The heartbreaking diary of a COP26 delegate

Climate Voices

The heartbreaking diary of a COP26 delegate

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I was utterly unprepared for the circus surrounding COP26. The UN Climate conference in November could be worse

Editors’ note: Last week Elliot-Smith launched a petition on Change.Org demanding Coca-Cola be dropped as the official sponsor of COP27. The petition has gathered 78,000 signatures. 

On 28 September, a press release jubilantly announced that Coca-Cola had been selected as the corporate sponsor of the UN global climate conference, COP27, to be held in Egypt in November.

Reading it, I felt sick. All I could think, looking at the accompanying photo of two grinning men shaking hands, was that the UN was handing over the keys to the planet.

Year after year, one company leads the pack of polluters – Coca-Cola.

I can’t decide what disturbs me more – the fact that the world’s largest plastic polluter has been chosen to sponsor this event or that no one on the COP27 organizing committee has noticed what a terrible decision this is.

Fossil-fuel-based plastics are suffocating our planet, and year after year, one company leads the pack of polluters – Coca-Cola.

For more than a century, Coca-Cola has spent millions of dollars greenwashing its brand, making us believe that they are working to solve the plastics problem. Behind the scenes, they have a long history of lobbying to delay and derail regulations that would prevent pollution, keeping us addicted to disposable plastic.

Last year, I was a delegate at COP26 in Glasgow. As a property-sector sustainability consultant and environmental engineer, I had been invited by the French NGO Saving Our Planet to attend the conference as a “legal observer,” to observe the conduct of the discussions.

Unilever was the sponsor of COP26, and the company’s presence was evident from the moment I arrived in Glasgow. Their marketing was everywhere, and the delegate pack was stuffed with the company’s branded goods and marketing messages.

Halls of greenwash

I was, in fact, utterly unprepared for the circus surrounding the event: Halls a mile long filled with corporate stands, the largest belonging to major polluters, full of slick marketing messages telling us their business is saving the planet. Every day was a circus of panel sessions and drinks receptions, with CEOs and marketing executives, between drinks, shouting about how we could solve climate change if we bought more of their stuff.

But this was just the visible part. The most sinister element of COP was the corporate lobbyists. Early in the conference, it was reported that the largest delegation attending the conference was oil and gas lobbyists. There were more than 100 fossil fuel companies, 30 trade groups and 503 lobbyists accredited for COP26. That was more than the combined total of the eight national delegations worst affected by climate change. Their presence was shadowy but unmistakable. Meetings in back rooms, after-hours dinner parties and closed events hosted by companies filled the diaries of attending ministers.

A multi-million-dollar lobbying jamboree

COP conferences are supposed to be gatherings of national leaders engaged in urgent negotiations to prevent climate change, not a multi-million-dollar jamboree for corporate polluters and their lobbyists.

Not surprisingly, over the course of two weeks, the conference sessions shuffled on, making almost no progress. By the end, the conference was at a standstill as negotiators fought to break deadlocks over wording. At the closing session, conference president Alok Sharma broke into tears as he announced the pitiful and heavily compromised final wording of the conference agreement.

I could sympathize. Most days during COP26, I felt despair; some days I cried. A collection of CEOs from the world’s biggest polluters were all there, brazenly lobbying politicians to protect their interests rather than work together to establish stringent climate change regulations that would deliver the Paris Agreement commitment to keep the world to 1.5 C of warming.

“Corporate plastic polluters are major contributors to the climate crisis.”

I did not think it could get any worse, until a year later, when Egypt, the host country and chair of COP 27, announced the world’s largest producer of plastic was the official sponsor. Coca Cola produces some 3 million tons of plastic packaging globally every  year. That’s the equivalent of 200,000 bottles a minute. Unsurprisingly, the company also produces the most plastic waste in the world. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Worldwide, plastic production has skyrocketed from just 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015. Half of all plastics ever made have been produced since 2005. And because the vast majority of plastic is produced from fossil fuels, the process of creating these millions of tons of plastic emits huge amounts of greenhouse gasses that are causing climate change.

The campaign Break Free From Plastic’s brand audit 2021 reports that, “The Coca-Cola Company is the world’s worst corporate plastic polluter for the fourth year in a row,” and says that corporate plastic polluters are major contributors to the climate crisis.

The Changing Markets Foundation’s reports that Coke’s response to the plastic waste crisis is to spend heavily on marketing, public relations and public affairs worldwide to minimize a 30-year history of broken promises. For example, as far back as 1990, Coca-Cola claimed it would sell soft drinks in bottles made from 25% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET), but their bottles still include only 10% rPET. Around the world, from the EU to Kenya, Uruguay, Bolivia and dozens of countries in between, Coke has waged fierce fights against plastic bans, bottle deposits and mandatory returns.

So, I ask you, why are companies like Coca-Cola sponsoring the world’s largest conference for solving climate change?

Editors’ note: 

The Coca-Cola Company defended its decision to sponsor COP27 saying it’s “doing its part” to “eliminate waste from the ocean and appreciates efforts to raise awareness about this challenge.” The company points to its “ambitious goals” to “help collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one we sell – regardless of where it comes from – by 2030.” Report after report on plastic waste, however, challenge these assertions. The Climate & Capital team reached out to the UN for comment about Coke’s sponsorship but nothing was forthcoming. 

Written by

Georgia Elliot-Smith

Georgia Elliott-Smith is former UNESCO Special Junior Envoy for Youth and the Environment and founding member of She Changes Climate. As Managing Director of disruptive sustainability consultancy, Element Four, she works with companies to make meaningful change for the benefit of people and planet. Last year, Georgia took legal action against the U.K. government over their failure to adequately price carbon emissions, resulting in a legal precedent: That all future U.K. policy must address the Paris agreement as a matter of urgency.