In November last year, representatives and leaders of most of the world’s governments met in Glasgow to discuss how to respond to the climate crisis, and hopefully make a deal that would save us from the worst effects of climate change. They failed. While the conference did end with an agreement, it was not sufficient to keep global temperature rises below 1.5°C.

COP26 was supported by a wide variety of major multinational corporations, whose involvement, if not directly responsible for the failure of the conference, at least gives an insight into the deeply flawed approach of those in power that did ultimately result in COP26 (and every other climate conference before it) ending so disastrously.

Twenty three corporations are listed as supporting the conference in some capacity, either as Principal Partners, Partners, or Providers. These corporate sponsors provided financial support as well as services in kind. While it’s difficult to know how much each of these corporations paid, we know that their contributions did not go unrewarded.

In exchange, they received a variety of perks in the form of publicity, networking and marketing opportunities. This is most apparent for the eleven Principal Partners, whose logos feature on the COP26 website, appearing at the bottom of almost every page. This is all in addition to the marketing and promotional material they created for themselves.

The Principal Partners were given exhibition space inside the ‘green zone’, the part of the conference that was accessible to the public, as well as the opportunity to hold events as part of the official green zone program.

The business case for being a COP sponsor is clear, and has little to do with effecting genuine, meaningful change. Sponsorship of COP26 was an opportunity for corporations to present themselves as environmentally conscious (softening their image and maybe gaining an edge with environmentally minded consumers), while also allowing them to guide climate and environmental policy in a way that is profitable to them.

Despite their involvement in COP26, and their apparent desire to address the climate crisis, these corporations continue to produce enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. A recent investigation by the Ferret, an independent non-profit media cooperative in Scotland, found that the eleven Principal Partners alone were responsible for 350 million tonnes of C02 emissions in 2020, more than the total produced within the UK that year — although the companies claim that some of these emissions may have been counted more than once.

The sponsors claim to have bold plans for decarbonisation. They also point towards reductions in CO2 emissions they have already made, however these reductions are not always what they seem.

Take the case of Scottish Power. It proudly claims that all the energy it generates comes from wind power, however it achieved this by selling its fossil fuel investments to Drax, which runs the highly polluting biomass power station in Yorkshire, for £702 million in 2018. In effect, not only did Scottish Power fail to reduce the total amount of carbon emissions being produced, but profited from its continuation.

The fact that environmental destruction can be obscured by the sale of fossil fuel assets from one corporation to another proves that the corporate sponsors cannot be viewed in isolation. They are all part of a self-sustaining and self-reinforcing network of capitalism. Even if we were to accept Scottish Power’s claim of only producing renewable energy, we should remember that it is a subsidiary of the Spanish company Iberdrola, which has built four new gas power plants in Mexico since 2019.

Likewise, Microsoft has committed to go “carbon negative” by 2030, meaning that it would pull more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than it emits. This pledge is significantly undermined by the services it provides to the oil and gas industry. In 2019, Microsoft partnered with the oil giant ExxonMobil to provide software to improve the efficiency of its operations in the Permian Basin oil field. It is estimated that Microsoft services could allow ExxonMobil to extract 50,000 more barrels of oil per day by 2025 than it otherwise would have.

DLA Piper, a multinational legal firm and COP26 provider, likes to boast its support for corporate environmental initiatives, decarbonisation and the renewable energy industry. But it also provides direct practical support for the oil, gas and mining industries through legal representation and consultancy. DLA Piper enables oil and gas exploration, extraction and transportation by supporting licensing bids, financing, asset acquisition, arbitration, and dispute resolution within the industry.

Multinational corporations operate in a complex network of capital, tied together by ownership, commerce and consultancy. Even if at first glance a corporation doesn’t seem to be harmful, it still plays its part in keeping the process going.

Given the environmental destruction and carbon emissions these corporations are responsible for, their sponsorship of COP26 and claims of climate action is blatant greenwashing. This is not only dishonest, it has very real and dangerous consequences for climate action. Greenwashing presents false solutions to the crisis and suggests that progress is being made when it actually isn’t, taking momentum away from genuine climate action.

The sponsors prioritisation of optics and publicity over actual climate action is particularly well illustrated by Reckitt (owner of brands such as Dettol) hosting a COP26 event on a new scheme to promote personal hygiene among young people (with no discernible link to the climate crisis), while events actually relating to the climate crisis couldn’t go ahead due to a shortage of venues.

COP26 principle partner Unilever has been repeatedly praised for its commitment to social and environmental sustainability. It is a leader in sustainable practises by most standards, however part of the reason for this apparent success is that Unilever has had a direct hand in defining what sustainability even means. Unilever is the biggest buyer of “sustainable” palm oil, however this palm oil is still farmed in an unsustainable way on land that was once dense rainforest. As well as its carbon emissions, ecosystem destruction and human rights abuses, Unilever also uses 600,000 metric tonnes of plastic annually.

The climate crisis cannot be separated from other struggles for justice. As well as causing massive environmental destruction, the sponsors of COP26 are responsible for suppression of workers rights and other human rights abuses. Trade Unions are the most powerful tool workers have to protect themselves and fight for improvements in the workplace and for their wider community. Unions have a vital part to play in building a just transition.

This is another area where DLA Piper causes direct harm. It acts on behalf of other corporations to counter any union action they might be facing. The company has a team dedicated to monitoring and disrupting international union activity. It provides lobbying, advocacy, media strategy, and legal representation to multinational corporations to stop workers organising together internationally to improve their conditions and challenge corporate power.

In 2018, COP26 partner IKEA was accused of using intimidation tactics to suppress union organising in some of its stores in Ireland, the USA and Portugal. It even went as far as to hire notorious union busting consultancies.

These corporate sponsors are not only acting in a way that damages our environment, they also act to suppress some of the mechanisms that we have built as workers to fight for rights at work, in our communities, and for climate justice.

In light of all this environmental destruction and social repression we must ask: What is it that drives these corporations to act so recklessly in the face of climate collapse? The answer is that the sole motivation is the pursuit of profit and the accumulation of wealth. They will always leave people to die and the world to burn as long as it benefits their bottom line.

One of the most stark examples of this can be seen with GSK, a multinational pharmaceuticals company. It has continually lobbied for the strict enforcement of intellectual property rights of medicines, preventing people in the Global South from producing their own vaccines and other life saving medicine. During the Covid-19 pandemic GSK opposed a scheme by the World Health Organisation to share patent right and trial data for Covid vaccines. GSK would rather allow hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths and the proliferation of a deadly virus than risk a reduction in profits.

GSK claims that patents are necessary to motivate the private sector to invest in the development of medicines in the first place, as they are a means of defending revenue and thus recuperating cost or research and ultimately making a profit. Under our current economic model this may well be true, and that is the problem. Corporations are driven by a pursuit of profit over all other considerations.

A just transition requires a genuine commitment to social and climate justice, not just the aesthetic of justice to optimise marketability. It requires rapid decarbonization, restructuring of our global economy, and for the needs of those on the front line of climate catastrophe to be accommodated. It must be led by those who are already suffering the consequences of climate collapse, and those who will actually be making the change.

It is evident that these corporations do not offer genuine solutions to the crisis, and the solutions they do present are very often platitudes or half measures. They repeatedly make decisions that damage the planet. Corporate sponsorship of COP26 proves that governments are willing to accommodate the interests of these corporations regardless of the cost. As such, we cannot rely on them to legislate our way out of this crisis (if the 25 previous failed COP conferences hadn’t already shown that)

But while COP26 may have been an inevitable failure, beyond the high security perimeter fence of the conference centre there were many successes. While overwhelming numbers of police harassed and intimidated the public in an attempt to suppress protest, activists and organisers gathered to build real change. New relationships were formed between people and movements from all across our planet, skills, ideas and strategies were shared, powerful protests called attention to the corporate greenwashing and neo-colonial oppression, and grassroots activists took direct action to build a better world from the ground up.

We need to make massive changes in every area of life, and we need to use a wide variety of strategies and tactics to fight for and win those changes, including strikes and other forms of industrial action to force changes in our own workplaces and across the whole of society. Take a look at our Empower the Unions campaign to see how workplace action can make a difference and what we need to do to make this tactic more effective. So join a union and get organised!