", said Meisel. According to Sabido, these types of agreements help produce "credible evidence in their favor". "The central point of the academic world is that it should be neutral. So [with these agreements], it seems like you're producing independent research when in reality, you're producing materials that backup your case. It provides that academic veneer that otherwise wouldn't be possible. For example, if Shell produces a scientific result, people say, 'Well, of course Shell would say that.' Whereas, if a university says it, it's taken much more seriously", he added.

These strategies, based in sponsorships and academic-scientific partnerships, are not a new idea of the fossil fuel industry. Like other tactics of oil and gas companies, these also follow the footsteps of the tobacco industry, which, for decades, was at the center of sports, cultural, and educational sponsorships, with brands like Philip Morris or British American Tobacco.

"If you look at what the tobacco industry has done, it's exactly the same playbook. Just look at US universities in general swimming in corporate money. And this allows not only to shape academia but also to create acceptance of  the 'social license.' Because if you're within a university that produces good things, even if it has nothing to do with the company, but produces good things, you get associated with that," Sabido highlighted.

Steps towards systemic solutions

The trajectory of the tobacco industry's strategies is crucial because it's what experts are using to regulate the space of advertising, sponsorships, and partnerships with the academic world of the fossil fuel sector.

"I think there's a lot of work to be done, first to expose the phenomenon and then to  fight back and ensure universities distance themselves from it. But going university by university or sports event by sports event will be really slow and tough. That's why we need to go back to the tobacco lobby, and the way the tobacco lobby was dealt with", Sabido said.

At the European level, for example, bans and regulations have been introduced on advertising and sponsorships in the tobacco sector. But "it's worth acknowledging the great work done so far", in the fossil realm, Sabido notes, from fossil disinvestment campaigns on university campuses worldwide to campaigns to sever ties between the fossil industry and some museums and art galleries.

"It's not just about attacking BP or Shell, but finding a systemic solution to this problem and ensuring that we can cover all fossil fuel companies and lobbyists. To be honest, the problem is bigger than the fossil fuel industry", Sabido emphasized, "The planet is being screwed over by the same polluting companies. And they all work to ensure their profits come before the planet's health and the people who inhabit it".

Translated in English by Voice Over Foundation.

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