UK Government promoting climate programme alongside fossil fuel polluters

A UN climate programme the UK Government is using as a criteria to decide which companies can access COP26 is being developed alongside major fossil fuel polluters, The Ferret can reveal.

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which aims to “independently assess and validate” corporate climate pledges, is developing its guidance for the oil and gas sector with a working group that includes Shell, BP, Total, Eni and Repsol.

Environmental activists say the involvement of fossil fuel companies makes the initiative look like an “industry sponsored farce”. They claim the UK Government’s championing of the scheme shows it is “unserious about tackling the vested interests at the heart of the climate crisis”.

In reply the UK Government’s COP26 unit told The Ferret it was “keen to encourage and harness the innovation” of all sectors of society in the lead up to the conference. It added that companies signed up to the SBTi had reduced their annual emissions by 25 per cent between 2015 and 2019. 

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the SBTi said that the working group is developing “robust” guidance to help the oil and gas industry “cut emissions at the rate and scale required by climate science”.  

‘Alligned with climate science’

The SBTi was set up in the wake of the 2015 Paris Agreement to encourage businesses to develop decarbonisation targets which are aligned with the latest climate science.

The scheme’s objective is to show companies how much and how quickly they need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. 

Specific sector guidance has been developed for industries with “hard-to-abate” emissions, including oil and gas.

Environmentalists have raised concerns though. Head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland (FoES), Mary Church, said that the aims of the SBTi were “totally undermined” by allowing “climate criminals” like the five fossil fuel companies to help design the initiative. 

Scott Tully, spokesperson for the campaign group Glasgow Calls Out Polluters (Gcop) echoed her concerns, claiming the SBTi was “allowing big polluters to set the terms of the debate and advance their own false and greenwashed solutions”. 

The UK Government, UN and Glasgow City Council have all encouraged businesses that want to hire space, sponsor events and host exhibitions at COP26 to sign up to the SBTi.

The UK is this year’s host for the flagship climate conference, which is being held in Glasgow between 1 and 12 November. 

In a call for sponsors, the UK Government stipulated it was looking for partners who have “set ambitious net zero commitments by 2050 or earlier, with a credible short term action plan to achieve this (e.g. Science Based Targets)”. 

All eleven principal partners of COP26, the highest level of sponsorship available, have either committed to or set targets with the SBTi. 

A commitment to the initiative is also a criteria for companies looking to utilise space in the event’s Blue and Green Zone, managed by the UN and UK government respectively. 

The Green Zone is billed as a space for organisations to host “workshops, panel discussions and keynote speeches” which “promote dialogue, awareness, education and commitments” on the climate crisis. 

It will be held at the Glasgow Science Centre for the duration of the event and is open to the general public. Successful applicants could present their climate solutions to audiences of 200 people at a time. 

The Blue Zone will take place alongside the main negotiations in the Scottish Events Campus (SEC). It will include panel discussions and exhibitions and will only be accessible to accredited delegates, businesses and civil society groups.

Glasgow City Council said last week it was banning big polluters from hiring public venues during COP26. As part of this pledge it has encouraged large businesses looking to apply for space to sign up to the SBTi.

A COP26 spokesperson said the UK Government would be working “most closely with organisations that are committed to taking real, positive action and have strong climate credentials”

We know the big polluters have repeatedly missed even their own weak, greenwashed targets. The UK Government cannot count on big polluters to set their own climate goals.

Barnaby Pace, Global Witness

Barnaby Pace, senior campaigner at Global Witness, said organisers should not rely on schemes like the SBTi if it wanted to achieve this goal. 

“We know the big polluters have repeatedly missed even their own weak, greenwashed targets, ” he said. “The UK government cannot count on big polluters to set their own climate goals.”

Three of the five fossil fuel companies involved in developing the oil and gas sector guidance – Shell, BP and Total – were named by The Guardian on a list of 20 firms which are responsible for a third of global carbon emissions. Analysis of the data was done by not-for-profit research group the Climate Accountability Institute.

According to data from research and advocacy group Oil Change International (OCI), only Repsol is currently expected to see its oil production decrease by 2030. If it continues on its current track, Shell is expected to see production increase by as much as 22 per cent by that date.

OCI’s most recent research also found that none of the five companies have “a serious climate plan aligned with Paris Agreement goals”. 

Representatives of Shell and Eni were among 138 polluters identified by The Ferret after taking part in key climate talks in Bonn in the lead up to COP26. 

Mike Tholen, sustainability director at trade body, Oil and Gas UK, defended the industry’s part in designing the SBTi.

He said: “COP26 is the ideal arena for highlighting global climate change leadership and our industry plays a key role in that conversation, already demonstrating to the international community how we can support the transition to a low carbon future. 

“COP26 is one of many significant milestones on the journey towards net zero emissions and the North Sea Transition Deal agreed with the UK government is a credible strategy showing how our changing industry is helping to drive this change, supporting thousands of jobs and ensuring that home grown greener energy becomes a reality in the future.”

We believe this consultation process is essential to support our mission of unlocking the level of global corporate climate action needed.

SBTi spokesperson


An SBTi spokesperson noted that the sector guidance was being developed with “four of the world’s most respected environmental organisations – CDP, UN Global Compact, World Resources Institute and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)”. 

“The SBTi’s process for developing oil and gas sector guidance has included a thorough consultation process with various actors, including the public, non-industry stakeholder groups and organisations operating within the sector,” they continued.

“We believe that this consultation process is essential to support our mission of unlocking the level of global corporate climate action needed within this hard-to-abate sector to achieve the Paris Agreement, halve emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero before 2050.”

The SBTi’s oil and gas sector guidance is still in development with the full methodology expected to be published later this year. Until then, the SBTi is unable to validate net-zero targets from the industry.

A full list of organisations due to exhibit in the UK-managed Green Zone and UN-managed Blue Zone is expected to be published on 30 September.

This story is part of a series The Ferret is planning in the run-up to COP26 in November. Investigations have been supported by the European Climate Foundation, which cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained or expressed therein.

Cover image thanks to iStock/avstraliavasin

The headline on this story was updated at 16.00 on 30 August 2021 to say that the UK Government is promoting the climate programme alongside polluters.

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