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Oil and gas companies' participation in climate conferences may be doing more harm than good


The U.N. climate conference in Egypt that wraps up this weekend has been full of commitments by countries to reduce carbon emissions. And, for the most part, that means relying more on renewable energy, less on fossil fuels. As NPR's Ruth Sherlock found when she went there, these efforts were met with some resistance, and not least perhaps because of who was at the conference.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Walk through the massive pavilions of the U.N. climate conference and you might be surprised by who you'd find - stands for oil companies, major oil-producing nations and lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry. To some extent, this isn't new. Oil and gas companies have had a presence at this annual climate change event, known as COP, for many years. But rights groups say that this year, the number increased by a quarter.

LOUIS WILSON: So we analyzed who's here at COP27, and we found 636 people registered for COP representing the fossil fuel industry.

SHERLOCK: This is Louis Wilson from Global Witness, a climate and human rights group that helped compile the data. He says this year, fossil fuel representatives outnumbered delegates from the 10 countries worst affected by climate change.

WILSON: I think the industry recognizes that we're at a pivotal moment. And so they're here on force trying to make sure that world leaders double down on extractive projects, that they double down on the fossil fuels that put us here in the first place.

SHERLOCK: I searched the conference pavilions to put this allegation to a fossil fuel representative. A stand for Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest oil producers, had LED screens showing close-ups of tree canopies and a touchscreen quiz asking, how green is your lifestyle? But the Saudi climate envoy ignored mine and other journalists' requests for an interview, and so did many others from the oil industry.

Hey. Andres? Hi.

I did eventually speak with Andres Huby from Mercuria, a global energy company that trades in oil, among other things, about why there were so many industry representatives at the conference.

ANDRES HUBY: It's a good question. I think that one of the things that is important to try to understand is that these company want to change.

SHERLOCK: He listed his own work.

HUBY: I have been working on the carbon markets for 15 years, doing reforestation, REDD+ projects, agroforestry, trying to deploy capital.

SHERLOCK: Oil and gas companies say they belong at these conferences because they can play a role in reducing the emissions that are causing global warming. But Delta Merner at the Union of Concerned Scientists disagrees.

DELTA MERNER: I think history shows that they don't have a role to play at COP.

SHERLOCK: She says for years, oil and gas companies have provided disinformation about the effects of fossil fuels and stood in the way of change.

MERNER: So the fact that they've played an active role for decades now to prevent climate action from really moving forward, I think, discredits them from being at the table today.

SHERLOCK: It's difficult to quantify the impact that industry representatives have at these conferences. Many located in the trade show section of the conference emphasized new technologies, like devices to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But they were also at the negotiating table, meaning they could weigh in on key discussions, like whether countries should reduce their reliance on the very oil and gas these companies produce. And, analysts say, some use the conference to make business deals that will expand the use of polluting fossil fuels.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Sharm el-Sheikh.


Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.

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