Corporations battle over European emissions targets

Corporations battle over European emissions targets

Reading the business pages, you might think that sustainability darlings like Ikea, Siemens, Novo Nordisk, Unilever and Nokia dominate the EU business community. That is by no means the case -- especially in a time of economic downturn.

Right now, big corporations are nervously fighting among themselves over the EU’s climate and energy policy. The most active business organization, Business Europe, is lobbying heavily against higher ambitions, a move that contradicts the conventional picture of a mostly green European business community.

Business Europe is the umbrella organization of 41 national business organizations in the 27-member states, similar to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in structure and political profile. It has no serious competitors and can, unchallenged, claim to speak on behalf of the entire European business community, including small, medium and big businesses. Which it likes to do. “European industry says that….” is a phrase often used in its press releases.

Business Europe officially supports EU climate and energy strategies, acknowledging the need to “…ensure sustainable access to and use of resources without causing environmental problems that disrupt supply chains, hamper important eco-systems, cause dangerous climate change or negatively affect biodiversity.” Anything less is, of course, an absolute no-go in European circles.

The terms for action, however, are cleverly prohibitive. Action must not “hurt the competitiveness of the European industry” and legislation must be based on “truly global and balanced climate agreement, including the world’s major emitters.” Which -- in real life -- means “no,” “nein,” “non” and “nej” to just about all decisions, considering that global regulations are nowhere in sight.

Business Europe’s lobbying has made it unpopular among some of the leading European businesses, including the green champions, as well as progressive companies in the energy sector.

Last year, a set of the biggest energy companies signed a declaration urging Europe’s leaders to adopt a 25 percent emissions-reduction target by 2020. Signatories included CEOs of Scottish Southern Energy, Eneco, Dong, Statkraft, Sorgenia and Public Power Corporation. Other nonenergy companies supported them, including Danone, Aviva, Unibail and Bodegas. They were later joined by a similar call from real heavyweights -- Acciona, Alstom, Barilla, Cemex, Deutsche Telekom, Enel, Kingfisher, Johnson & Johnson, Nestlé, Philips, Renault-Nissan Alliance, Shell, Skai, Skanska, Tesco, Vodafone, Unilever and UTC, orchestrated by the Cambridge-based Corporate Leaders Group.

Most of these companies are members of Business Europe organizations, which you'd think might give the business organization some pause. As Hein Greven, a spokesman for Enerco, said: "If they're against the ambition to go to 25 percent in 2020, they're not speaking for Enerco."

Frustration -- at least from the progressives -- seems to be mounting, with many European business leaders backstabbing Business Europe in not-for-attribution conversations. One reason is that the organization has been successful so far.

Advances in EU climate and energy polices have been modest for the last five years. The so-called 20-20-20-targets – which commit the EU to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent from 1990 levels, cutting primary energy use by 20 percent and growing the share of energy from renewable sources to 20 percent, all by 2020 – were adopted back in 2007.

Since then, the EU commission has had a hard time enforcing decisions on burden sharing and binding action by member states. Connie Hedegaard, the EU commissioner for climate action, has been trying to raise the bar since she took office in early 2010, calling, for example, for a 30% reduction target and designing a “Roadmap2050” toward a low-carbon EU.

Opposition from reluctant member states, primarily in the eastern part of the union, has played a role in stymieing stricter rules. So has aggressive lobbying by Business Europe and (some of) its members. Business Europe has strong ties to some of Europe’s most powerful industry players, including German industry organization BDI and "old" energy-intensive industry sectors like automakers, cement, steel and paper.

The latest dramatic showdown happened in February, when one country, Poland, with support in the Brussels corridors from Business Europe, vetoed a proposal by the other 26 member states to set interim CO2 reduction targets on the way to an 85% reduction in 2050.

European industry has historically been deeply engaged in the discussion about energy and climate policies, and many business leaders pride themselves on belonging to a region with ambitious policies.

It's only a matter of time before their most influential lobbyist body will face a serious challenge -- from either the outside or within its own ranks.

Photo by Todd Klassy via Shutterstock.