I was very impressed by the COP21 ads in the Parisian metro last week. In big bold white letters the placards proclaimed:
THE PLANET IS IN OUR HANDS
WE CANNOT TELL OUR CHILDREN THAT WE DIDN’T KNOW
WELCOME TO ALL THOSE WHO HAVE COME TO DEFEND OUR PLANET
Since wrapping up the climate talks last weekend, the COP21 agreements have been hailed a historical success by politicians from around the globe. To be sure, 196 countries pledging to reduce global warming below two degrees is no easy feat. But as the new internationalist reminded us last week, there are many aspects of the climate treaty that remain unclear and unconvincing. The imminent danger is that our governments stop pressuring oil, gas and coal businesses under the false premise that the new treaty guarantees real change. In fact, the new agreements - namely that 70% of greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by 2050 - are as empty as the slogans decorating the glossy COP21 banners in the metro. Those who wanted their voices heard last week were not welcomed at COP21’s headquarters Le Bourget. Businesses with vested interests, on the other hand, flocked by many, some of them involved up to the neck as official sponsors of the COP21. Here is a brief overview of those who were and weren’t invited to the party, and why it matters.
Welcome to COPorate 21
A string of corporations made their appearance last week at Le Bourget which is also, incidentally, an airport. Transport, after energy, is the biggest greenhouse gas-emitting sector in the world. Air transport specifically contributes 600 million tonnes of Co2 in the atmosphere each year, the numbers predicted to rise to 15% of all global warming within fifty years. Incidentally, Air France was one of the official sponsors of the COP21, a major French air line that is known to have opposed emissions reductions plans. Engie (a rebrand of GDF Suez) was another official sponsor of COP21 – an energy business that currently invests €6-7bn a year in oil and gas exploration. Meanwhile, the French bank BNP Paribas, which leads in coal ventures in France, was also invited, along with other renowned businesses EDF (energy), Renault Nissan (transport) and Total (oil).
The fact that these corporations were invited to discuss the imminent threat of their businesses to the climate isn’t surprising. But their position as sponsors is more difficult to understand. The ‘Solutions COP21’ exhibition at the Grand Palais that was held during the climate talks is a key example of such methods of green washing. The exhibition aimed to “discover existing practical solutions to take us forward to the post-carbon era.” But the elephant in the room was the undeniable conflict of interest between the ‘business as usual’ corporations and the green ‘solutions’ they put forward. As Democracy Now revealed, in 2014 alone Engie spent 2.5 millions euros lobbying against emissions standards. Yet, last week at the Grand Palais, they were able to promote their false solutions at the very heart of the climate talks. Their ability to take over public platforms points to the dangerous nature of lobbying regarding corporate responsibility. Ultimately, it reveals how the softening of the narrative about climate change can take place at moments where facing hard truths has never been so pressing.
Voices at the fringe (and on the streets)
The state of emergency instated by president Francois Hollande after the Paris attacks remained a key strategy in the repression of voices protesting the fierce lobbying around COP21. The three-month state of emergency continues to warrant the French police with measures that infringe on individual freedoms, such as forbidding mass gatherings or conducting house searches without warning. At the start of the climate talks on November 29th, at least 24 climate activists were put under house arrest in France while hundreds of activists were tear gassed for protesting the climate talks on the place de la Republique. When Democracy Now activists spoke out against green washing at the Grand Palais exhibition, undercover police very literally silenced them by dragging them out of the building. This is captured in a great video put together by the new internationalist.
But those who weren’t invited to speak at the climate talks made themselves heard on the streets on the closing day of COP21, despite the protest ban imposed by the French government. At least 15.000 protesters of all ages and origins marched down the streets of Paris in a symbolic red line, ready to defend the planet from vested interests and greedy profiteers. The indigenous peoples were at the front of the action, denouncing the false solutions to the climate crisis. One indigenous representative stressed how the connection between human rights and climate change was completely omitted from the final agreements. This perspective makes a global climate agreement even more urgent as it puts forward the realities of climate change on the lives of entire communities and villages.
These urgent voices are not usually heard within mainstream media. Who is allowed to speak about climate change is a potent question to ask ourselves, especially when some dominant news channels in the UK still actively encourage climate change scepticism. In order to understand why the COP21 agreements are hardly promising, we need to look at the power struggle that separates those who were given a platform to speak on the climate, namely government officials, businesses, vested media and those who weren’t. Post-COP21, we must keep pressuring our governments in order for our voices - and our planet - to be heard.