EU Climate policy in service of major corporations

10 September 2015

EU Climate policy in service of major corporations

The European Commission claims constantly that in terms of climate policy, it is in the forefront. Yet in reality the Commission is in the service of major corporations. At the end of the year a new international agreement on the fight against climate change must be concluded. The prospects are gloomy.

By Josje Beukema

Business and politics in the EU are strongly interwoven. Take European Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete, who is responsible for climate and energy policy. As soon as he was nominated, he came under fire on the grounds of conflict of interest, owning as he did shares to the value of €619,000 in two Spanish oil companies, in which his brother-in-law was also at one time a director. After this became known he sold his shares, claimed that in-laws aren’t family, and for the Commission that was it. Yet an investigation by Transparency International has revealed that 94% of the lobbyists given access to Cañete’s office are representatives of corporate business, most of them from heavy industry and oil.

The polluter doesn’t pay

Although the EU promotes itself as taking the lead in the climate debate, this certainly needs qualifying. Take for instance the so-called Emissions Trading System (ETS) that should form the cornerstone of EU climate policy. This plan, devised by the European Commission to encourage firms to adopt a sustainable approach, could have been dreamed up by a multinational. Who, after all, would think of a system of tradeable emission rights for the discharge of greenhouse gases which become cheaper or dearer depending on the market, and from which multinationals which use enormous amounts of energy, such as airlines and haulage contractors, are exempt? The Commission also announced, just before the summer, that almost half of all emission rights would be given away free of charge to energy-intensive corporations. This system is therefore never going to work.

The same European Commission is also working on various trade and investment treaties in which environmental interests are subordinated to those of business. More distribution of goods globally leads in any event to higher greenhouse gas emissions. Another bit of writing on the wall is the fact that in all of these trade agreements a system known as Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) gives corporate investments more weight than it does environmental policy. When the German government, in response to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, decided to abandon atomic energy, the country was slapped with a claim worth billions by the Swedish coal and nuclear power giant Vattenfall. That was possible because there was a bilateral treaty between Germany and Sweden in which this form of dispute settlement was included. Other countries, wanting for example to ban shale gas, can expect similar claims. Despite all the fine words, what can be seen from these treaties is that the interests of big international corporations, rather than those of the environment, come first. This makes it clear once more that the EU is above all a neoliberal project in service of big capital.

Creative destruction

The problem is that environmental policy doesn’t suit how corporations operate. In the free market economies competition is becoming ever fiercer. Economic Affairs Minister Henk Kamp goes so far as to encourage ‘creative destruction’, in order through constant innovation to maintain the struggle for competitiveness and hold our own. Companies have therefore continually to adapt, throw out old products and working methods and dream up new technologies if they’re going to survive. Companies focused on survival have no time for long-term interests. The hardest thing about discussions of the environment is that many effects emerge only after some time, so there’s no stimulus to firms to incorporate longer term goals, such as a good environment, into their policies. Yet it is also in their interest to take climate change into account. Additional costs resulting from damage and loss through extreme weather events will, after all, impact firms too. There are economic models which take social factors and longer term interests into account, but these are little used. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has calculated that the global economy will shrink by from 0.7% to 2.5% if existing climate change policies don’t change.

Arctic oil and Dutch Tornadoes

Others are still more pessimistic. Naomi Klein stated in her latest book, This Changes Everything, that the free market thinking which dominates the public discourse cannot possibly coexist with an effective climate policy, because the market depends on making profit – and more profit. More profit means more production and this a continuing assault on the earth’s natural resources. We can unfortunately not simply switch to a ‘clean’ economy, where all energy is derived from sun and wind. Multinationals are, in any case, not prepared to do so. Shell is on the point of drilling for oil in the Arctic, a further threat to the fragile ecosystem – and for the sole purpose of making more profit for the shareholders. Major state investments and other government measures are essential in the fight against climate change. State intervention goes, however, against the neoliberal thinking that currently rules and which presents the market as the solution to all social problems. That must change.

Are the concerns about the changing climate justified, or aren’t things really that bad? It’s difficult to make precise predictions. In contrast to the scenario of the warming of the earth, there’s that of a new ice age. But this latest prediction is extremely uncertain. We do know that events like the recent heat-wave early in July, where temperatures of over 33°C were recorded in De Bilt, near Utrecht, will become more common in the future. While this sort of heat wave occurred around 1900 only about once every thirty years, the frequency is now once every three years. The rising sea level, a result of the melting of the ice caps, could also in the long term have disastrous consequences for the Netherlands. An inland town like Amersfoort could become, for example, Amersfoort on Sea – it’s not unthinkable if no measures are taken. Might we have to accept that tropical storms, hurricanes and even tornadoes could happen here? Or that almost every summer we’ll see extremely hot days? Meteorologists have long since ceased to see these things as coincidences. There’s a trend and it certainly isn’t a good one.

Globally the results are still more extreme. Take the disappearance of entire glaciers, or the droughts and floods which are growing in both frequency and intensity. Moreover, if we are faced more often with extreme weather conditions, this will be at the expense of our food production systems. Harvests will fail more frequently as a result of drought or flood, and in consequence

food prices will be driven further upward. Humanity is changing the earth’s climate, bringing natural disasters such as superstorm Sandy which hit the US east coast in 2012, killing fifty-three people. Or typhoon Haiyan, which raged over the Philippines in 2013, costing more than 6,300 lives and making many others homeless, while still others were cut off from electricity supplies and had to live for months without any sanitary facilities. We in the west can save ourselves with new bulwarks which will keep the sea at a distance; but that unfortunately does not apply to poor countries such as the Philippines or Bangladesh.

Dubious sponsors for UN Climate Conference

On 30th November of this year the 21st UN Climate Conference takes place, at which a new internationally-binding climate treaty must be concluded. Expectations are lower than they were in Copenhagen six years ago, yet this is nevertheless an important moment in the struggle against climate change. Prospects, however, are gloomy. Every country is being asked, prior to the conference, to present what they can and will do to resist climate change. To date seventeen countries, including the Netherlands (via the EU) have responded. These countries account for 54% of all the world’s greenhouse gases. The Netherlands Planning Bureau for the Environment has calculated that together these proposals would if implemented bring about less than a fifth of the reduction in the world’s greenhouse gases needed to prevent extreme climate change.

SP Euro-MP Anne-Marie Mineur will be amongst the parliamentarians attending the Paris conference on behalf of the European Parliament. She will not have the right to negotiate directly, but will be in a position to put pressure on the negotiators to keep them on their mark. First task in this will be to unmask the influence of big corporations, and the SP won’t accept doublespeak. The Paris conference, however, has a number of extremely dubious sponsors from the private sector, such as the already mentioned energy giant Vattenfall, and Suez Environment, a French multinational and member of a lobbying group for shale gas, en energy source to which many environmental risks and safety concerns are attached.

In addition, the negative consequences of the new trade and investment treaties must be put on the agenda. We must keep a sharp eye on whether on the one hand good-looking agreements are formulated which impose no obligations, however, while on the other these are repeatedly breached by means of an appeal to investor protection.

Our goals

  • In the SP’s view, whatever else is done the following commitments must be made:
  • Greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by at least 50% from 1990 levels by 2030. For 2050 we must strive for a reduction of 85-95%.
  • Establish a target of 100% sustainable energy in the long term.
  • To deal economically with our fossil fuels, countries in Europe must improve their cooperation to deploy sustainably produced energy (eg, solar and wind power) more intelligently.
  • In relation to energy efficiency we could do a great deal more to avoid waste. We must strive for an average 40% saving in Europe, looking at what each member state can achieve. Improved insulation of homes and more economical production of household appliances and vehicles. These initiatives will also be good for people’s bank accounts.
  • In order to move to sustainable energy, state investment is necessary, because to begin with sustainable energy sources will not be profitable and firms will not be willing to gamble on them. Binding commitments must be made in any agreement.
  • Solidarity must be shown with developing countries, which are far less able to cope with the consequences of extreme weather conditions. The investment needed for this must not be paid out of a new, bureaucratic fund, but from development money. In order to provide the resources to do this, the SP would like to see it laid down that 0.8% of national income goes on development cooperation.

The climate conference in Paris will represent an important reference point in the fight against climate change, but the expectation is not that ambitious measures will be taken. After the conference too, then, we must continue to argue in favour of a climate policy which will really protect us.

Josje Beukema is one of the SP’s team of advisers in the European Parliament. 


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