COP27’s Coke sponsorship leaves bad taste with green groups

LONDON — This year’s United Nations climate summit is brought to you by Coke.

Soft drink giant Coca-Cola Co.’s sponsorship of the flagship U.N. climate conference, known as COP27, sparked an online backlash and highlighted broader concerns about corporate lobbying and influence.

The COP27 negotiations aimed at limiting global temperature increases are set to kick off next month in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The Egyptian organizers cited Coca-Cola’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and key focus on climate when they announced the sponsorship deal in September, which triggered immediate outrage on social media.

Activists slammed the company for its outsized role contributing to plastic pollution and pointed to the deal as an example of corporate “greenwash” — exaggerating climate credentials to mask polluting behaviors. An online petition calling for Coke to be removed as a sponsor has garnered more than 228,000 signatures, while hundreds of civil society groups signed an open letter demanding polluting companies be banned from bankrolling or being involved in climate talks.

Coca-Cola said its participation underscores its ambitious plans to cut its emissions and clean up plastic ocean trash.

Critics say corporate involvement goes against the spirit of the meetings, where tens of thousands of delegates from around the world gather to hammer out global agreements on combating climate change to stop the earth from warming to dangerous levels. This year, the focus is on how to implement promises made at previous conferences, according to the Egyptian presidency.

At COP meetings, “the corporate presence is huge, of course, and it’s a slick marketing campaign for them,” said Bobby Banerjee, a management professor at City University of London’s Bayes Business School, who has attended three times since 2011.

Over the years, the meetings have evolved to resemble trade fairs, with big corporations, startups and industry groups setting up stalls and pavilions on the sidelines to lobby and schmooze — underscoring how a growing number of companies want to engage with the event, sensing commercial opportunities as climate change becomes a bigger global priority.

IBM, Microsoft, Boston Consulting Group and Vodafone also have signed up as sponsors or partners but have drawn less flak for their participation than Coca-Cola.

The United Nations Climate Change press office referred media inquiries to the organizers, saying it was a matter between Egypt and the company. The Egyptian presidency didn’t respond to email requests for comment. U.N. Climate Change’s website says it “seeks to engage in mutually beneficial partnerships with non-Party stakeholders.”

Georgia Elliott-Smith, a sustainability consultant and environmental activist who set up the online petition, said she’s calling on the U.N. “to stop accepting corporate sponsorship for these events, which simply isn’t necessary, and stop enabling these major polluters to greenwash their brands, piggybacking on these really critical climate talks.”

Environmental groups slammed the decision to let Coca-Cola be a sponsor, saying it’s one of the world’s biggest plastic producers and top polluters. They say manufacturing plastic with petroleum emits carbon dioxide and many of the single-use bottles are sold in countries with low recycling rates, where they either end up littering oceans or are incinerated, adding more carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

In a statement, Coca-Cola said it shares “the goal of eliminating waste from the ocean” and appreciates “efforts to raise awareness about this challenge.” Packaging accounts for about a third of Coke’s carbon footprint, and the company said it has “ambitious goals,” including helping collect a bottle or can for every one it sells, regardless of maker, by 2030.

Coca-Cola said it will partner with other businesses, civil society organizations and governments “to support cooperative action” on plastic waste and noted that it signed joint statements in 2020 and 2022 urging U.N. member states to adopt a global treaty to tackle the problem “through a holistic, circular economy approach.”

“Our support for COP27 is in line with our science-based target to reduce absolute carbon emissions 25% by 2030, and our ambition for net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” the company said by email.

Experts say sponsorships overshadow a bigger problem behind the scenes: fossil fuel companies lobbying and influencing the talks in backroom negotiations.

“The real deals are handled indoors, you know, in closed rooms,” said Banerjee, the management professor. At the first one he attended — COP17 in Durban, South Africa, in 2011 — he tried to get into a session on carbon emissions in the mining industry, a topic he was researching.

“But guess what? They turned me away, and who walks into the room to discuss, to develop global climate policy? CEOs of Rio Tinto, Shell, BP, followed by the ministers,” Banerjee said, adding that a Greenpeace member behind him was also blocked. “This group of people — mining companies and politicians — are deciding on carbon emissions.”

Elliott-Smith, the environmental activist, attended last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, as a legal observer to the negotiations. While she’s not naive about corporate-political lobbying, she was “really shocked at the amount of corporates attending the conference, (and) of the open participation between CEOs and climate negotiating delegations in these conversations.”

In Glasgow, retailers, tech companies and consumer goods brands were signed up as partners, but fossil fuel companies were reportedly banned by the British organizers. Still, more than 500 lobbyists linked to the industry attended, according to researchers from a group of NGOs who combed through the official accreditation list.

This year, oil and gas companies might feel more welcome because Egypt is expected to spotlight the region and attract a big contingent from Middle Eastern and North African countries, whose economies and government revenue depend on pumping oil and gas.

Egypt historically sided with developing countries resisting pressure to cut emissions further, which say they shouldn’t have to pay the price for rich countries’ historical carbon dioxide emissions.

Ahead of the meeting, U.N. human rights experts and international rights groups criticized the Egyptian government’s human rights track record, accusing authorities of covering up a decade of violations, including a clampdown on dissent, mass incarcerations and rollback of personal freedoms, in an attempt to burnish its international image. The country’s foreign minister told The Associated Press earlier this year that there would be space for protests.

Against this backdrop, “it will be that much easier to censor, prohibit or silence attempts by civil society seeking to hold the process accountable to delivering the needed outcomes,” said Rachel Rose Jackson, director of climate research and policy at watchdog group Corporate Accountability. “It will also make the polluter PR and greenwashing surrounding the talks that much more effective.”