Oil and gas groups were accused Saturday of seeking to influence climate talks in Madrid by paying millions in sponsorship and sending dozens of lobbyists to delay what scientists say is a necessary and rapid cut in fossil fuel use.
A day after tens of thousands marched in the Spanish capital demanding climate action, seven environmental groups raised concerns to AFP over the role of fossil fuel representatives at the COP25 summit.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations agreed to limit global warming to "well below" two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and as close to 1.5C as possible.
The UN's top science panel says that 1.5C would require a radical drawdown in fossil fuel usage.
Delegates are gathered in Madrid negotiating how to implement the Paris pledges. The summit was moved at short notice after domestic unrest forced original host Chile to cancel.
Spanish energy giants Endesa and Iberdrola stepped in to sponsor the conference, which brings together more than 20,000 negotiators, scientists, NGOs and journalists from around the world.
AFP has been told that each company paid 2 million euros to be COP25 "Platinum" sponsors, affording them prominent branding and trade stalls at the event.
Endesa is one of Spain's largest greenhouse gas emitters, producing just over 60 million tons of CO2 equivalent last year alone.
Iberdrola produced 24.6 million tons in 2018.
Neither group nor organizers confirmed the exact cost but their sponsorship of a conference designed to reach consensus on how to cut emissions drew allegations of "greenwashing" from observers.
"Bankrolling the global climate negotiations is a classic trick from the polluter's playbook," said Jean Su, energy director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
"For just a fraction of yearly profits, big polluters are able to wrap themselves in the branding of the COP and use this access to influence the negotiations," added Sriram Madhusoodanan of the Corporate Accountability watchdog.
When COP25 opened on Monday, many Spaniards woke up to advertisements from Endesa splashed across the front pages of national newspapers.
An Endesa spokeswoman told AFP that it was "a marketing action" and denied greenwashing.
"Our objective is to always do better and we are accelerating our energy transition," she said.
Iberdrola and the conference organizers did not respond to queries over sponsorship.
'We respect UN rules'
Trade groups representing energy firms are entitled under UN rules to attend annual UNFCCC talks and inter-sessional meetings as observers.
They frequently host networking meetings or presentations and have the same status and access permits at negotiations as environmental charities.
While few oil and gas majors participate directly in UN talks, they are well represented in Madrid by the trade organizations they partner.
One such group is the International Emissions Trading Agency, which counts among its members energy giants such as BP and ENI.
It also represents Iberdrola and Endesa's parent company Enel, and is holding a total of 74 side events during COP25.
According to an official participants list, IETA has sent 141 people to Madrid—more than the entire European Union's delegation, and larger than that of host Chile.
"IETA supports the UNFCCC's goals and objectives for climate protection—which are a core part of our mission," CEO Dirk Forrister told AFP.
"We also respect UNFCCC's rules and procedures, including its guidelines for observer participation. Our members observe UN climate negotiations, because they are serious about bringing business solutions to the climate challenge," he added.
Unlike parallel UN processes, there is currently no protection in the UNFCCC against potential conflicts of interest between nations which need emissions slashed rapidly in order to survive, and the biggest emitters whose business plans are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
Thousands of energy representatives have attended climate talks since 1990.
Hoda Baraka of 350.org said trade organizations representing big energy risked undermining climate action.
"We're seeing yet again how the interests of dirty energy corporations are being put before the needs of vulnerable people and the planet," she told AFP.
The UN last year said "no particular interest group influences the decision-making process" at climate talks, adding that it takes the issue of conflict of interest "very seriously."
Yet during annual mid-session climate talks in Germany in June, AFP obtained proof that hours of discussions on the subject were omitted from the final conference record.
Environmental groups including Oil Change International, Corporate Europe Observatory, the Observatorio de Multinacionales en America Latina, and Power Shift Africa all told AFP they considered oil and gas presence at COP25 as unacceptable.
"Our hard work and determination is easily overpowered by the vast resources of the biggest polluting corporations," said Sarah Dobson, from the UK Youth Climate Coalition.
"These companies are destroying our planet and our right to fair climate negotiations free from their influence."