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An open letter to the organisers of the London 2012 Olympics

Dear International Olympic Committee, London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and Commission for a Sustainable London 2012,

Given the recent controversy about the Dow contract, and following the resignation of Meredith Alexander from the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, we are pleased to see that the CSL’s Chair has acknowledged that this has ‘raised wider questions about corporate behaviour, past and present, and how ethical issues are effectively factored into decision making,’ and that the Commission is going to address the challenge of considering ‘new approaches that incorporate a broader range of ethical issues into decision making’ in its forthcoming Annual Review, to be published in May.

The IOC’s Code of Ethics states that ‘The Olympic parties recognise the significant contribution that… sponsors… make to the development and prestige of the Olympic Games throughout the world. However, such support must be in a form consistent with the rules of sport and the principles defined in the Olympic Charter and the present Code.’ The present Code of Ethics includes protecting the environment, and the Olympic Charter states: ‘Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles’.

Bearing all this in mind, we feel that neither the CSL, LOCOG nor IOC have lived up to these standards and effectively responded to the challenges posed by the choice of sponsors for London 2012. This is made clear by the scant attention to sponsors other than Dow, and the lack of an ethical sponsorship policy addressing the broader ethical and environmental impacts of a potential sponsor that could prevent such problems in the future. We are heartened that the CSL is now looking into this, but are concerned about the lack of similar action on the part of the IOC and LOCOG.

So as part of the process of addressing these issues, we would like to bring to your attention the question of BP’s sponsorship.

While BP may have won its bid with an impressive list of proposals, the company’s ethics and history seem to have evaded scrutiny. BP has long used its sponsorship of the arts as a method of building a positive reputation amongst the elite and in influential cultural circles, especially in London. This has effectively acted as a buffer to soften the reputational damage it suffered in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and will help divert attention from the imminent court case against the company over its responsibility for the catastrophe, which begins in New Orleans at the end of February.

Sponsorship acts as a smokescreen, obscuring embarrassing political and human rights slip-ups such as its formerly close relationships with the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Gaddafi regime in Libya. BP’s positive reputation also allows its investments in controversial new ‘frontier oil’ projects to go virtually unquestioned by the media, the government and the public. Examples include the recent decision to go into Alberta’s highly carbon-intensive and locally destructive tar sands, despite the calls by local Indigenous communities for no new tar sands extraction projects; and the announcement this month that BP’s Russian partner organisation TNK-BP will accelerate development of five giant oil fields in the pristine and vulnerable Russian Arctic, in a deal said to be worth $12 billion. BP’s business model involves continuing to extract fossil fuels long into the future, playing a central role in ushering in irreversible climate change. In other words, it is one of the least sustainable companies on earth.

In order to distract us from this fact, BP’s multi-faceted sponsorship of London 2012 provides a number of new opportunities for the company to associate itself with the excitement of the Olympics shared by millions. Yet in virtually every element of BP’s involvement in London 2012 there is cause for alarm as to how it got LOCOG’s blessing and slipped past the Commission’s watchful eye.

1. Sustainability Partner
As well as furthering BP’s projection of a trusted, well-loved, ‘British’ company, this aspect of Olympic sponsorship provides a unique opportunity for this environmentally unsustainable company to promulgate its own highly dubious interpretation of sustainability.

As London 2012 Sustainability Partner, BP is promoting biofuels and carbon offsets as the main solutions offered to the public, ignoring what many see as genuinely sustainable solutions: political and social reform, major shifts in energy and transport infrastructure, an end to the myth of infinite economic growth and large-scale reductions in consumption. Arguably, putting a corporation like BP – which recently closed down its solar division because it felt it wasn’t profitable enough – at the helm of the sustainability agenda does not just slow progress towards environmental goals, it reverses it. Environmentalists have long worried that the co-option of the term ‘sustainable development’ has meant that companies can both continue to exploit the environment while appearing green, and also dictate how governments and society will envisage solutions to environmental problems.

2. Oil and Gas Partner
As Official Oil and Gas Partner, BP has the responsibility of providing fuel for more than 5,000 official Olympic vehicles. Yet an ENDS Report analysis discovered that over 99% of the fleet would be using conventional fuel, and that of BP’s three listed ‘advanced’ biofuel projects, two can realistically be considered ‘first generation’ (and thus much less sustainable) rather than ‘advanced’. In any case, extensive research has concluded that ‘advanced’ biofuels could not be produced on a large enough scale to meet the world’s current level of oil consumption – we need to start reducing our liquid fuel dependence.

3. Carbon Offset Partner
As Official Carbon Offset Partner, BP promotes the seductive idea that barely any behavioural change is needed to combat climate change because offsetting effectively eliminates carbon emissions. Yet not only is carbon offsetting considered notoriously unsuccessful as a tactic for reducing carbon emissions, it is known to create many more problems than it solves, by disrupting communities on the sites of these projects. To date, carbon offsetting has allowed companies to rake in substantial profits, while overall emissions remain relatively unchanged, and local communities suffer devastating impacts – both from badly-conceived offset projects and from the fossil fuel extraction that is thereby allowed to continue unabated.

4. Cultural Olympiad
As Premier Partner of the Cultural Olympiad, BP is able not only to strengthen its existing relationships with the Tate, Royal Opera House, British Museum and other London venues, but also host events all around the UK, including at the Aberdeen Art Gallery, Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and Newcastle Theatre Royal. Within the context of Olympic hype, BP is able to maximise its exposure as a supporter of the oft under-funded arts. However, this is taking place against a backdrop of increasing numbers of people from within the arts speaking out against BP’s long-standing involvement in arts sponsorship. This further entrenchment goes against the tide of those in the worlds of arts and the environment who are coming together to prevent cherished cultural institutions being used as a vehicle for greenwashing some of the most destructive and controversial companies on the planet.

Ultimately, to address the twin problems of peak oil and climate change, overall use of liquid fuel must be diminished. This would devastate BP’s business model, not to mention the politically influential oil industry. By allowing BP the opportunity to continue to shape the debate on sustainability, alternative and more effective visions remain largely obscured to the public.

For these reasons it is disconcerting to see that LOCOG, the IOC and even an independent Commission has so far let BP’s sponsorship deal go unchallenged. We request that you reconsider the terms of the partnership with BP, and put in place a more stringent ethical sponsorship policy that is in line with Olympic principles and the Code of Ethics, that will prevent BP and similar companies basking in such undeserved glory in the future.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Antebi, Counter Olympics Network
Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians
Liam Barrington-Bush, People & Planet
Craig Bennett, Director of Policy & Campaigns, Friends of the Earth
Carbon Trade Watch
Sam Chase, Art Not Oil
Julian Cheyne, Games Monitor
Danny Chivers, author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change
Tony Clarke, Director, Polaris Institute
Mark Gee, criminology consultant and writer
Tom B. K. Goldtooth, Executive Director, Indigenous Environmental Network
Hannah Griffiths, Head of Policy and Campaigns, World Development Movement
Siobhan Grimes, Climate Rush
Jenny Jones, London Assembly Member
Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Greenpeace Canada
The Liberate Tate collective
Michael Marx, Beyond Oil Director, Sierra Club US
Winnie Overbeek, World Rainforest Movement
Occupy LSX Energy, Equity & Environment Working Group
Robert Palgrave, Biofuelwatch
Nick Reeves OBE, Executive Director, The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM)
John Sauven, Director, Greenpeace UK
Dr Debra Benita Shaw, Senior Lecturer, Cultural Studies, University of East London
Andrew Simms, author of Eminent Corporations and Fellow of New Economics Foundation
Kevin Smith, Platform
Richard Solly, London Mining Network
Jasmine Thomas, member of Saik’uz First Nation (affiliated with the Yinka Dene Alliance)
Steve Tombs, Professor of Sociology, John Moores University
Dr Julie Uldam, Postdoctoral Researcher, London School of Economics and Political Science
Stewart Wallis, Director, New Economics Foundation
Diane Wilson, shrimper from the Gulf Coast and member of Calhoun County Resource Watch
Jess Worth, co-founder, UK Tar Sands Network
Murray Worthy, War on Want
Kenny Young, founder, Artists Project Earth