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At COP26, fossil fuel companies are hiding in plain sight

Representatives of the oil and gas industry make up a bigger contingent at the UN climate summit than any country's national delegation.

Fossil fuel company reps have gained official accreditation for COP26.
Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images

This story is part of CNET Zero, a series that chronicles the impact of climate change and explores what's being done about the problem.

It's been called "the best last chance" we have to save the planet, but not everyone attending the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, may be here to help the world wean itself off its fossil fuel dependency. As world leaders, nongovernmental organizations, negotiators and climate activists discuss how to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, representatives of fossil fuel companies make up a large contingent at the conference. 

Of the 40,000 people attending COP26, 503 represent the oil and gas industry, according to a report released Monday by the NGO Global Witness. That's more, the organization says, than any delegation from a single country or Indigenous group. Louis Wilson, Global Witness' senior communications adviser, likens their presence to tobacco companies being allowed into World Health Organization conferences -- something that happened in the 1980s.

"That, to us today, seems completely unimaginable," he said. 

But, he added, the climate problem is on a much bigger scale. The fossil fuel industry's attempts to keep the truth about climate change a secret is well documented. Human-made greenhouse gas emissions largely come from the burning of fossil fuels for energy. Equally well documented is the science that says the floods, droughts and forest fires the world is already experiencing will continue to get worse if we don't limit global warming and remove carbon from the atmosphere.

The UN summit is an opportunity to establish plans to do just that -- and it's led many to question why and how fossil fuel lobbyists have been allowed at the event. 

"These companies, with their denial, with their delay, with their tactics to increase production, are the main agents of the climate crisis," said Wilson. "And yet we're inviting them into the most important climate negotiations of a generation."

In a press conference Monday, CNET asked COP26 President Alok Sharma and Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, how so many lobbyists for fossil fuel companies managed to obtain accreditation for the summit, which the Friends of the Earth Scotland has called "the most exclusionary COP ever." That description is due to the trouble people from Indigenous communities and small developing island states have had in getting accredited for the summit, which has been compounded by the expense of getting to and staying in Glasgow, as well as inequities in vaccine distribution.

"At the end of the day, it's up to parties and observers who gets accredited as part of the delegation, and ultimately, accreditation is a matter for the UNFCCC," Sharma responded.

Espinosa said that once a person has accreditation, the UNFCCC has no legal basis to exclude them. "In the case of some party delegations it is really the sovereign right of every government to accredit as a representative as part of its delegation the persons that it deems appropriate." 

According to the report, Canada, Brazil and Russia were among the 27 countries that had included representatives of fossil fuel companies as part of their delegations. One of the biggest single groups identified in the report was the International Emissions Trading Association, which had 103 delegates in attendance. The IETA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

As Wilson sees it, those lobbyists attending the summit on behalf of fossil fuel trade groups is "kind of inviting the wolf in the front door."  The next COP should be the first UN climate summit to exclude fossil fuel companies, he added. "We've had 26 with the fossil fuel guys in the room and it hasn't worked," he said. "So let's give the next one a go without."

Climate activist Greta Thunberg, who spoke at a rally outside the conference Friday, also weighed in on Twitter. "I don't know about you, but I sure am not comfortable with having some of the world's biggest villains influencing & dictating the fate of the world."