Just two countries mention need to cut fossil fuel production at COP26 ‘greenwashing’ stands

Of the two exceptions, Denmark and South Africa, the first did not mention Denmark’s role as the largest oil producer in the European Union, while South Africa’s stall was sponsored by the country’s top coal companies.

Image Credit: Getty

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND – Only two of the 35 stalls lauding countries’ green credentials at the COP26 UN climate summit mention the need to cut fossil fuel production — the chief cause of the carbon emissions driving climate change. 

The summit’s official “blue zone” includes large corporate-style pavilions run by some of the world’s leading producers of oil, gas, and coal, including the United States, Australia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Arab Emirates, Germany, and Qatar. They highlight the countries’ environmental efforts while failing to mention their massive and ongoing trade in fossil fuels.

Of the two exceptions, Denmark and South Africa, the first did not mention Denmark’s role as the largest oil producer in the European Union, while South Africa’s stall was sponsored by the country’s top coal companies. 

The heads of the United Nations and the International Energy Agency have said no new fossil fuel projects can proceed if the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree C temperature limit is to be met.

When asked by DeSmog, officials running the other 33 stalls — meant to inform people about countries’ climate action — were unable to point to information in the pavilion about the production of fossil fuels. 

A handful of pavilions made passing reference to efforts to cut the use of fossil fuels in pamphlets or video displays. 

Bangladesh’s pavilion pointed to its transition away from diesel-powered water pumps, Egypt lists one of its key climate objectives as “reducing emissions associated with the use of fossil fuels”, and a video in Korea’s pavilion mentions reducing fossil fuel use in energy generation and buildings.

In a few cases, staff referred DeSmog to events they were holding at the summit that they said might cover fossil fuels, or offered to arrange a call or meeting with someone who could provide more information.

Environmental campaigners say the lack of focus on fossil fuel extraction is an example of how the subject has been “taboo” at UN climate talks and accuse the countries of “greenwashing” their polluting activities.

Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said: “Refusing to confront fossil fuels at the premiere climate change conference is beyond climate denial, it’s climate atrocity. 

“The most important climate action all countries can take is to kick their fossil fuel addiction, but tragically few have the courage to confront that reality. We urge all leaders to put people and the planet over the profit of the fossil fuel industry.”

Cathel de Lima Hutchison, a spokesperson for the Glasgow Calls Out Polluters campaign group, said: “Some of the world’s most polluting countries, such as the USA, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, are keen to promote their supposed green credentials, while in reality subsidizing fossil fuels an order of magnitude higher than their renewable investments.”

They added: “These pavilions are here to greenwash national reputations, all the while providing latitude for their fossil fuel partners to continue business as usual, polluting politics and planet, and doing their level worst to sink hopes of keeping temperature rise at 1.5C.”


Saudi Arabia’s two-floor pavilion made no mention of oil, despite the country being the world’s leading exporter. Instead there were panels about both green and blue hydrogen and renewable energy, with branding from state-owned energy company ACWA Power, a major renewables player that is nevertheless also developing numerous new gas-fired power plants.

Staff at the pavilion, which also represents fellow gulf states Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait, were unable to provide any literature or information about Saudi Arabia’s oil industry when asked.

Australia’s pavilion highlighted its support for solar power and had a video about carbon capture and storage (CCS) and green hydrogen. A CCS display at the front had branding from Santos, Australia’s second largest oil and gas company. 

There was no information at the pavilion about reducing the size of Australia’s large fossil fuel sector, and staff were not able to provide any when asked. Australia is considering 100 new fossil fuel developments, according to a new report this week. 

The UK Presidency’s two-floor pavilion was decorated with plants and a globe, and carried the slogan “a brighter future”. It made no mention of the continued expansion of North Sea oil and gas or the City of London’s financing of fossil fuels around the world, which was the subject of Extinction Rebellion protests over the summer. 

The pavilion had a video on TV screens about COP26 sponsor NatWest, which has financed £9.8 billion in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement, according to the BankTrack campaign group. This includes £1.5 billion in 2020 alone, £66 million of which was coal mining. 

While the UK has been playing a leading role in the drive away from coal-fired energy generation, the only apparent mention of fossil fuels was a video describing efforts to transition away from kerosene for heating in developing countries. The country’s events program does not contain the words “fossil fuel”—or coal, oil and gas. 

Romain Ioualalen, global policy campaign manager for Oil Change International, an environmental NGO, said: “This is not surprising. Fossil fuel production has been a taboo in international climate negotiations, and the Paris Agreement does not even mention fossil fuels. There is, however, clear scientific evidence that the expansion of fossil fuel production needs to end now if we are to limit warming to 1.5°C. 

“It is striking how many so-called climate leaders have ambitious net zero targets but have no plans to phase out their production of coal, oil, and gas.”

He added that “for the first time in Glasgow we’re seeing the emergence of initiatives that focus on tackling the source of the problem”, citing an announcement on Wednesday by the UK and 20 other countries to end public finance for overseas fossil fuel projects. 

Partial exceptions

Denmark and South Africa were the only exceptions, with pavilions acknowledging the role of fossil fuel production in their economies. However, even these two stalls failed to lay out the full extent of their industries, and one of them was paid for by coal companies.  

Denmark’s pavilion notes that “Denmark has not always been the green front-runner it is today”, adding: “Like many, Denmark was also once entirely dependent on imported oil and other fossil fuels.” 

The display highlights Denmark’s pledge not to develop any new fossil fuel projects — and end oil and gas extraction entirely by 2050, with the Scandinavian nation expected to launch an alliance of countries committed to this goal later in the summit, alongside Costa Rica.

An interactive screen also highlights the five largest fossil fuel-consuming nations per capita: the U.S., South Africa, Australia, UK, and Germany.

However, the pavilion does not mention that Denmark is currently the largest oil producer in the European Union, ahead of non-members Norway and the UK. 

‘No place for fossil fuels’

South Africa struck a deal on Tuesday for £6.2 billion of support from wealthy countries to transition away from using coal in its energy mix. Its pavilion at the summit notes that it is Africa’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and that its energy system is based on an “aging fleet of emissions-intensive coal fired power stations that are struggling to meet the electricity demands of our economy”. 

However, the South Africa pavilion is sponsored by coal giants Exxaro, Eskom, and Sasol. The latter two have been found to be responsible for over half of all of the country’s emissions.

The country’s stall is also part-run by the National Business Initiative (NBI), a South African coalition whose members include Exxaro and oil giants Shell and Engen.

A South Africa pavilion spokesperson said: “The pavilion provides space for business, civil society, and government to not only showcase the work that they are doing on climate change but also serve as a space to engage with external partners on the just transition. 

“Peer to peer learning and international collaboration is key in [the] fight against climate change. South African business that also sponsor the pavilion benefit from these exchanges that are crucial in the transition to a low carbon economy.”

Extinction Rebellion activists marched through Glasgow today protesting against greenwashing. Maciej Walczuk, 19, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion Scotland, said in response to the news of the fossil fuel absence in the pavilions: “Corporations have been profiteering from climate crisis suffering for decades and they only lie about changing. 

“There is no place for any fossil fuel corporations in the future. They must be left in the past if we want to save the thousands already suffering from the climate crisis.”

A UK COP26 spokesperson said: “Through our COP26 Presidency, we are working to encourage the innovation and commitment of everyone as we move the global economy to net zero emissions. COP26 will showcase the best available clean technologies for a global energy transition.”

They added that there were a number of pavilion events on decarbonization and the phase-out of fossil fuels, and pointed to the UK Presidency events listings

Their titles suggest that none of the numerous events are primarily concerned with fossil fuels. The words “fossil fuel” and “coal” only appear twice each in the 23-page program, and oil and gas do not appear at all. 

The COP teams for Saudi Arabia and Denmark have been contacted for comment. 


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Adam Barnett is a freelance journalist. He is a former Staff Writer at Left Foot Forward and BBC Local Democracy Reporter. Government Defends Praising Tar Sands Industry Figures as COP26 ‘Climate Champions’ Rich Collett-White is Deputy Editor of DeSmog. He joined the organisation in December 2018 as a UK researcher and reporter, having previously worked in communications for the climate charity Operation Noah.