Government defends praising tar sands industry figures as COP26 ‘climate champions’

Five of the individuals praised at COP26 event hold senior roles at fossil fuel companies and investors, including the Royal Bank of Canada and Suncor.

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Image Credit: Kris Krug

The UK government has defended its decision to celebrate representatives of companies involved in Canada’s controversial tar sands industry as “Climate Champions”, ahead of the COP26 UN climate summit it is set to host later this year.

A UK-Canada event last week praised 26 “exceptional individuals actively working to move Canada to net-zero emissions”, five of whom work for companies and investors involved in the fossil fuel industry, including the Canadian oil sands. 

The online event on 4 May, which included a keynote speech from Canada’s Infrastructure and Communities Minister, was organised by the British High Commission in Canada and the Canada Climate Law Initiative (CCLI) to mark six months to the COP26 conference in Glasgow.

Among the individuals celebrated are the Vice President, Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Canada’s biggest fossil fuel financer since the Paris Agreement, and the Chief Sustainability Officer of Suncor, a major player in the Canadian tar sands that was fined $40,000 for an offshore drilling fluid spill in 2018. 

When asked about the decision by DeSmog, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) defended the event and selection of champions. A spokesperson said: “The virtual event was part of the UK’s work to drive forward leadership on climate change, ahead of the COP26 Summit in Glasgow later this year. The climate champions who attended were recognised for their individual efforts towards moving Canada to net-zero carbon emissions.” 

They added that celebrating these individuals did not reflect any opinion about the companies, and that there were currently no plans for the 26 climate champions to be directly involved in COP26. 

DeSmog has asked the FCDO to clarify how the climate champions’ individual actions could be judged separately from those of their respective companies, in which they hold senior roles.

A spokesperson for the CCLI said the individuals had been chosen “for their work and accomplishments, both in the past and present, to lower carbon emissions and contribute to a clean future.”

“The corporate world needs to transition to net-zero and we recognize the individuals who are leading these efforts,” they added.

RBC has invested $160 billion in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016, according to a recent study by the Rainforest Action Network, making it Canada’s top fossil fuel financier in that period. Suncoris currently the subject of public hearings into whether Suncor’s oil refinery near Denver, USA, should keep its permit after breaking pollution level limits 15 times between March 27 and April 22.

Also on the list was a representative from Caisse de dépôt et de placement du Québec (CDPQ). CDPQ holds a 12.62 percent stake in Heathrow Airport, which is looking to build a third runway. The pension fund was criticised by Greenpeace Canada last year which said that although it “may be getting out of oil”, its investments in gas are “helping this sector survive and unnecessarily delaying the rapid transition underway”. Last year CDPQ bought Transportadora Associada de Gás S.A. (TAG), the largest natural gas transporter in Brazil. 

Hatch, employer of another of the “Climate Champions” listed, provides services to mining and oil and gas companies, including expertise on pipelines, and expanded its oil and gas portfolio in 2019 by buying Upside Engineering.

Teck Resources Limited, which part owns an oil sands mine in Alberta and ten mines in Canada, USA, Chile and Peru, was also represented on the list of “champions”. Until early 2020, Teck was a member of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), “the voice of Canada’s upstream oil and natural gas industry”, which the climate thinktank InfluenceMap gives an “F-” for its lobbying against climate policy. 

The event also celebrated people from environmental organisations, including the David Suzuki Foundation, clean energy thinktank the Pembina Institute, and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents Canada’s Inuit community. It featured a keynote speech by Catherine McKenna, Canadian Minister of Infrastructure and Communities and former Minister of Environment and Climate Change. 

A spokesperson for Teck Resources Limited said: “Marcia Smith was named as one of 26 Canadian Climate Champions for her work in support of climate action including being past Co-Chair of the B.C. [British Commonwealth] government’s Climate Solutions and Clean Growth Advisory Council. 

“Under her leadership, Teck has set an objective to be carbon neutral by 2050 as part of our overall commitment to taking action on climate change. We have set out a roadmap to achieve carbon neutrality with milestone targets including reducing carbon intensity across our operations by 33% by 2030, and sourcing 100% of our electricity needs in Chile from renewable sources by 2030.” 

A spokesperson for CDPQ said it was making “efforts to generate growth while contributing to a more sustainable world” but declined to comment on the story.

The other companies have been contacted for comment.

Updated 10 May 2021 to include responses from CDPQ and the CCLI.

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