‘Climate change won’t be fixed without tackling corporate responsibility’

Ireland must introduce strong corporate accountability law to prevent pollution and exploitation, Trócaire chief executive says

Protesters at the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow carried gravestones with the numbers of COP conferences claiming they had failed to address climate change issues. Picture: Getty

The focus on the fragile state of our planet in 2021 was extraordinary.

With news cycles dominated by yet more deadly floods, heatwaves, and wildfires, we heard stark warnings from the UN that the latest climate science was now a “code red for humanity” and time was clearly running out for serious action to protect our planet.

Throughout the year, there were calls from moral authorities, both young and old, for action. David Attenborough demanded all global leaders to act, while Greta Thunberg urged them not to waste the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow by indulging in more ‘blah blah blah’ as she put it.

But the moment from the year that may linger longest was Mary Robinson fighting back tears at COP26, exhausted and exasperated, as she warned world leaders that “this is on your watch”.

It really feels like we’ve reached a point where there is almost universal acceptance that extreme damage is being done to our planet, and that we need to act fast.

Yet despite this, the outcome of the COP26 summit was deeply disappointing. Despite so much being at stake, the final agreement represented a missed opportunity by the powerful nations who have contributed most to climate change. You can understand why people are angry, emotional, and worried for the future.

One of the glaring omissions at the COP talks was any serious conversation about addressing the role of corporations. A 2017 Carbon Majors Report found that just 100 companies, including the largest oil, coal and gas firms, have been the source of more than 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. The report was produced by CDP, a London-based environmental non-profit, in collaboration with the US-based Climate Accountability Institute, a research and education organisation.

When you consider this finding, it is clear that we cannot address the climate crisis without also addressing the issue of corporate accountability.

In recent years, there has been a global rush for natural resources, and some corporations are trampling on people’s rights and destroying the environment in the process. Mining activities are poisoning rivers. Huge swathes of rainforests are being cut down in the pursuit of land and timber. Our precious natural resources and fragile biodiversity are being devastated by certain corporate activities.

Most of us in Ireland have become deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the products we buy, such as the gadgets and garments might be contributing to climate change and exploitation around the world. Indeed, the Irish public wants to see stronger laws to tackle the issue of unethical and unaccountable corporations. A recent Ipsos/MRBI poll showed that 81 per cent of Irish people support stronger laws on corporate abuse.

For years we have allowed corporations to grow in power and influence, with profits soaring for the few. At the same time communities that Trócaire works with, many living next to great natural wealth, have suffered from exploitation. Corporations have been effectively allowed to police themselves and voluntary measures are simply not working. The fact that the fossil fuel industry had reportedly more representatives at the COP summit that any individual country at the negotiations is a reflection of the outsized power and influence of corporations. This needs to be addressed urgently.

Furthermore, as we transition to decarbonise our economies in the coming decades, we could have more violations of human rights given the growing demand for minerals to build electric vehicles and land for carbon off-setting projects.

Those on the frontlines of the climate crisis, such as land and environmental defenders, are already being attacked. A total of 227 defenders were killed in 2020, according to Global Witness, an international NGO.

Yet the tide may be turning. Countries such as France, Germany and Norway have introduced laws in recent years which require companies to look at their global supply chains and address human rights and environmental damage. The EU is also currently looking at introducing similar legislation.

This year, Ireland would do well to step up and follow suit, by introducing a strong corporate accountability law. Such legislation could prevent pollution and exploitation, and protect some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world. Although we are a small country, given we are a major hub for multinationals, our impact could be far reaching.

If Ireland introduces new rules for business to address damage to our planet, we could stand together with the indigenous communities who are trying to protect their rivers, their land, and their forests from pollution. They are already protecting all of us by defending the natural resources that we all depend upon. It’s time for us to step up and act.

Caoimhe de Barra is chief executive of Trócaire, the overseas development agency.