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France defends 'imperfect' fossil fuel sponsors for Paris climate summit

French climate official says sponsorship of UN climate conference by EDF, Air France, and other big carbon emitters was needed for financial reasons

Published on The Guardian website on 29th May 2015

Air France, along with EDF, Engie and other firms are partly sponsoring the COP21 Paris climate talks in December. Photograph: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

Air France, along with EDF, Engie and other firms are partly sponsoring the COP21 Paris climate talks in December. Photograph: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

Fossil fuel firms and big carbon emitters sponsoring the Paris climate summit in December are “a part of the problem” that delegates will address, but their patronage was unavoidable for financial reasons, senior French climate officials say.

About 20% of the €170m (£122m) cost of the Paris conference will come from firms such as EDF, Engie (formerly known as GDF Suez), Air France, Renault-Nissan and BNP Paribas, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius,said on Thursday.

Hisannouncement sparked outrage among NGOs, with Oxfam France denouncingthe move as greenwash and hypocrisy, saying that the summit would now “be financed by French champions of pollution”.

But senior French sources insist that while they would have preferred funding from renewable energy companies, they had been impelled to take a “pragmatic choice”.

“The fact of the matter is that we do indeed need some financing from the private sector to face the expenses of the Paris conference,” an official close to the discussions told the Guardian. “If we were to only ask support from the most consistent clean technology companies, many of whom are relatively small, we would not achieve that.”

“The world is imperfect and we are trying with a great sense of urgency to move in a better direction. We think we should work with those who may be part of the problem for the time being but who are on the right track, and seriously interested in interested in improving the situation. It is not a perfect choice. It is a pragmatic choice, but we had to do it,” the official added.

Patronage from big polluters created a disruptive backdrop to the2013 UN climate summit in Warsaw that culminated in an unprecedented walkout by environmentalists, enraged at a lack of progress they blamed on lobbying by fossil fuel firms.

One sponsor, General Motors, had also funded the climate-sceptic Heartland Institute, while the logo of Poland’s second-largest Petroleum corporation, Grupa Lotos, adorned the 11,000 tote bags handed out to delegates at the Warsaw conference.

The Guardian understands that the Paris summit organisers have already turned down offers of financial assistance from some fossil fuel companies – and other carbon intensive corporates. These offers were considered “not compatible with the spirit of the COP [conference of the parties, the summit],” and insincere in their objectives.

But a joint statement by five environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth Europe and 350.org questioned the sincerity of the French government’s own plans, in light of the sponsors list.

The green groups argued that Air France had opposed emissions reductions in the aviation sector while Engie was responsible for coal-fired emissions equivalent to nearly half of France’s annual carbon output.

BNP Paribas was identified as one of the top 10 global coal lending banks between 2005-2013, in research by Bankwatch.

“While the French government had said that they would look for businesses with flawless reputations, many of them are involved in projects harmful to people, their quality of life and work,” said Malika Peyraut of Friends of the Earth. “Putting the most important climate conference of the decade under the patronage of climate-incompatible businesses does not bode well.”

“The government is offering a cheap and easy opportunity for multinational climate criminals to green-wash their image,” said Maxime Combes of ATTAC France. “The public interest demands that these talks not be polluted by the private interests represented by these companies.”

The role of the private sector in fighting global warming is a hotly-debated topic. Many developing countries are wary of counting private finance towards climate aid contributions for projects such as the Green Climate Fund, which aims to disburse $100bn a year to poorer countries by 2020.

But Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief , has called for businesses involvement at the highest levels in Paris. She singled out two of the Paris sponsors – Ikea and Suez Environment – for praise, saying they had set goals to cut emissions and energy consumption, and were incorporating climate risks into their decision-making processes.

Sandrine Dixson-Declève, the director of the Prince of Wales EU Corporate Leaders Group, which counts many of the summit sponsors among its partners, said that it was a mistake to demonise companies that were committed to helping stop dangerous global warming.

“I can understand the discomfort about business sponsoring this conference but we need to stop pointing the finger at certain companies and bring them into the dialogue,” she told the Guardian. “We have to stop ostracising the incumbents in the business community and instead work with them to find solutions in order to meet our shared goals.”

In 2013, GDF Suez committed to making a 10% reduction in its ‘CO2 emissions ratio’ by 2020. But most of its energy still comes from fossil fuels in countries such as Belgium, where it remains the dominant electricity supplier.

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