One of the major treaties to combat climate change is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is a binding multilateral agreement that entered into force in 1994 with the objective of “. . . stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Its implementation is reviewed annually by its decision making body, the Conference of Parties (COP), comprising 196 countries and the European Union. States parties to the UNFCCC have several general commitments such as maintenance of inventories of emissions’ volumes, sources and sinks, implementation of climate change mitigation measures through curbs on emissions and facilitation of adaptation to climate change. Based on levels of economic development, the UNFCCC further lays down differentiated levels of commitment.
Article 4.1(f) of the UNFCCC which permits states parties to “Take climate change considerations into account, to the extent feasible, in their relevant social, economic and environmental policies and actions …” gives significant leeway for interpretation to avoid measures aimed at climate change mitigation. This inherent loophole in the UNFCCC is used by the fossil fuel industry – oil, coal and natural gas – to its advantage. The fossil fuel industry is the world’s largest environmental polluter and responsible for two-thirds of all carbon emissions globally. With transnational presence, enormous economic and political clout and billions of dollars at stake, it lobbies hard to influence policy making by blocking regulation, financing politicians’ campaigns and promising economic growth to governments.
While the Fifth Assessment Report of the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change shows that there is incontrovertible evidence of anthropogenic climate change, the fossil fuel industry continues to fund denial and misinformation campaigns. Conservative think tanks and individual scientists funded by wealthy corporations have questioned climate change since the 1990’s. Greenpeace has unearthed years of systematic efforts of denial of climate change by private corporations such as ExxonMobil and wealthy businessmen with interests in fossil fuels such as the Koch brothers.
The key concern that has emerged in the past few years, however, is an increasingly open attempt by the fossil fuel industry to co-opt the negotiation process at the annual UNFCCC COP. At the 2009 COP 15, in Copenhagen, the fossil fuel industry played a significant role by lobbying against tough emissions cuts. Unsurprisingly, the negotiations failed. The role of the business community was even more prominent at the 2013 COP 19 held at Warsaw, Poland, where representatives of global businesses officially took part as observers and sponsors. ArcelorMittal, BMW and General Motors were some of the major companies present. The Polish Government also held a parallel ‘International Coal and Climate Summit’ highlighting supposedly ‘clean coal’ technology. This corporate takeover of climate negotiations continued at the 2015 COP 21 in Paris as well, where sponsors including airliner Air France, chemicals giant Dow Chemicals, car maker Renault, water privatisation company Suez Environnement and coal companies Engie and EDF, bankrolled as much as 20% of the event’s expenses.
But lobbying and interference by big businesses is not new. Precedents to the fossil fuel industry’s tactics abound in businesses such as pesticides, Asbestos and Tobacco. The Tobacco industry, in particular, is a good case in point and warrants a brief discussion. A public health catastrophe, Tobacco consumption was once the leading cause of premature death with projected estimates of millions of more deaths in the future. In the early 1950’s, American scientists showed links between smoking and lung cancer and later on with other diseases as well. By the late 1950’s the Tobacco industry was well aware that smoking caused lung cancer but denied the same publicly. To protect its interests, the Tobacco industry embarked on a massive decades-long concealment and denial campaign. It was in 1994, however, that the full extent of denial and deception practised by the Tobacco industry came to light when a box containing 4000 confidential papers of the Tobacco industry arrived mysteriously at the office of Professor Stanton Glantz at University of California, San Francisco. The documents were revelatory of the industry’s public relations and legal strategies – funding politicians, influencing anti-Tobacco legislation, sponsoring smoker’s groups and promoting contrarian research to cast doubt on scientific evidence of Tobacco usage being injurious to human health. 
Around the same time, the World Health Organization began contemplating an International Convention on control of Tobacco and in 2003 the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) was adopted. The FCTC created history by mandating governments to protect their health care policies from the Tobacco industry’s influence. Article 5.3 of the FCTC provides that “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.” The guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 duly note the irreconcilable conflict of interest between public health and the Tobacco industry. They also exhort transparency and accountability from both governments and the Tobacco industry in their dealings with one another.
A cursory comparison of the Tobacco and fossil fuel industries shows striking similarities between their respective deception, denial and lobbying strategies. The Tobacco precedent, however, also has lessons for combating the influence of the fossil fuel industry. Article 5.3 of the FCTC is a simple and clearly drafted clause that has effectively banished Tobacco companies from the public health arena and proved crucial to the Convention’s successful implementation. The United Nations Environment Programme must take a cue from the FCTC and mobilise political will to alienate the fossil fuel industry from the upcoming UNFCCC COP. Just as there is a fundamental conflict of interest between Tobacco and public health, so is the case with fossil fuels and climate change. A binding clause in the UNFCCC excluding the fossil fuel industry from influencing domestic policies of states parties or a protocol to that effect, can act as a game changer for the international climate regime and challenge the fossil fuel industry’s apparent invincibility. A mandatory requirement of transparency will lead to much needed public scrutiny of governmental action vis-à-vis reduction of fossil fuel dependence. With nearly 200 countries having diverse interests ranging from surviving rising sea levels (Tuvalu, Mauritius, Maldives) to lifting people out of poverty (India, China, South Africa), the fossil fuel industry must not be allowed to hijack climate change negotiations.
Zeenat Masoodi is a lawyer living in Srinagar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org