COP26 sponsors cause 350m tonnes of climate pollution


The 11 companies selected as “principal partners” of the COP26 climate summit caused more greenhouse gas pollution globally in 2020 than was produced across the whole of the UK.

Analysis by The Ferret has found these companies had a combined carbon footprint of nearly 350 million tonnes in 2020. They are SSE, ScottishPower, Sky, Sainsbury’s, Unilever, NatWest, National Grid, Microsoft, Hitachi, Reckitt and GlaxoSmithKline.

According to official provisional figures, the total emissions produced inside UK territory last year totalled 326.1 million tonnes. The companies’ emissions were also higher than those produced in other major western European nations including France, Spain and Italy

Environmental campaigners said that the principal partners’ combined climate impact was “staggering”. COP26 “shouldn’t be about big business getting a marketing opportunity to give the impression of green credentials” while doing little in reality, they argued.

COP26 partners pointed out they were all signed up to “ambitious” targets to reduce emissions. They highlighted the “considerable reductions” they had already achieved. 

They also warned that some emissions might be double-counted as firms’ direct and indirect emissions could overlap.

The Ferret’s analysis looked at the annual sustainability reports of the 11 principal partners, which break down their emissions into three categories. Scope one and two emissions include greenhouse gases (GHGs) produced directly by a company’s operations, such as buildings, vehicles, electricity and heating.

Scope three emissions are indirect, including those from purchased goods and services, transportation, and the use of company products. This was by far the biggest category of emissions among the COP sponsors, responsible for a combined 270 million tonnes of GHGs in 2020. 

The principal partners were selected by the UK Government, who are hosting the flagship climate summit.

Climate pollution from COP26 sponsors

CompanyTotal emissions in 2020 (tonnes of CO2e)
National Grid35,874,000
Sources: company sustainability reports

Emissions and other controversies

Alongside their carbon footprint, the sponsors have been implicated in a litany of other controversies, including those relating to industrial relations, the environment, and human rights. 

Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, parent company of ScottishPower, was the biggest polluter of the principal partners last year, contributing over 72.7 million tonnes of emissions. 

The company has faced criticism in Spain, where it is the eighth biggest polluter nationally, for causing water shortages in three towns.

ScottishPower champions the fact that its portfolio is made up solely of renewable energy, but The Ferret revealed in February 2021 that Iberdrola had opened two big fossil gas plants in Mexico since 2018. 

A spokesperson for Iberdrola pointed out that 80 per cent of its energy was produced from green sources in the first half of 2021. The company plans to reduce its direct and indirect climate emissions in line with the targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement, it said.

Second in the league of polluting sponsors is Hitachi. The Japanese multinational only narrowly trailed Iberdrola, with emissions totalling nearly 72.4 million tonnes last year. 

In March 2020, an Australian think-tank named Hitachi among a long list of businesses which allegedly had factories in its supply chain using forced labour from Uyghur Muslims in China. The company, however, said an internal review of factories in its value chain found no evidence that it benefited from the use of forced labour.

NatWest reportedly produced the fewest emissions of the eleven companies according to its sustainability report. However, the NatWest data does not seem to take into account the emissions caused by its investment in fossil fuels. 

According to research from the campaign group Fossil Banks, Natwest invested $13.39bn in fossil fuel projects across the world between 2016 and 2020. 

This sum included links to funding of the Trans-Mountain Pipeline Project in Canada, which on completion could transport an additional 590,000 barrels of crude oil from Alberta tar sands each day. 

NatWest funds are also linked to the Cerrejon coal mine in Columbia, the largest in Latin-America and one of the biggest in the world. Cerrejon’s steady expansion since 1976 has led to the destruction of entire villages populated by local indigenous peoples. 

Natwest said it has taken steps to reduce its investments in sectors exposed to “heightened climate-related risks”. This included a £0.7bn decrease in exposure to oil and gas companies in the first half of 2021, a spokesperson said. 

Big businesses use the prestige of sponsoring events like the UN climate talks to distract from the dirty side of how they make their money.

Mary Church, Friends of the Earth Scotland

Unilever produced over 61 million tonnes of direct and indirect emissions in 2020, and its products are a major source of plastic waste. 

Research last year found that Unilever produces 70,000 tonnes of plastic a year, enough to cover 11 football pitches a day. 

The firm has also been condemned in the past for purchasing palm oil from suppliers who were responsible for wildfires in Indonesia and destroying the last tract of Sumatran rainforest. Unilever said the companies responsible for this are no longer part of its supply chain. 

In 2017, Unilever pledged to make all of its plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. Last year, it also committed to eliminating deforestation from the supply chain of its key crops by 2023.  

Across its operations and supply chain, SSE emitted 11 million tonnes of GHGs in 2020. It was the only principal partner whose direct emissions outnumbered its indirect emissions.

This is largely due to its operating Peterhead power station, which The Ferret revealed to be the dirtiest in Scotland in 2020. 

SSE said that Peterhead provides important system stability for the Scottish electricity grid. The company argued this allows more renewables projects to go ahead and, as a result, the plant plays a role in the energy transition. 

Sainsbury’s was the only one of the eleven principal partners not to publish a breakdown of its indirect emissions for 2020. If these remained at the same level from its 2018-19 baseline figures, the company would have produced over 27 million tonnes of emissions last year. 

The supermarket chain said it has taken action to cut these emissions since 2019, and will begin reporting its updated indirect emissions from next year. 

Reckitt does not publish a breakdown of its direct and indirect emissions, but its emissions totalled nearly 36 million tonnes in 2020. 

Like Unilever, Reckitt has been criticised for its failure to phase out unsustainable palm oil from its products. The consumer goods firm was named in a list of big companies failing to remove deforestation caused by the palm oil industry from its supply chain. 

As of last year, it counted Wilmar International, the world’s biggest palm oil producer, as one of its suppliers. Wilmar has been implicated in deforestation activity and alleged human rights abuses by Amnesty International.

Reckitt claimed that 75 per cent of its 2020 emissions were caused by electricity and energy used to operate its appliances by people at home. It also said it had reduced the direct carbon footprint from its factories by 50 per cent since 2012. 

National Grid’s annual emissions narrowly trailed Reckitt, with the electricity and gas utility, which operates in Britain and the US, producing almost 36 million tonnes of GHGs in 2020. 

Its American operation has faced community backlash over plans to build a fracked gas storage and transport facility in New York.

National Grid said it was aiming to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and had achieved a 68 per cent reduction in emissions since 1990. 

Microsoft produced over 11 million tonnes of direct and indirect emissions in 2020. 

However, a study has shown that Microsoft’s partnership with oil giant ExxonMobil to enhance “operational efficiencies in the Permian Basin” has the potential to inflate its annual emissions by 21 per cent. The Permian Basin is one of the largest oil producing regions in North America.

The tech giant is also one of the biggest corporate buyers of flights, despite having its own video conferencing platform. Microsoft told The Ferret it is encouraging its employees to conduct more meetings on Teams, as well as launching a “company-wide focus on sustainability”. 

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Sky were the only two principal partners not to respond to The Ferret’s requests to comment on their emissions. 

GSK contributed to nearly 16 million tonnes of emissions in 2020. The pharmaceutical company was against a scheme proposed by the World Health Organisation to voluntarily share technology, know-how and intellectual property on Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. 

Activists have pointed out that inequality of access to vaccines has prevented some delegates from the global south attending COP26. The WHO scheme was designed to weaken intellectual property and encourage vaccines to be developed in poor countries. 

Meanwhile, British broadcaster Sky produced over two million tonnes of direct and indirect emissions in 2020.

COP26 ‘greenwashing’

Head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, Mary Church, said that while COP26 should be about “delivering the real action needed to tackle climate breakdown”, it had been turned into a “shop window for greenwashing the reputation of big polluters”. 

“Big businesses use the prestige of sponsoring events like the UN climate talks to distract from the dirty side of how they make their money and gain privileged access to decision makers,” she said. 

“This corporate capture is a key factor in governments’ failure to implement the real, transformative solutions that would not only address the climate crisis but also improve the lives of ordinary people here in Scotland and around the world. 

“It’s high time big polluters were kicked out of the climate talks and the corridors of power everywhere for good.”

Scott Tully of campaign group Glasgow Calls Out Polluters described the principal partners’ emissions as “staggering”.

He said: “Instead of being held liable for their historical and ongoing climate damages, these companies have paid to greenwash over their climate impacts. 

“The latest gambit of big polluters is to furiously promote their green credentials, but for COP26 to have a chance of supporting real solutions, we must resist those trying to turn the climate crisis into a corporate sideshow.”

Responses from COP26 principal partners

This story is part of a series The Ferret is publishing 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/piyaset.

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