Durham University: Insights from COP26

Welcome to our ‘Insights from COP26’ page where we will be posting blogs and insights from our delegation at the event.

Blog post 5 – Questioning the Corporation – by Professor Andrew Russell, Department of Anthropology (4 November 2021)
What do Unilever, SSE, Sky, Scottish Power, Sainsbury’s, Reckitt, NatWest, National Grid, Microsoft, Hitachi and GSK have in common? Apart from being well-known corporate conglomerates, they are all major sponsors of COP26 – the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). To become a major sponsor they had to make pledges complying with the temperature target of the Paris Agreement, and work with CDP (a not-for-profit NGO formerly known as the Carbon Delivery Project) on disclosure and meeting their environmental impact targets.

November 3rd 2021 was Finance Day at COP26. It was marked by a plenary meeting at which Mark Carney, former Director of the Bank of England, made an announcement about the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ). GFANZ has garnered commitments from 450 firms with $130 trillion in assets to head for zero net emissions by 2050 and to support low and middle-income countries to do the same. Gillian Tett, chair of the editorial board of the Financial Times and trained as a social anthropologist (Tett 2021), moderated the meeting at which Carney spoke. For her, this COP is remarkable compared to previous COPs because “the money men and the money women are in town”. She cautioned, though, that with all talk of trillions of dollars, we need to remember that people, not metrics, are at the receiving end of climate change and that equity, inclusion and social justice must be part of the financial package.

This is heady stuff for an anthropologist used to attending the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) COPs where, at next week’s FCTC COP9, discussion is likely to revolve around the proposal to set up a $50m ‘FCTC Investment Fund’ worth around $2m per year. This reflects the distinctive approach of the FCTC and its highly significant Article 5.3. Article 5.3 seeks to keep the tobacco industry, with its history of dirty tricks and weasel words, firmly out of tobacco control policies and practice. Nothing like Article 5.3 exists for the UNFCCC – although many environmental campaigners argue that something should. Not all corporations can be UNFCCC COP sponsors – some that tried (e.g. Shell) were rejected due to the inadequacy of their net zero plans and commitments.

In marked contrast to tobacco, big business plays a central role in climate change discussions. Financial institutions such as NatWest can be part of the discussions under the Paris Agreement because of its important Article 2.1(c) that states finance flows must be “consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development”. What is clear from walking around the massive COP26 venue is that companies which might hitherto have been ‘part of the problem’ are now acting up as ‘part of the solution’. Some call this greenwashing. Yet there seems to be more going on than some kind of superficial corporate social responsibility agenda. Gillian Tett joked that maybe the distinctive pink colour of the Financial Times should change to green for all the environmentally-focussed articles it has contained recently.

There are those who would argue that ultimately corporations can never operate for the good of all humanity – the ‘fiduciary imperative’, to put the welfare and best interests of the corporation and its shareholders above all else, is too strong for that. Anthropologists Stuart Kirsch and Pete Benson (2010) describe ‘harm industries’ such as tobacco and mining that are never going to be of net benefit to the health of people and planet. Others extend this analysis, arguing that every corporation represents the ‘pathological pursuit of profit and power’ (Bakan 2005). Yet taken another way, as well as profit, corporations act for the global fulfilment of consumer desires. Mark Fisher (2012) argues that we shall never dispense with our Starbucks and our Walmarts completely, whatever reservations we might have about using them, because we are too fond of their convenience and conviviality. Yet the climate crisis calls for urgent modification and moderation of such desires – to break down an addiction to carbon that is, arguably, just as potent an addiction as that to tobacco. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed many people’s priorities and tempered desires for carbon-emitting pleasures, like flying, previously regarded as normal. Maybe now is the time for a radical shift into uncharted financial waters. Global conventions such as the UNFCCC and the FCTC, for all their faults, may be all we have; the UNFCCC in particular, with its subsidiary Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, are probably the biggest and most extensive forms of global consensus-building ever undertaken for secular purposes. They are certainly our best chance of proceeding with Tett’s priorities of equity, inclusivity and justice for all.

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