Revealed: COP26 ‘sustainability’ advisor’s ties to fossil fuel firms

The UK government has been condemned for enlisting a company with longstanding ties to the oil and gas industry to oversee the sustainability of the COP26 climate change summit.

Arup is receiving more than a quarter of a million pounds of public money to ensure November’s gathering of world leaders is as green as possible.

But amid ongoing questions about the fossil fuel industry’s influence over COP26, environmental groups and politicians have hit out at the involvement of a firm which has designed and installed offshore platforms in oil and gas fields the world over.

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Greenpeace accused the government of “dipping into the oil industry biscuit tin”, while Scottish Labour said it was wrong to reward firms who “promote the interest of big polluters”.

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The SNP called for “full transparency” around the contract in light of Arup’s ties with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The firm received £8.4 million for its work on the doomed Garden Bridge project during Mr Johnson’s time as London’s mayor. An independent review subsequently criticised the procurement process.

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The UK government said Arup was awarded the contract based on technical and commercial assessments, and that there had been “a fair and transparent competitive tender process”.

There has been no official announcement by the government about Arup’s COP26 role, but it is being paid £265,191 to advise the government, devise a carbon management plan, and build a sustainable supply chain.

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Work is underway to prepare the site of the COP26 climate summit at Glasgow's SEC campus. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

While Arup has set its own net zero goal of 2030, and is working on numerous renewable energy projects as part of its global portfolio - which includes designing airports - it worked with the likes of Shell on offshore platforms as far afield as Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkmenistan, Newfoundland, and New Zealand. The latter is capable of producing 35,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

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In 2014, it was hired by Xcite Energy to design an offshore platform in one of the largest undeveloped oil fields in the North Sea, although the project did not progress to construction.

The following year, Arup joined MFDevCo, a consortium targeting the development of marginal oil and gas fields in the North Sea. It is still listed as a member on MFDevCo’s website, but Arup said it appeared its last active engagement with the group was five years ago, and that its membership had “long lapsed”.

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The SNP has called for "full transparency" around the Arup contract given the firm's links to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Richard Pohle/WPA/Getty
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However, its work for fossil fuel firms continued. Only last year, a hi-tech inspection service co-developed by Arup to help operators drive down costs was deployed on the Beryl Alpha, one of the biggest offshore platforms in the North Sea. As recently as 2016, it was carrying out environmental consultancy work for fracking firm Cuadrilla in the north of England.

Arup did not address multiple questions from Scotland on Sunday about any ongoing or future work it has planned with firms involved in oil and gas extraction.

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A spokeswoman for the company said it took its responsibilities as COP26’s sustainability consultant “extremely seriously”, adding that was “well down the transition path” and focused on renewables.

But Charlie Kronick, Greenpeace UK’s senior climate adviser, said: "This contract shows that the government - not to mention the economy - is still hugely dependent on the fossil fuel industry.

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Scottish Labour's Monica Lennon said it was wrong to hand lucrative public contracts to firms who "promote the interests of big polluters." Picture: PA

“To tackle the climate crisis this government will have to make a credible commitment to a just transition to renewable energy, instead of continuing to dip into the oil industry biscuit tin.”

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Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “Asking Arup to advise on carbon neutrality is a bit like asking a car dealer to advise on a public transport project. With plenty of specialist firms on sustainability out there, it is hard to understand how a firm so involved with fossil fuels can be the right choice.”

Monica Lennon MSP, Scottish Labour’s net zero and energy spokeswoman, said: “It is wrong that firms who promote the interests of big polluters are the beneficiaries of lucrative public contracts on tackling the climate emergency. Governments should be taking greater care to avoid such conflict of interests."

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Mark Ruskell MSP, the Scottish Greens’ climate spokesman, said: “The involvement of companies like Arup, who see no conflict between the notion of ‘net-zero’ and maximum extraction of fossil fuels, highlights the risk of falling for the idea that emissions can be offset.”

Arup, which posted annual profits of £37m, hit the headlines amid the Garden Bridge fallout. An independent review by Dame Margaret Hodge MP in 2017 concluded that the procurement process was “not open, fair or competitive,” stating: “Ultimately, the then mayor, Boris Johnson, must be held accountable for this.”

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Isabel Dedring, Arup’s global transport leader, also served as Mr Johnson’s deputy mayor for transport. In January, she was appointed to the prime minister’s Build Back Better Council.

Deidre Brock MP, the SNP’s environment and COP26 spokeswoman, said: “The decision to hire a firm with such strong ties to the Conservative party does seem extremely questionable.

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"What is more concerning however, is the connection Arup has with the prime minister. The UK government has previous for handing out lucrative contracts to Tory associates.

"There must be full transparency on how these contracts were distributed and whether or not these firms are best placed to tackle the key issues at COP26."

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Arup’s spokeswoman said: "Climate change demands urgent action on adaptation, mitigation and a just transition. Much like Scotland itself, our firm has been reviewing its relationship with the energy sector, especially in recent years. We are very conscious of our societal responsibility to drive change.”

A spokesman for the COP26 Unit, part of the Cabinet Office, said: “Sustainability is at the core of COP26, with the UK offsetting all carbon emissions associated with running the event. The contract was awarded through a fair and transparent competitive tender process.

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"All organisations supporting COP26 have met robust criteria, which includes making net-zero commitments with a credible action plan to achieve this, and are independently verified through the science-based targets initiative.”

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