Holding the world’s climate hostage

Business and industry has a strangle-hold on the world’s climate efforts. To avert a humanitarian catastrophe we need ambitous climate policy, but the veto of business stand in the way.

When the European Commission earlier this year was about to agree on a Roadmap for climate action beyond the year 2020, business and industry set their lobbyists to work. BusinessEurope, who represents among others BP, Shell and Air-France–KLM, were busy trying to dilute the Roadmap language and lower the ambition level. Compared to earlier leaked drafts, the final Roadmap was remarkably watered down to fit the wishes of business.

Connie Hedegaard

For the final text a decision to deal with the huge surplus of emission rights, that companies have acquired under the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, was dropped. The main proposals in the final Roadmap centred on an increased role for nuclear power, carbon trading, fossil fuel power plants and technology to capture and store carbon. No new commitments for reduction of emissions, proposed earlier by Commissioner of Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, made it to the final text.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg that we can see. There is a lot of undocumented contact and privileged access.” says Belen Balanya from Corporate Europe Observatory, an organization that researches and form opinion on the influence of lobbyism.

Lobbyism is far from a new phenomena. Its essence – attempting to influence policy according to one’s own intersts – can be seen as neither good or evil. Lobbyism is practiced almost everywhere, and by everyone from business to NGOs. Bas Eickhout, a member of Parliament in The Greens/European Free Alliance, acknowledges that you can’t forbid lobbyists, but believes that their impact on policy is very important. “Unfortunately it is still mainly the big, energy-intensive companies that are the most influential. This is not helping to get towards a more amibitious climate policy” he says.

No one knows how many lobbyists are working in Brussels. Most estimates range between 15.000 and 20.000, but there are also higher estimates. Whereas lobbyists in the US has to register themselves, Brussels’ lobbyists can choose not to. And the traditional form of lobbying is far from the only means of corporate influence. The privileged access of expert groups, often dominated by business, to the Commission is just one example. Another is the way in which business and industry manage to lobby through the directorates-general (DG) of the Commission, mainly Enterprise and Energy, to influence the DG for Climate Action.

During the last few days before the final publication of the Roadmap, Commissioner Hedegaard met several times with BusinessEurope. When asked about the influence of lobbyists, the DG for Climate Action refuses to comment.
 “Eventual discussions between our policy officers and negotiators and lobbyists may of course happen, and certainly do in Brussels, but they are not part of the official communication that I provide.” says Stephanie Rhomberg, press officer for Climate Action.

Bas Eickhout

Since the EU has positioned itself as one of the more ambitious players in climate negotiations, the influence of lobbyists in Brussels have a direct global effect. “If a leading player like the EU lowers its ambition, that will of course impact the position of other countries” Bas Eickhout says.

Organizations like BusinessEurope often claim they speak on behalf of the business in Europe. Bas Eickhout sees things differently. “The lowest common denominator, the most conservative companies, determine the level in these organizations. BusinessEurope is very influential, but they don’t speak on behalf of those companies that actually want to move forward.” he says.

Bas Eickhout and his colleagues are often calling for more transparent lobbying. Belen Balanya agrees on the need for transparency, but wants to go even further. “Transparency is only a tool to ultimately prevent corporate capturing of policy, which is what is really going on. Corporations will still have a big power advantage even if everything is transparent.” she says.

In South Africa, the 17th UN conference of the parties is underway. Even before the start, expectations were painfully low. A new deal for global emission reductions, to replace the Kyoto Protocol that expires next year, will probably not be reached. Instead, the EU will try to pave the way for such an agreement to be made at next years Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. But as long as business holds veto-power in this policy area, one shouldn’t hope for too much.

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