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23 June 2023

Revealed: how the Cabinet Office sold Cop26 to corporate sponsors

Government contracts expose the corporate capture of an event that now welcomes oil companies and dictators.

By Will Dunn

Contracts obtained by the New Statesman reveal the previously unseen scale of influence that multinational companies were given over the agenda of the world’s most important climate conference. Eleven “principal partner” companies sponsored Cop26 in Glasgow for £33m in total; these companies included SSE, which runs 11 fossil-fuel power stations in the UK, and Unilever, which was reported to be the world’s third largest plastics polluter at the time of the conference in November 2021.

The contracts show that companies sponsoring Cop26 were not just allowed to advertise at the conference, but were given a role in shaping the event itself. As part of the sponsorship agreements the Cabinet Office agreed to give eight of the 11 companies a “role in programme development” at the conference, and to “work to incorporate Sponsor contributions into the programme, creating links between the Sponsor and relevant [Cabinet Office] staff working on programming”.

One contract, with Sainsbury’s, additionally stipulated that the Cabinet Office and the supermarket chain would work together “to consider opportunities to include Sponsor contributions into the programme wherever possible”.

The contracts also show that sponsors were given the chance to direct the conversations that took place at the event. All 11 contracts included a commitment to identify “opportunities for the Sponsor to chair or sit on relevant panels in the UK Pavilion”.

[See also: Brits remained “concerned” about climate change despite rising cost of living]

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Lobbying opportunities were also a key selling point. Seven of the 11 contracts include a commitment that, where possible, in the run-up to Cop26 the Cabinet Office would “arrange for a senior UK Government representative to attend at least 2 Sponsor owned and run events”, while every sponsor was given the opportunity to hold multiple “co-branded events” within the UK Pavilion at the conference itself. In one contract, with Sky, the Cabinet Office agreed to “identify and endeavour to facilitate… appropriate networking opportunities, throughout the Cop26 event”. Government meeting rooms were also placed at sponsors’ disposal.

Nor were these opportunities contained within the UK during this country’s presidency of the conference; eight of the contracts commit the Cabinet Office to “work with the Sponsor to identify opportunities” to be involved in events related to the Bonn Climate Change Conference and pre-Cop events in Italy.

Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, said that such agreements undermine the purpose of negotiations to tackle the climate emergency. “Successive Cop summits have failed to agree anything close to the rapid fossil fuel phase-out we need,” she said, “and now we know one of the potential reasons why. Cop is a critical tool of global climate diplomacy, not an opportunity for glitzy corporate greenwash and backroom lobbying, which risks preventing the very purpose of its existence.

“The UK government must explain not only exactly how much influence and control these corporations had over Cop26 proceedings, but also commit right now to publicly pressuring Cop28 [in Dubai this year] to drop any fossil fuel-linked sponsorship and advertising. Our planet and its people can’t afford yet another wasted opportunity.”

The Cabinet Office refused to release the contracts with its “principal partner” sponsors, which the New Statesman requested under freedom of information law, for almost two years, despite the fact that the contracts themselves contain clauses stating that “the content of this Agreement is not Confidential Information”. The Cabinet Office only released the contracts after it was compelled to do so by the information commissioner.

Some of the companies that sponsored Cop26 are leaders in the decarbonisation of their industries: Natwest, for example, has ruled out funding new oil and gas projects. When the UK sold corporate control of the world’s leading climate conference, however, it may have created a dangerous precedent. Cop27, in Egypt, was sponsored by companies including Coca-Cola, the world’s largest plastics polluter, and Hassan Allam, which builds oil refineries. Cop28 is chaired by Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Among the heads of state invited to Cop28 is the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

In the months before Cop26, Transparency International wrote to Alok Sharma, the Cabinet Office minister and Cop president, warning of the scale of “influential companies in Europe and North America… lobbying to delay or dilute climate policy” and the need to “create a lasting legacy in the way Cop processes are run”. If the UK did create a legacy by hosting Cop26, it seems to have been to further the event’s transformation into a corporate trade show at which the most urgent priorities of the human race are discussed by whoever has paid the most money.

[See also: Seven ways to make leaders act on climate change]

The Cop26 sponsors: who they are, what they paid and what they got

SSE (£3m cash): one of the “Big Six” energy companies, SSE generates 70 per cent of its electricity from natural gas and 30 per cent from renewable sources. SSE’s contract included a commitment that the Cabinet Office would “work to maximise the Sponsor’s profile” over key “content areas” include “showcasing SSE’s ESG [environmental, social and governance] credentials”.

Sky (£2.25m cash, £750,000 value in kind): Sky’s contract to become the principal media partner for Cop26 included a commitment that the Cabinet Office would work to create a speaking slot for Sky’s chief executive. Among the goods and services included in the “value in kind” part of Sky’s payment for sponsorship was “the involvement of Sky talent”.

Microsoft (£3m cash): the US tech giant has committed to becoming carbon negative by 2030, but its clients, which include the oil companies Exxon Mobil and Chevron, are another story. Microsoft’s data analysis and AI tools help these companies extract more oil and gas from their wells. Its contract with the Cabinet Office, like others, offered the chance to run co-branded events in the UK Pavilion and take part in panel events.

Reckitt Benckiser (£2.25m cash, £750,000 value in kind): the official Cop26 “hygiene partner” signed a similar contract to other companies, but paid in part using value in kind services valued at £750,000, including “Covid-19 Hygiene Advisory Services” and goods such as “travel safe kits” and “biodegradable wipes and cleaning sprays”.

GSK (£3m cash): Like other sponsors, the pharmaceutical giant was granted “category exclusivity”, and the Cabinet Office committed to working to “maximise the profile” of GSK with regard to pharmaceuticals.

Sainsbury’s (£3m cash): the Cabinet Office agreed that as the Cop26 “supermarket partner”, Sainsbury’s could “at any time suggest” new events and “linked marketing campaigns” to take place within Cop26. The contract stated that approval of these suggestions “shall not be unreasonably withheld”.

Unilever (£3m cash): One of the world’s biggest plastic polluters, Unilever is the multinational behind brands including Persil, Hellmann’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Dove and PG Tips. Its contract, like others, requires the Cabinet Office to “work with the Sponsor to develop the programme for theme days around the Sponsor’s strategic objectives”, and to exclude competitor brands from the event.

Scottish Power (£3m cash): The Cabinet Office agreed to work to maximise Scottish Power’s profile as “the first integrated energy company in the UK to generate 100% green energy”. This is only true of one of the company’s tariffs, however: its total fuel mix includes 5 per cent coal and 43 per cent gas.

Natwest (£3m cash): While HSBC and Barclays continue to finance new fossil fuel development, Natwest announced this year that it will stop lending to new customers for oil and gas projects – although at the time of Cop26 it still had investments in the coal-mining giants Glencore, and in March 2022 it co-financed a $5.4bn credit facility for the coal miner RWE.

Hitachi (£3m cash): The Japanese conglomerate, which has won billions of pounds worth of UK government contracts, required in its contract that the Cabinet Office should work to “showcase the Sponsor’s innovative products” and “greener manufacturing”.

National Grid (£3m cash): the grid operator says it plans to be able to run the UK’s electricity system on zero-carbon energy by 2025. Its contract, like others, offered opportunities to influence programming and access senior government representatives.

Value in kind: a free ticket?

Alongside the 11 principal partners, a further 13 companies provided £5,100,000 in “value in kind” goods and services as payment to access and influence Cop26. These included the car manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover and Boston Consulting Group, which advises oil and gas companies. Despite a further freedom of information request, the Cabinet Office has not released these contracts.

Deloitte, the professional services company, which also advises oil and gas companies, was awarded a contract by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to work on a set of “Visions for a Net-Zero Future”, which were used at Cop26 to represent the views of people, businesses and governments around the world. Deloitte took the work on for £1.

[See also: “Everything, everywhere, all at once”: UN climate report has no time for doomism]

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