As Coca-Cola gears up to sponsor COP27, how do their green credentials stack up?

There is no denying that net zero will need everyone to play their part, but the sponsorship of COP27 by Coca-Cola has left some campaigners asking why high emitters are dominating climate change conversations.
October 19, 2022

Corporate sponsorship of the world’s best-known climate change conference

COP27 announced on the 27th of September that Coca-Cola would be sponsoring this year’s iteration set to be held in Sharm-El Sheikh from the 6th to the 18th of November 2022. The preceding 26 climate change Conference of Parties have given governments, private sector players and civil society the opportunity to debate and review their roles in mitigating and reducing the impacts of climate change around the world. Justifying their position as a sponsor of the upcoming climate change conference, Marcel Martin, Chief Corporate Affairs & Sustainability Officer at Coca-Cola HBC (Hellenic Bottling Company), said:

“Coca-Cola HBC has been recognised in numerous global ESG benchmarks as a leader in sustainability. We are proud of the significant progress towards our NetZeroby40 goal that we have achieved to date, having reduced CO2 emissions in our end-to-end supply chain (scopes 1,2 & 3) by 30% since 2010. We recognise that still we have a lot of work to do to reach our goals and our business unit in Egypt will play a critical role in helping to deliver our commitments. COP27 will be an important platform for us to connect with new partners as we seek to accelerate our actions.”[i]

Corporate sponsorship of COPs is not new in this instance; at COP26, Microsoft, Unilever, Sky, SSE, Scottish Power, Sainsbury’s, Reckitt, National Grid, Hitachi, GSK, and NatWest Group were all involved as sponsors. At the time, eyebrows were raised when numbers were crunched, and the uncomfortable conclusion was reached that these 11 companies generated a combined 375m tonnes of carbon. [ii] In the case of most of these companies, commitments have been made to reach net zero by 2050, but even at the time, there was criticism of over-reliance on carbon offsets that some claimed “hugely undermines their credibility as climate change leaders”.[iii]

Source: The Independent

The case of Coca-Cola: commitments and action

In his report on the Net Zero Festival, ZCA’s Chief Knowledge Officer, Simon Graham, described how actions and not words were now at the forefront of discussions on decarbonisation. Perhaps this is part of  why, despite being far from novel, the reaction to a  high-emitting corporate sponsor has been seemingly more vociferous than in the past.

Responding to the sponsorship of COP27 by Coca-Cola, Nyombi Morris, a climate activist from Uganda and a UNOCHA Ambassador, told the BBC: "When polluters dominate climate negotiations, we don't get good results. As an African activist, I am concerned that more of our lakes are going to be filled with plastics again.".[iv]

Amy Slack, head of campaigns & policy at Surfers Against Sewage, told The Independent: “Our brand audit found that Coca-Cola are responsible for a fifth of the packaging waste strewn across the UK’s open spaces, the worst offender by far, so it’s a complete farce that they’ve been allowed to sponsor COP27, which is vital to keep our hopes of 1.5C alive.”[v]

The 2021 break free from plastic brand audit supported SAS’s claims finding that for the 4th year running Coca-Cola was the worst corporate plastic polluter in the world.[vi] The connection between plastics and carbon emissions is well defined; oil put through a process called cracking is what makes plastics and estimations suggest that at current rates, plastic production will account for 20% of all oil use by 2050.[vii]

The Coca-Cola company has committed to reaching net zero by 2040 and reducing their overall emissions by 20% (from 2015 levels) by 2030.[viii] Their targets have been approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI), and the corporation has identified that a key area for change is their supply chain (accounting for more than 90% of total emissions). As such, in 2020, Coca-Cola Euro Pacific asked each of its suppliers to:

  • Set and validate GHG emission reduction targets with the SBTI by 2023
  • Commit to using 100% renewable electricity across their operations by 2023
  • Share their carbon footprint data with Coca-Cola.[ix]

Yet, despite Coca-Cola Euro Pacific asking its suppliers to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2023, the Coca-Cola Company itself reported that in 2021 only 12% of the electricity used across their system was generated from renewable sources.[x]

It’s not all negative; in September of 2021, Coca-Cola GB partnered with Coca-Cola Euro Pacific to roll out 500ml bottles made from 100% recycled materials. They say that this will prevent the production of 29,000 tonnes of new plastic every year.[xi] Furthermore, a green bond issued by Coca-Cola HBC raised over $500 million that will go towards funding sustainability projects; this is a powerful level of funding that is made possible in part through the brand recognition of Coca-Cola.[xii] Perhaps the distinctive drink’s reputation could be equally useful in drawing attention to COP27.

Whilst the impact of such a recognisable brand using its not inconsiderable pull to affect the net zero practices of others is most likely a useful tool, is it wrong for campaigners and activists to ask that walking the walk be a prerequisite of talking the talk? It is certainly a conundrum; net zero needs money, and that money tends to come from large corporations, but so does much of the carbon that has caused the problem. Such large enterprises as Coca-Cola are much like large ships when it comes to changing direction, it will take more time, but once they’re on the right course, they’re hard to stop. How can the right balance be struck so that neither campaigners nor the aspirations of businesses are ignored?


[i] COP27- Coca-Cola announced as a supporter sponsor to COP27

[ii] The Independent- Cop26: How green are climate summit’s key sponsors?

[iii] Ibid

[iv] BBC- COP27: Activists 'baffled' that Coca-Cola will be sponsor

[v] The independent- ‘Complete farce’: UN accused of allowing Coca-Cola ‘unchallenged platform’ for ‘greenwashing’ at Cop27

[vi] Break free from plastic- The brand audit 2021 report

[vii] CIEL- Fuelling Plastics

[viii] The Coca Cola Company- Science Based Targets

[ix] Coca Cola- How we’re taking action with our suppliers on our net zero journey

[x] The Coca Cola Company- 2021 Business & ESG Report

[xi] Edie- Coca-Cola to use 100% recycled plastics for all on-the-go bottles in the UK

[xii] Circular- Coca-Cola HBC raises $500 million for sustainable projects in first green bond issue

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Oscar Pusey
Research Analyst

Oscar is a recent graduate with a background in earth science. He is currently studying an MSc focussing on disaster responses, emergency planning and community resilience. His postgraduate research project will assess the link between climate crisis risk perception and attitudes to green energy projects. “Adapting to the climate crisis through the pursuit of net zero requires community engagement and understanding. Zero Carbon Academy’s goals closely align with this approach and I’m excited to have the opportunity to research and communicate a variety of topics relating to our environment and sustainability”.

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