The global PR firm that manages external communications for Egypt’s COP27 is under fire from a group of academics for its work for the fossil fuel industry amid concerns over the rise of oil and gas lobbyists at the UN climate summit.
US-based Hill+Knowlton Strategies, owned by the WPP Group, is providing communications services for COP27. She also represents an industry group called the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which includes a dozen of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron.
Scientists who are members of the non-profit advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists have described dual representation as “incompatible” in an open letter.
A former senior scientist at the American Institute of Physics, Delta Merner, who is now embroiled in climate litigation for UCS, said there was a risk information from the COP27 presidency would go “back to the gas lobby”.
“You have access to the presidency of the COP. They’re thinking about how to present these things,” she said.
COP27 is the first UN climate summit where oil and gas companies have been invited to participate in the official program of events, despite a long history of hosting events on the sidelines.
Manuel Pulgar Vidal, the president of COP20 in Lima, said that representatives of the oil and gas industry have the right to participate in an open process, but it is necessary “to be able to resist any perverse influence”.
More than 600 fossil fuel industry representatives had registered to attend the conference, according to data compiled by campaign group Global Witness Show.
BP CEO Bernard Looney and Shell vice president for policy and advocacy Susan Shannon were among them. Bjorn Otto Sverdrup, Chairman of the Executive Committee of OGCI, former CEO of Norwegian energy company Equinor, spoke at the COP27 Decarbonization Day panel event about the industry’s “journey” from commitment to action.
Hill+Knowlton said it “believes in the need for the transition to a low-carbon future and is committed to playing a positive role in that process.”
“Constructive engagement” with companies, including in the energy sector, is “essential for a transformation of this magnitude,” the group said.
Hill+Knowlton declined to comment on whether it would phase out its fossil fuel customers. President and CEO AnnaMaria DeSalva joined the PR consultancy in 2019 after serving as communications director for chemical company DuPont.
During COP27, a movement of advertisers and communications professionals known as Clean Creatives commissioned ads on the professional network LinkedIn targeting Hill+Knowlton employees, urging them to “do [a] Change in your agency” and help it “get clean”.
Also, ahead of COP27, more than 400 scientists signed an open letter organized by Clean Creatives urging Hill+Knowlton to sever ties with its fossil fuel customers.
The public relations industry is the latest professional services sector to come under pressure for its work with fossil fuel groups amid increasing regulatory efforts to combat greenwashing.
A United Nations-commissioned report released at COP27 said those in the business services industry, including law firms, public relations groups and consultancies, should publicly disclose how they are tackling greenwashing and “advocating for positive climate action and not against”.
Research and data groups MSCI, CDP and Morningstar severed ties with her after criticizing the work of another major PR firm, FTI Consulting, for the oil industry. CDP has also stopped working with Edelman, another public relations firm, over similar concerns.
The gas industry played a prominent role at COP27 in promoting the fuel as a cleaner alternative to other fossil fuels.
The Hydrogen Council promotes blue hydrogen, made from gas, as “clean” despite the global warming effects of methane, which is the main ingredient in its production. FTI was previously PR for the Hydrogen Council and the registered office of the group was historically listed as FTI’s Brussels office.
The Hydrogen Council counts the oil companies TotalEnergies, Saudi Aramco and BP among its members. Their chief executive, Daryl Wilson, said the group had “no purity criteria[for membership]. . . It is not for me to judge motivation or intention.”
Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the landmark Paris Agreement to limit global warming, said the increasing presence of the fossil fuel industry at the UN climate summit “can be interpreted as making them afraid of the end of the fossil fuel industry’s dominance”. .
“[We] might take this as a good sign that they are starting to be anxious.”
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