A sponsorship agreement between this year’s UN climate conference, COP27, and Coca-Cola has been regarded with widespread criticism because of the company’s long-lasting history of plastic pollution. Meanwhile, Egypt, where the conference is hosted, said Coca-Cola has a “sustainable business model” and highlighted its climate contributions.
COP27, the largest climate event of the year, is set to be carried out in the Egyptian coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh from 6 to 18 November. It’s the leading forum for governments, businesses and environmental organizations to address the climate crisis — the Paris Agreement was signed at a similar event in 2015. However, since Paris, the impetus has dwindled, especially as Trump showed little interest in the environment, and then the pandemic and the war in Ukraine started.
But this year, with the world eyeing a way to wean of Russian gas and the Biden administration putting the environment at the forefront of its infrastructure efforts, there’s a reasonable expectation that this COP could actually be a success.
But then again, if the Coca-Cola move is any indication, we’re probably just being too optimistic.
Environmental campaigners have described the partnership with Coca-Cola as baffling. Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director, John Hocevar, said the partnership “undermines the very objective of the event it seeks to sponsor.” Coca-Cola has yet to explain how it will meet its climate goals without ending plastic use, Hocevar added.
The agreement with Coca-Cola was signed by the Egyptian government. During the signing ceremony in Cairo, Michael Goltzman, Global Vice President of Public Policy and Sustainability at Coca-Cola, said COP27 gives the company the opportunity to engage with experts, NGOs and governments to support actions towards sustainability.
“We recognize that still we have a lot of work to do to reach our goals,” Marcel Martin, Chief Corporate Affairs & Sustainability Officer at Coca-Cola, said in a statement following the signing of the sponsorship agreement. “COP27 will be an important platform for us to connect with new partners as we seek to accelerate our actions.”
Coca-Cola said earlier this year that it will aim for 25% of its packaging globally to be reusable by 2030, an increase from the current 16%. The company was the world’s worst plastic polluter for the fourth year in a row in 2021, according to the global coalition Break Free From Plastic – which found 20,000 Coca-Cola branded products on beaches. To make matters even more damning, an independent report found “a litany of misleading claims” from Coca-Cola.
There’s another problem. Coca-cola’s plastic is manufactured with fossil fuels, which are the main driver of the climate crisis. Other options exist but they are more expensive or less convenient at the moment. Coke sells more plastic than any other company, which makes them a significant actor in the climate change crisis — which is why it’s so unfortunate that the company was chosen at a sponsor at a climate event.
The road ahead for sponsorship
Last year’s climate summit, COP26, had a wide range of corporate sponsors, including consumer goods multinational Unilever, UK supermarket Sainsbury, tech giant Microsoft and AG Barr, maker of the Irn-Bru soft drink – the exclusive supplier at the convention center. Back then, sponsorship was said to have been about $250 million.
But the decision to have Coca-Cola as a leading sponsor in this year’s climate conference in Egypt has raised the question of why deals like this happen in the first place. Campaigners have started a petition asking to end all corporate sponsorship for climate talks, starting with Coca-Cola. So far over 10,000 have signed the online petition.
Georgia Elliott-Smith, a delegate at COP26 who started the petition, wrote that these conferences are supposed to be gatherings of global leaders engaged in conversations to tackle the climate crisis, instead of a “multi-million dollar jamboree for corporate polluters and their lobbyists.” The UN has to stop receiving corporate sponsorship today, she added.