BusinessEurope's increasingly blatant lobbying against ambitious action on climate change cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged
"Lord, make me chaste - but not yet." That, in a nutshell, is the hypocritical, counterproductive, and staggeringly short-sighted strategy currently being deployed by one of Europe's largest business groups when it comes to efforts to strengthen the EU's climate strategy. Through flawed arguments and questionable lobbying techniques, BusinessEurope is threatening to undo years of progress that have helped establish the EU as one of the world's leading low carbon economies, while at the same time innocently proclaiming that it accepts the need for something to be done to tackle address climate risks. Any business committed to ambitious action to tackle climate change should be hugely concerned and asking itself whether it is happy to be associated, even indirectly, with dinosaur arguments that only serve to lock the EU into a high carbon future.
As we revealed last month, BusinessEurope, the organisation that represents many of the largest industry groups from across Europe, left several of its most influential members deeply frustrated at the manner in which it lobbied vigorously against modest efforts to try and salvage the EU's emissions trading scheme (ETS). But rather than reflecting on complaints that it was guilty of overstating the degree of business opposition to backloading and parroting the party line of heavy industry while downplaying the views of other sectors, BusinessEurope has clearly decided to now double down on its anti-green rhetoric.
Since playing an integral role in ensuring MEPs voted down the "backloading" proposals that would have offered a temporary fix for the oversupply in the carbon market, BusinessEurope has also voiced its opposition to proposals to require businesses to report on non-financial performance because it will "create red tape and further disadvantage for a large number of European businesses in international markets", and called on the Commission to ensure energy policy is "totally reshaped" post-2020 to ensure it is not "too much driven by climate" and is more focused on "cost-competitiveness and security of supplies".
Each of these interventions bear exactly the same hall marks: they make the same tired old, mealy-mouthed argument that businesses are not against action to climate change, per se, but we must make sure that no one is actually required to do anything in the short term, because that would be an unbearable "burden" on business as usual that may actually require carbon intensive industries to innovate and adapt.
As WWF's Sam Van Den Plas eloquently argued last week, BusinessEurope has, in a few short weeks, argued that Brussels should take not take emergency action to fix the carbon market because wider reforms are needed, while also arguing that wider reforms should ideally wait until 2020, and then arguing that the post-2020 period should see a watering down of ambition to tackle climate change. It amounts to a staggeringly clumsy and transparent drip, drip, drip attempt to water down the bloc's climate strategy.
There remains an important and necessary debate to be had about how to limit the impact of higher energy costs on European industry, avoid the risk of "carbon leakage", and ensure the bloc retains its competitiveness - a debate for which effective policies can and are being developed. But it is increasingly apparent from its public statements that rather than engage in these discussions in a constructive manner BusinessEurope simply wants to undermine a policy agenda that it regards as "too much driven by climate" - as if treating a looming existential threat to European security and competitiveness as a priority is somehow a mistake.
BusinessEurope may shroud its argument for inaction with legitimate questions about competitiveness and acknowledgements that some action on climate change will be required at some undetermined point in the future. But its failure to set out a compelling alternative approach for decarbonising (without deindustrialising) the European economy and its attempts to undermine modest improvements to the carbon market and corporate reporting rules tell their own story - it is the story of corporate dinosaurs, the story of oil majors who admit climate change will cause a major disruption within decades but continue to move forward with plans to drill in the Arctic, the story of businesses who reject any short term investment that leads to long term returns and resilience.
Thankfully, this Neanderthal corporate culture has been on the wane in the UK for several years; countless blue chip firms are fully committed to the transition to a low carbon economy, while the CBI has become one of the most powerful advocates in the UK for a more progressive policy approach to environmental issues. But with the economic slowdown continuing and European business leaders desperately looking for something to blame it looks like this regressive approach to the biggest long term threat faced by businesses today is now being revived in Brussels.
Does any of this matter? Well, it does not matter as much as BusinessEurope likes to think. Most MEPs are increasingly aware that the organisation's agenda is to a large extent the agenda of heavy industry and fossil fuels, rather than the business community as a whole. Meanwhile, groups such as the Friends of the ETS and the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change are becoming more adept at demonstrating that there are plenty of progressive businesses out there that want to see more, not less, action on climate change. But the short-sighted arguments being espoused by BusinessEurope and others are still important, given that they provide right wing MEPs and governments with the cover they need to block green measures and push anti-green policies.
Business leaders at those firms committed to the development of a low carbon economy need to urgently ask themselves if they are happy to allow these arguments to be presented unchallenged, particularly when BusinessEurope has on at least one occasion engaged in the dubious tactic of presenting its position as being the same as that of the wider business community. Do green firms really want corporate dinosaurs armed with economic arguments from the last century to speak for them? Should they publicly distance themselves from such groups and such arguments? Should they do more to present the compelling counter-argument that action to tackle climate change will spur innovation, create jobs, and drive growth, at the same time as addressing a risk that threatens to badly undermine European security?
Jobs and economic growth, as well as climate security, are at stake. As Alastair Harper of green business think tank Green Alliance observes, BusinessEurope's stance threatens to undermine those industries that are providing one of the few growth areas for the European economy, while concealing the fact that volatile fossil fuel prices and our reliance on energy imports are one of the biggest drags on recovery. "The fossil industry is the sick man of Europe and a key cause of the slowdown," he says. "We can't let it get in the way of those low carbon businesses that are driving investment, innovation and leading us to a recovery. When Europe is desperate for growth, this odd trade body of trade bodies is trying to wreck one of the most exciting areas of investment."
More specifically, the CBI needs to ask whether it is genuinely happy with the strategy BusinessEurope is currently deploying. The UK-based employers group is one of BusinessEurope's largest members and retains considerable clout in Brussels. But while the CBI campaigned for the adoption of mandatory carbon reporting rules in the UK for listed firms, BusinessEurope remains hostile to EU-wide CSR reporting rules. While the CBI has repeatedly called on government to show more ambition in tackling climate change (while taking steps to ensure we don't deindustrialise as we decarbonise), BusinessEurope is currently espousing much less nuanced arguments explicitly designed to undermine the kind of market-based climate policies many UK businesses favour.
My understanding is that those members of BusinessEurope who are privately frustrated by its increasingly anti-green rhetoric are reluctant to quit the group, arguing that they can better influence the organisation by retaining membership and putting forward more progressive arguments. It is a reasonable strategy, but they urgently need to exercise this supposed influence or else they will have to take their share of the blame for the blocking of green policies they are actually in favour of.
Business leaders who understand the threat posed by climate change need to tackle head on BusinessEurope's suggestion that we can indefinitely defer ambitious steps to build a greener economy on the spurious grounds that it will help the economy in the short term. If businesses allow themselves to be represented by dinosaurs they only have themselves to blame if they end up facing an increased risk of extinction.
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