GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — The moment you walk into the door at the United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, the brands are there to greet you.
A digital billboard towers over the gates and wire fencing that ring the blue zone. Ads, such as brewery Brewdog’s claim it’s the world’s most sustainable beer, cast a bright glow on the security perimeter at night like a Blade Runner meets Children of Men mashup. Once you clear security, the brand onslaught continues.
Across from a coffee station, there’s an enormous, shiny blue racing car, advertising Envision Racing’s “#OneStepGreener” Formula E campaign. Charging stations are provided in one hallway by Spanish utility giant Iberdrola. Even if you find a moment to relax, the chairs remind you who paid for them: Ikea, one of the sponsors, has provided a lot of the furniture here. Each chair is complete with a tag detailing the company’s green initiatives. The area ringing the conference—known as the green zone—is chock full of tents popped up by investment firms and event spaces bought out by the likes of the New York Times.
The UN may seem like an organization that should be totally disconnected from corporate influence, and talks to save the world may seem like the last place where brands are needed, let alone wanted. But this conference has become an enormous sponsorship opportunity for big companies, allowing them to get in front of thousands of people debating the future of the planet. It didn’t always used to be like this—and the growing presence and intensity of corporate sponsorships is worrying news, even for conferences where Big Oil is technically not allowed.
In the past, UN climate change conferences, known as COPs, didn’t have as much industry and private sector presence as they now do. “The role of the private sector in climate talks has varied since 1992,” Nathalie Rengifo Alvarez, the Latin America climate campaign director at nonprofit Corporate Accountability, said in an email. “In short, big business was invited to fill a funding void that should be filled by states/parties to the negotiations; now, it’s standard for corporations to bankroll the climate talks.”
Alvarez explained that before the 1990s, corporations had little interest in getting involved with the UN. But Kofi Annan, who served as the seventh UN secretary-general from the late 90s to mid-2000s, encouraged businesses to come aboard and get involved in global negotiations. The UN Global Compact, a pact that forms a framework for businesses interested in implementing environmental and social responsibility policies, was established under his tenure in 2000; among its ranks are almost 200 oil and gas producers, including Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and Petrobras. (Other big polluters, including coal mining giant Rio Tinto and plastics pollution leader Coca-Cola, are also members.)
As businesses got more involved in the UN process, opportunities for them to showcase themselves at meetings got more elaborate. Guidelines dictating how corporations could sponsor UN meetings were drafted in 2009. Several UN climate change conferences since then have proudly displayed sponsor logos on the official COP website of the host country. A sample of some of the greatest hits include BMW and Emirates Airlines sponsoring Poland’s COP19 in 2013; Coca-Cola acting as a “platinum” sponsor of the 2016 COP 22in Morocco; and several coal and fossil energy companies sponsoring the second Polish COP24 in 2018, a conference that also featured a literal room full of coal. The last conference, held in Madrid in 2019, was sponsored by Iberdrola. The company is Spain’s biggest carbon polluter.
There’s plenty of branding opportunities for companies beyond just footing the bill for the conference as a whole. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent a space for what’s known as a “pavilion,” an event space in the hall near negotiations where countries, NGOs, members of civil society, and other members of the public gather and have meetings. Accordingly, there are of logos on pavilions of companies who have happily helped to foot the bill in some way.
In one quick lap around the space, I counted at least four Amazon logos on various pavilions. The company’s founder Jeff Bezos was also given top billing at the conference for his $2 billion pledge to conservation-based initiatives (that’s around 0.01% of his total wealth, for those keeping score at home). Representatives from companies can also work themselves onto panels and discussions on various topics hosted at these pavilions. And getting everyone to Glasgow takes money, too. One joint effort that brought a coalition of local and state delegates from the U.S. was partially sponsored by utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, the latter of which declared bankruptcy after the catastrophic Camp Fire that its equipment ignited.
Opportunities for sponsorships don’t stop once participants leave the physical space. While fossil fuel giant BP was rejected as a sponsor for the Glasgow talks, it has been active in the run-up to the meetings. It participated in at least two pre-COP conferences and partnered with British Airways, which is supplying flights into Glasgow. The New York Times is holding a series of talks throughout the two weeks of COP26 in what it calls its Climate Hub, an event space in Glasgow tricked out to look like if you had a meeting or business dinner in a fairy forest; the whole thing is being sponsored by global bank HSBC and there’s an Ikea exhibition in the lobby.
All this brand presence at COP has added up to businesses being a strange additional party in negotiations, seeming to wield just as much, if not more, influence as NGOs with negotiators. This is especially true for the U.S., which leaned heavily on businesses to pick up the pieces at international negotiations during the Trump years. In a press conference last week, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry praised the efforts of businesses at the conference and the CEOs he’d met in private meetings, mentioning BlackRock, Bank of America, and Salesforce by name.
But there are huge issues with allowing businesses to promote themselves at a climate conference as part of the solution to a problem they’ve arguably created. Bezos’s donation doesn’t erase the fact that Amazon continues to work with the fossil fuel industry to extract new oil and gas. One of its competitors in this space is Microsoft, an official COP26 sponsor. A report released last year estimated that Unilever, another COP26 sponsor, creates more than 77,000 tons of plastic per year. And while HSBC has pledged to end fossil fuel financing, a loophole in its pledge allows it to keep pouring money into existing projects and backing 70 new coal plants that are slated to be built. Blocking out the fossil fuel industry is a start, but these talks still welcoming sponsorships from the companies helping the industry do its dirty work shows a huge gap in ambition—and the risks of letting brands have too big a say in the fate of the world.
There’s no such thing as a perfect corporation, and I don’t mean to suggest that a for-profit company can’t make meaningful contributions to climate dialogue or support climate action. But given how aggressively corporate influence has shaped climate policy, often for the worse, it’s reasonable to question the utility of giving companies carte blanche to advertise at COP26—and, by extension, a seat at the table.
“These talks will never deliver until policymaking at the UNFCCC is protected from, not intertwined with, the web of Big Polluters,” Alvarez said. “That’s why the integrity at UNFCCC is impossible until they are kicked out.”