Transparency standards should include climate risks

Rigorous disclosure requirements and increased transparency are vital to reclaim the space for citizens to be able to demand climate justice.

Part of the Climate Dialogues blog series

Sources tell us international oil-giant Shell is deeply unhappy. But what could be troubling them, you might wonder? Perhaps it is their now failed attempt to find oil in the arctic, all the more painful having burned through US$7 billion in the process? Or maybe it is because they participated together with the Italian oil company Eni in the deal for Nigeria’s prolific off-shore oil block OPL 245, for which Eni is subject to a criminal investigation - could Shell be worried these arrangements might come back to haunt them, too?

If we were to bet on it, we’d suggest that a mere letter was the instrument of their ire. Sent on the 13th October to the muli-stakeholder Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the letter called for a requirement for fossil fuel companies to disclose the lifetime economic viability for each of their extraction projects, assuming that global policies holding the world to no more than a 2°C rise in temperature above the pre-industrial era will be implemented. Signed by more than 1,000 international environmental, human rights and indigenous peoples groups, the letter demanded the EITI’s Board (whose members include fossil fuel companies like Shell) reform the EITI standard to incorporate disclosure of these risks because they are “…matters of profound public interest,” and will be vital to ensure the “…rapid phase-out of fossil fuels” needed for globally-agreed temperature targets to be achieved.

As co-founders (Global Witness) and supporters (Heinrich Böll Foundation) of the Publish What You Pay campaign (PWYP), this push to bring climate change into the transparency agenda is music to our ears considering the scale of corruption we have seen in the fossil fuel industry over the past 17 years.

Fossil fuel companies have co-opted the political space at every level to ensure a failure of policy-making on climate change. You only have to look at recent revelations about Exxon’s scientific understanding about the climate, and the company’s subsequent efforts since the 1970’s to cover up what they knew, to see where we are coming from. Exxon was certainly not alone. This is corruption on a truly gargantuan scale.

Fossil fuel companies have co-opted the political space at every level to ensure a failure of policy-making on climate change. 

Just a week after receiving the letter, the international Board of the EITI met in Bern, Switzerland. Discussions at the meeting continued the Secretariat’s effort to water down the EITI standard, an effort resisted by civil society board members, but strongly supported by Azerbaijan and Congo-Brazzaville. Both countries are notable as serial human rights abusers, and Azerbaijan was recently relegated to “candidate status” from “EITI compliant,” because of its abuse of its citizens. The fact that countries that behave in this way can hold such sway in discussions at the board about the standard says much about the governance crisis within EITI, and it was no surprise that this new call to bring in disclosures related to climate change was ignored. Central to the premise of the EITI is the fact that civil society is an equal player at the table, whose task is to hold both companies and governments to account. In a time when civil society is subverted, arrested and otherwise bullied into submission, in many parts of the world, the EITI should step up and listen to the civil society voices on its Board.

Could it be that the EITI has nothing to say when faced with perhaps the greatest existential challenge humanity has ever faced – phasing out fossil fuels and phasing in 100% renewable energies by mid-century? This would not be good enough. Given the consequences, the standard must include disclosure of climate risk, or the EITI risks becoming a facilitator for continuing the fossil fuel era further than any of us can afford.

It would not be alone. Responses to climate change by the extractives industry are flooded with approaches that at best present a façade of action, and at worst lead us to believe we can continue with our fossil fuel addiction. Declaring war on coal by moving to (fracked) natural gas, implementing untested, uneconomic and high risk technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS - or even better: Bioenergy CCS); these responses not only provide a good excuse for political inaction on the true challenge (phasing out of fossil fuels) but threaten planetary boundaries and human rights. We cannot let ourselves be fooled by every new lobby institution that the industry comes up with (like the recent Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, or the Energy Transitions Commission), promoting fraudulent or inadequate solutions, or be led to believe that the UNFCCC’s embrace of Corporate Partnerships as a pillar of the Paris Climate deal (through the Lima Paris Action Agenda) means we’re on the right track.

Given the consequences, the standard must include disclosure of climate risk, or the EITI risks becoming a facilitator for continuing the fossil fuel era further than any of us can afford.

But the EITI has a major opportunity to respond to the demands of civil society and distinguish itself. By stepping up climate change related disclosure requirements for fossil fuel companies as part of the EITI standard, the EITI could contribute something concrete and tangible towards ensuring citizens are able to genuinely hold companies and their governments accountable for their climate impacts and decisions.

No industry should be allowed to meddle in the processes meant to regulate it. Just like a meaningful regulation of the tobacco industry was finally possible once the tobacco industry was banned from the WHO’s Tobacco Treaty, the fossil fuel industry (and other industries equally dependent on a climate destructive business model) should be banned from the UN climate negotiations. But just to be clear: It is not purely a question of tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere that will determine a fair and just future for humans on this planet. The real fight is about reclaiming the space for citizens to be able to demand climate justice. Disclosure requirements and increased transparency are vital to this.