COP26 climate change summit: Corporate sponsors' grumbling reveals influence of fossil fuel firms, palm oil producers and more – Martyn McLaughlin

Spare a thought, if you can, for the poor multinational companies who have ploughed millions of pounds into aligning themselves with the COP26 summit only to realise that, well, they may not be getting bang for their buck.

The news that several of the sponsors signed up to the upcoming climate change talks in Glasgow have raised formal complaints over how the event is being managed should come as scant surprise.

The Cabinet Office has retained an iron grip over the planning of an event unprecedented in its scale, ceding little control to any other UK government department, let alone the devolved administration in Edinburgh or officials in Scotland’s biggest city.

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Its ability to iron out every last detail on the ground in Glasgow has been compromised by the coronavirus pandemic, although some would argue that Whitehall’s top-down managerial approach would always have given rise to problems.

With a matter of weeks to go before the rescheduled conference gets underway, the grumbling is growing louder, with those firms who have paid a pretty penny to be “principal partners” among the most aggrieved.

According to the Guardian, sponsors including Sky, NatWest, Microsoft and GSK have described the event as “mismanaged” and “very last minute”.

A letter to the Cabinet Office, drawn up by Sky and signed by executives from several other firms, blames “very inexperienced” civil servants for delayed decisions, poor communication and a breakdown in relations between the organisers and the companies.

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The COP26 summit will get underway in Glasgow later this month (Picture: John Devlin)

The show of discontent from the sponsors would suggest that this is more than just grousing, and it represents the latest public relations blow for the Cabinet Office team tasked with delivering the most important climate deal since Paris.

Of course, it is important to highlight the sponsors’ interests and motivations in all this. Their primary concern is not curbing the climate catastrophe. For them, the summit is a chance to amplify their corporate messaging.

With the eyes of the world set to fall on Glasgow, the tiered sponsorship structure is an avenue for high-profile branding, and the usual flummery and lip service paid to social responsibility and sustainability.

It should come as no surprise that some of those firms who have signed up as sponsors have less than impeccable environmental credentials. One of the ‘top tier’ sponsors, Reckitt, may not be a household name, but as I wrote a few months back, it uses more than 134,000 tonnes of palm oil products to make its goods every year.

Its suppliers include dozens of mills owned by Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil trader, which has been implicated in deforestation activity and human rights abuses by groups including Amnesty International.

Reckitt is in fine company. Another top-tier sponsor, SSE, runs Peterhead power station, one of Europe’s biggest gas terminals, and a site notorious as one of Scotland’s worst industrial polluters.

Also at the top table is Unilever, which only last year was accused of being among four global drinks giants responsible for more than half a million tonnes of plastic pollution in six developing countries each year.

For these companies, and several others, COP26 is a chance to rehabilitate tarnished images. It not only allows them to associate themselves with the event’s green branding, so-called ‘greenwashing’, it grants them closer access than most to the key players taking part.

This is not about discussions behind closed doors; it is very much explicit. The summit’s organisers describe sponsorship as an “outstanding opportunity” which offers “unique benefits”. And how.

In the summit’s green zone, the 11 principal partners will be staging 13 individual events over the course of the fortnight-long conference, some of which seem little more than thinly veiled advertising opportunities.

During the summit’s first week, for example, Sky Sports is holding an hour-long event dedicated to how “the immense power of sport can inspire change”. Reckitt, meanwhile, is holding an interactive event aimed at children which seeks to promote Dettol, one of its leading consumer brands.

Humza Yousaf, the Health Secretary, is listed as among the guest speakers at the latter event. One might imagine that in the midst of a pandemic and a crisis which has seen the military drafted in to help under-pressure health boards, he would have better things to do.

Make no mistake, the millions of pounds being spent by the sponsors is a licence which allows them to say they are part of the solution to the climate emergency, even when the evidence supports the opposite conclusion.

Naturally, the Cabinet Office argues that the sponsorship deals are a way of ensuring the eye-watering costs of the summit are clawed back, and that the event provides value for money to taxpayers.

It is unclear how much the UK government has taken in from Reckitt et al, but the organisers of COP21 in Paris secured a sponsorship pot of around £30 million. It is my understanding that the Glasgow tally is considerably more than that.

The money, then, is considerable. But what is the ultimate price of it all? No one is under any illusions about the need for the summit to deliver a successful outcome, and the hard yards will be put in by world leaders and their delegations in the main negotiating arena.

Even so, it is hard to see what the cavalcade of sponsors’ events on the periphery will bring to the table, other than some very expensive and self-serving PR work. Now, more than ever, such things matter very little.

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