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Coke's COP27 sponsorship doesn't go down well with green groups

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

Conference begins next month in Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh

Cans of Coca-Cola are on display at a grocery market in Uniontown, Pa., on April 24. The soft drink giant's sponsorship of the flagship UN climate conference, known as COP27, sparked an online backlash and highlighted broader concerns about corporate lobbying and influence. (Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press)

This year's United Nations climate summit is brought to you by Coke.

Soft drink giant Coca-Cola Co.'s sponsorship of the flagship UN 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.

Plastic pollution

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 behaviours. 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.

'Slick marketing'

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. UN 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 UN "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.

'Ambitious goals'

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 co-operative action" on plastic waste, and noted that it signed joint statements in 2020 and 2022 urging UN 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 per cent by 2030, and our ambition for net zero carbon emissions by 2050," the company said by email.

Lobbying a bigger problem: experts

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, noting that a Greenpeace member behind him was also blocked. "This group of people — mining companies and politicians — are deciding on carbon emissions."

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