Powerful lobby groups representing fossil fuel companies, big agriculture, banks and other industries threatening the environment are out in full force at the United Nations biodiversity conference in Montreal.
Canada’s National Observer combed through the COP15 participant list to identify which industries are present and could be influencing negotiations for the landmark global biodiversity framework, which aims to stop and reverse biodiversity loss by protecting ecosystems. Given that species collapse is driven by a dangerously overheating planet and the destruction of habitats, the biodiversity framework, paired with the Paris Agreement that is supposed to guide countries in cutting their greenhouse gas emissions, could be the one-two punch needed to protect Earth from catastrophic damage.
At these massive conferences, attended by tens of thousands of people, governments hash out how to tackle existential threats like climate change and biodiversity loss as well as regulate biotechnology. The stakes are high, both for life on Earth and the bottom lines of companies and billionaires, making it a key forum for lobbyists.
Among the registered participants are organizations like the International Council on Mining and Metals, which counts mining giants like Vale, Rio Tinto, Barrick, Teck and Glencore as members. While the world needs critical minerals to decarbonize its energy systems and move away from polluting fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, mining is inherently destructive to the environment. Some of the lobby group’s members, like Glencore, are also among the world’s biggest coal miners.
Ipieca (formerly the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association), which boasts Cenovus, Suncor, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and dozens of other oil and gas majors as members, and CropLife Canada, one of Canada's largest agrochemical lobbies, are also on the roster.
The list includes the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which describes itself as the “premier global, CEO-led community of over 200 of the world’s leading sustainable businesses working collectively to accelerate the system transformations needed for a net-zero, nature-positive and more equitable future.”
However, the council counts highly polluting companies like Equinor, British Petroleum, Shell, DuPont, Bayer and others as members. Tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, whose climate impact often flies under the radar, are also members.
The footprint of tech giants on nature is massive, ranging from polluting supply chains to the mountains of cash kept in banks that allow those institutions to lend more to high carbon-emitting companies.
“For some of the world’s largest companies, including Alphabet, Meta, Microsoft, and Salesforce, their cash and investments are their largest source of emissions,” reads a report published by the Climate Safe Lending Network earlier this year. “In fact, for Alphabet, Meta, and PayPal, the emissions generated by their cash and investments (financed emissions) exceed all their other emissions combined.”
Powerful lobby groups representing fossil fuel companies, big agriculture, banks and other industries driving biodiversity loss are out in full force at #COP15 in Montreal. #cdnpoli #biodiversity #billionaires #nature
The Canadian Bankers Association is also at COP15. Its members include the country’s Big Five banks — RBC, TD, Scotiabank, CIBC and BMO — that have collectively poured more than $900 billion into fossil fuels since the Paris climate agreement was signed in 2015.
Other organizations include the Council of Forest Industries, which represents logging companies like the Teal-Jones Group, which is logging old-growth forests in B.C., and Paper Excellence, a Canadian giant with ties to Asia Pulp & Paper and Sinar Mas Group, a massive conglomerate controlled and owned by the multibillionaire Sino-Indonesian Widjaja family.
“What appears to be happening is that a lot of the money and interest that's in … the climate space is shifting over to biodiversity,” Jim Thomas, a researcher with the ETC Group, told Canada’s National Observer in an interview. The ETC Group is a civil society organization that monitors the impact of emerging technologies and corporate strategies on biodiversity, agriculture and human rights.
A report from Friends of the Earth International, released ahead of COP15, denounced what it called the conference’s “corporate capture.” From the perspective of big business, the report found, it’s valuable to try to influence negotiations because the global biodiversity framework being negotiated in Montreal is aiming to be on the scale of the Paris climate deal.
Fighting billionaire influence has been a major theme at COP15. Climber-activists unfurled an 80-foot banner directly outside the venue Thursday reading “Biodiversity versus Billionaires” and hung suspended in the air while police closed down the street and redirected passersby.
A small group protested from the ground with signs urging “corporate profits out of (Convention on Biological Diversity)” and “don’t surrender the planet to billionaires.”
Prolific billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has long been involved in “very risky and radical technologies, such as gene drives,” said Thomas. Gene drives are a controversial technique that involves making changes to an organism’s genome, which is then passed on to offspring. Possible uses include wiping out mosquito populations to stop the spread of diseases and controlling invasive species, but there are ethical concerns and a risk that humans would be unable to control the spread of the genetic alterations if unleashed in the wild.
Meanwhile, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has long invested in climate projects and more recently turned his attention to nature and conservation issues. In 2020, he awarded $100 million to the World Wildlife Fund for protecting mangroves, forests and other ecosystems and developing seaweed markets. Bezos also created a $10-billion “Earth Fund” that same year to disburse grants to address climate and nature within the decade.
However, his support of nature-based solutions and "all sorts of false techno fixes" is cause for concern, Thomas said. Bezos told a New York audience last year that he sees a future where humans live in space and visit Earth the same way you would a national park.
“These tech billionaires … are very much promoting this idea that we're going to have a fourth industrial revolution in which we're going to be able to apply breakthrough technologies to our problems, rather than addressing the fundamental drivers, which are about inequality, about access to land and resources and about social systems,” said Thomas.
“The economy is the problem, and the people who are supposedly the winners of that broken economy — the billionaires — are not the right people to fix it. They obviously have a vested interest in maintaining that system.”
Thomas has been attending these UN biodiversity conferences for the last 20 years and says this is “something different … this is more glitzy and more like a jamboree than I've ever seen.”