The fossil fuel industry turned out in force at COP26. So did climate activists

Alastair Grant, AP

Youth climate activists protest on Thursday that representatives of the fossil fuel industry have been allowed inside the venue during the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow.

Updated November 12, 2021 at 1:59 PM ET

GLASGOW, Scotland — You might think the fossil fuel industry would steer clear of the United Nations climate summit. After all, fossil fuels have driven the crisis that COP26 is struggling to address.

But big energy is a big presence. Fossil fuel interests understand that international agreements to cut emissions pose an existential threat to them, and they come to the summits to monitor and sway the discussions.

A report by several watchdog groups says more than 500 attendees at the summit are from countries with major oil and gas industries or work for organizations that lobby on behalf of the fossil fuel industry, including the World Petroleum Council and the World Coal Council.

Stroll through the summit’s sprawling trade-show section and you’ll come across elaborate pavilions for major energy-producing nations, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The International Emissions Trading Association has a storefront as well and counts Chevron and the mining giant Rio Tinto as corporate partners.

Earlier this week, Russia hosted executives from BP and Gazprom Neft, the Russian oil and gas company, for a public forum on the transition to clean energy. Nigel Dunn, a senior vice president at BP, touted his company’s plans to shift from oil and gas toward wind, solar and hydrogen.

He portrayed BP as part of the solution to the climate crisis.

“We absolutely need green companies, companies that are developing renewables,” said Dunn, speaking to about 20 people. “But we also need greening companies, and I would like to think BP is one of those greening companies … that is committed to the energy transition, because time is running out and we need to hit this transition at pace.”

European fuel companies are rethinking fossil fuel holdings, but American companies aren’t

While major European energy companies like BP are moving away from oil and gas, American firms generally think demand for both will remain high for decades and have given no sign they plan to pivot away from their core products.

Sitting next to Dunn at the forum was Sergey Vakulenko, head of strategy and innovations at Gazprom Neft, who warned just how much an energy shift will cost consumers. He said the firm would remain an oil and gas company for at least the next decade, but added that it would shift to a more equal mix of oil and gas and will be looking at new green fuels.

Vakulenko also warned just how much a shift to cleaner energy will cost consumers.

“Politicians are trying to tell their electorates that the energy transition would be painless and costless, and, effectively, it shifts the blame to business,” said Vakulenko. He cited a report by the International Energy Agency that said the transition would cost trillions of dollars.

“People would have to change their habits when it comes to temperature in their homes, that the temperature should be, well, somewhat uncomfortable,” he said. “People might have to change their diets and eat less beef, change their vacation habits and fly less.”

After a while, a group of protesters arrived at the two-story Russian pavilion where the forum was taking place. One demonstrator held up a sign with the words “Climate Criminal.” The moderator, Denis Deryushkin of the Russian Energy Agency, decided to wrap up early.

“I got a message from the organizers,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have time for a proper Q&A session.”

“No more lies!” the protesters chanted. “Keep it in the ground!”

Dunn swiftly walked away. I caught up with him in one of the summit’s main hallways. Given that the energy industry knew for decades about the risks to the planet of burning fossil fuels, I asked when BP had started work on its energy transition.

“You have to go through my press office for any comment,” Dunn answered.

“You just spoke for an hour and a half, and you’re not taking any questions at all on one of the biggest issues facing the planet?” I asked.

“No,” Dunn said.

Fossil fuel industry reps have a longstanding interest in attending climate summits

The fossil fuel industry presence at COP26 is nothing new. Companies and associations with business interests have been coming to the climate summit meetings for years.

Attendees at the first one in Berlin, in 1995, included the International Gas Association, the International Association of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers and the National Coal Association.

Pascoe Sabido works with Corporate Europe Observatory, one of the watchdog groups that released the report on the fossil fuel industry presence at COP26. He says they have come to gather information, influence government officials and protect big energy interests.

“Their entire business model is predicated on drilling, digging up, burning fossil fuels, so of course they’re trying to save their skin,” Sabido says.

He thinks the summit should ban them. The energy companies have a conflict of interest with the goal of this meeting, he argues. That goal is to reach an agreement to reduce carbon emissions to prevent global temperatures from rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Scientists warn that not doing so could cause irreversible damage to the planet.

But economies have depended on fossil fuels, stretching back to Britain’s industrial revolution in the mid-19th century. So I ask Sabido if people at the summit should talk to energy firms anyway.

“Very interesting point,” he says, “but their interest is in burning fossil fuels. So if we’re realizing we need to move away from it, then unfortunately, it’s really difficult having them part of a conversation.”

Sabido likens the oil and gas companies a bit to Big Tobacco, which misled the public about the health impacts of cigarettes despite knowing many of the facts for decades.

Similarly, Exxon executives said the scientific evidence on whether human activity had a significant impact on climate change was inconclusive, even when the company’s own research showed otherwise.

Despite having spread doubt about climate change, the energy business remains determined to have a voice at the summit in Glasgow.

NPR’s Camila Domonoske, Jeff Brady, Rafael Nam and Jessica Beck contributed to this report.

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