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December 11th, 2015:

Business pledges at COP21: Progress or COP out?

Businesses at COP 21 have promised to reduce their emissions, invest in renewables, and support climate policy. But are these commitments true progress or greenwash? Eco-Business gets the view from civil society observers.

While government negotiators are hard at work finalising a global climate change treaty in Paris this week, the private sector has also been busy unveiling a series of commitments that officials are hailing as “unprecedented”.

Civic society groups, however, are divided on whether the pledges reflect a sincere effort by companies to tackle climate change, or if they are merely greenwash.

Initiatives launched by businesses in the two weeks since the conference started include:

  • The Business Leadership Criteria on Carbon Pricing programme, where 65 companies with a total market value of US$1.9 trillion agreed to set an internal carbon price, report it publicly, and called for a carbon market.
  • The Science-Based Targets initiative, through which 114 companies including IKEA, Coca-Cola, and Kellogg will set emissions reduction targets in line with scientific recommendations for limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
  • The Responsible Corporate Engagement in Climate Policy programme, where 114 companies will track their activities that influence climate policy, ensure these are consistent, and be transparent about their policy position on climate change.
  • A move by two of the world’s biggest institutional investors – German firm Allianz and Dutch pension fund ABP – to join the Portfolio Decarbonisation Coalition, a group of investors which has promised to rid their portfolios of high carbon investments.

These initiatives were presented at the UN Global Compact’s Caring for Climate (C4C) Business Forum on Tuesday, held on the sidelines of the climate conference, which is commonly known as COP21.

The forum is part of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), an initiative by France, Peru, and the UN to showcase commitments by businesses, cities, and civil society to reduce their emissions.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the commitments by companies, noting: “The collective momentum among the private sector for climate action is growing daily, and more companies and investors are leading on climate action than at any time in history.”

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change also called these pledges “unprecedented”.

Some civic society leaders, however, are sceptical about the sincerity of businesses behind their pledges.

What’s behind the scenes?
Jesse Bragg, media director at US-based Corporate Accountability International, questioned the motives of some energy and utility firms, and banks which have investments in these carbon-intensive outfits.

He told Eco-Business: “It’s fair to be sceptical of any corporation making climate commitments, particularly if their business model is predicated on the extraction of fossil fuels or requires cheap energy to survive”.

Despite their commitments, these organisations may have a vested interest in weaker climate policy, he added.

A recent report by CAI for example shows that notorious climate laggards like ExxonMobil – which was recently allegedly exposed for lying about climate change for decades – and Shell, which this year embarked on a controversial project to explore oil prospects in the Arctic, but later abandoned it – have also signed up to the LPAA platform.

Their participation amounts to little more than greenwash, said CAI in its report.

Bragg added that companies may also be trying to mask their energy-intensive activities by sponsoring the climate conference itself. French bank BNP Paribas, for example, is a COP21 sponsor, but it is also heavily invested in coal.

While the company has pledged not to finance controversial coal mines such as a project by Indian conglomerate Adani in Australia and made other announcements to improve its coal financing practices, it continues to hold coal assets, said Bragg. “Their sponsorship is therefore little more than “a half-hearted attempt at public relations,” he said.

Jonathan Jacoby, policy manager, private sector department, Oxfam America, acknowledged that some companies with a presence at COP are indeed lagging on climate change, but noted that the private sector today is “a tale of two business communities”.

There are regressive firms which try to weaken climate targets, but they are now outnumbered by firms which have good intentions, he noted.

And if the Paris talks deliver a strong commitment on decarbonising the global economy, “fossil fuel companies will have to be less complacent about diversifying their business” to include more sustainable energy sources, noted Jacoby.

Obfuscating climate policy

Bragg also noted that some companies unveiling climate commitments at COP 21 – such as French energy firm Engie – are members of trade associations like the Confederation of Europe Business trade association, which has long opposed efforts by the European Union to set strong renewable energy adoption and emission reduction targets.

“It’s a lot easier to believe that a corporation is operating in the best interest of the people if it is not behind the scenes undermining the very policies it advocates for,” said Bragg.

Companies which are sincere about climate action should distance themselves from these regressive trade associations until the latter shows support for strong targets on reducing emissions, he suggested.

But while some companies have been unconstructive in global climate policy, “what we have seen at COP 21 is unprecedented in terms of the business community’s commitment to align with climate science”, said Jacoby.

He cited Kellogg’s pledge to reduce its own emissions by 65 per cent and its supply chain’s carbon emissions by 2050 as an example of a company which formerly had been been “conservative” on sustainable sourcing evolve into a leader on climate action today.

A good climate agreement will also “enable the very difficult and uncomfortable conversations that are long overdue in traditional trade associations that these companies are members of,” he said.

It will send the message that “there is no legitimate political case for opposing climate action now”, he noted.

Michael Brune, executive director of US conservation group Sierra Club, noted that the company commitments represent an “undeniable momentum” in tackling climate change, and that they are also encouraging Ministers in the negotiations to push for higher emissions reductions targets.

There is reason for “cautious optimism” that the Paris agreement will reflect a strong and ambitious commitment to tackling climate change because businesses, cities, and regional governments have already shown their political and financial support to doing so, he added.

Companies, keep your word

While the commitments are a step in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether businesses will deliver on their promises, said Jacoby.

“Policies are the first step by which you can hold companies accountable,” he said. “They must demonstrate that they have truly fulfilled their emissions with evidence from third-party auditors.”

But reporting by companies alone is not enough, said CAI’s Bragg. A standardised way of tracking how companies deliver emissions reductions and other goals is essential, and “the best way to do that is through government regulation,” he said.

“You can’t rely alone on corporations to act out of the goodness of their heart, because they are ultimately beholden to shareholders,” he said. “You need governments to introduce strong, abiding regulation and have oversight of the commitments”.

Time to pay up: Hong Kong parking fines to increase by 50pc from 2017 to tackle city traffic


Tony Cheung

The transport minister adds that public to be consulted over electronic road pricing pilot scheme in Central

Parking fines will increase by 50 per cent in 2017 while the public will be consulted on an electronic road pricing pilot scheme in Central, the transport minister announced today in an effort to tackle the city’s notorious traffic congestion.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung told the media that the sharp hike in the fines was necessary as it had not been increased since 1994.

“During that time, consumer prices have increased by 50 per cent,” said Cheung of the 21-year period. “Illegal parking cases also increased by 44 per cent from 750,000 cases in 2010 to about 1.08 million last year.”

He said the 50 per cent increase meant that the current fines, HK$320 and HK$450 for different vehicles, would be raised to HK$480 and HK$680 respectively.

The government was also launching a three-month public consultation on how to implement electronic road pricing in Central, the city’s financial district.

Cheung said it was a question of how, not whether, the pricing system should be implemented. But he said when, how and how much a driver would be charged, as well as how much it would cost, would be answered after the consultation exercise.

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Foul play: former Chinese environment official to be prosecuted for taking bribes, ‘accepting rounds of golf with executives’


Reuters in Beijing

China’s authorities will prosecute a former environment official for corruption after an investigation found he took bribes and accepted invites from company executives to play golf, the Environment Ministry said on Friday.

Xiong Yuehui was head of a technological standards division at the ministry until he became subject of a corruption probe in August.

An investigation by graft inspectors found Xiong actively sought to hamper the investigation, forming a “conspiracy of silence” with others, breaking party discipline rules and covering up his personal affairs, the ministry’s discipline body said.

He used his position to seek benefits for others, and took gifts including cash, the ministry said in a statement released by the ruling Communist Party’s anti-graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Xiong “many times went to private clubs and accepted invitations from company bosses to play golf”, it added.

It was not possible to reach Xiong for comment and unclear if he has a lawyer.

Tales of corruption and officials’ high living, including extravagant banquets and expensive rounds on golf courses, have stirred widespread public anger because bureaucrats are meant to live on modest sums and lead morally exemplary lives.

The party for the first time listed golf as a discipline violation in October as it tightened rules to stop officials engaging in corrupt practices.

Private clubs have also been a target of President Xi Jinping’s sweeping battle against deep-seated corruption due to their reputation in China as places where shady dealings or sexual liaisons are carried out by an extravagant elite.

Xiong has been formally removed from his position and his case handed over to legal authorities, the ministry said, meaning he will be prosecuted.

The Environment Ministry is at the forefront of government efforts to tackle the country’s serious pollution problem, including the smog that often covers China’s major cities.

The government announced a corruption probe into a former deputy environment minister, Zhang Lijun in July. There has been no news of him since.

China’s main anti-graft body reprimanded the ministry in February for a series of problems, including interference by ministry officials and their relatives in environmental impact assessments.

Environmental degradation is one of China’s most serious issues and a very sensitive one too, with thousands of protests every year sparked by concern about pollution, particularly from factories.


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