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8th May 2021

Open letters help frame debate on climate summit

  • Writing an open letter is only successful if the content becomes part of the public debate (Photo: Wim Mulder)

EU leaders have been receiving quite a number of letters this past month as an important climate summit approaches.

Companies, trade associations and NGOs have sent at least a dozen open letters to government leaders about the decisions they are set to make on climate and energy targets during a summit in Brussels on Thursday (23 October).

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Herman Van Rompuy received one sent on Monday (20 October) from the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group, of which Coca-Cola, Philips and Shell are members.

The outgoing president of the European Council was asked "to adopt a linked up approach between Europe’s energy security, decarbonisation and industrial goals".

The prime minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, received a letter from a group of NGOs from his country earlier this month, praising his “leadership” and “political vision” – it also included the polite request to “increase the level of ambition” in the so-called climate and energy framework for 2030.

The European Steel Association, the European coal industry, the European trade union IndustriAll also contributed to filling the politicians' mailboxes.

And there was a “declaration” from a diverse group of companies like Ikea (furniture), Unilever (food, drinks and other consumer goods) and Swarovski (jewels).

The companies call for three binding climate targets of “40-40-40” – a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, a 40 percent share of renewable energy sources and a 40 percent energy efficiency target.

What is the purpose of these open letters?

A lot of lobbying is done behind closed doors, so you have to wonder why a letter is open in the first place, said Pascoe Sabido, researcher and campaigner at the Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO).

“It might sound cynical, but a lot of this is around PR”, Sabido said. Companies want to “frame themselves as part of the good guys”.

At the same time, a commercial would serve that purpose just as well, so it is not only about public image.

“Knowing how difficult it is to get companies to send those letters, to convince the whole echelon to commit to call for specific numbers – it goes well beyond just public show”, said Brook Riley, climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

“I think the fact that we are seeing these letters is a genuine sign of commitment.”

Over the five years since the EU climate targets for 2020 were finalised, Riley has noticed that the “progressive voices” have become much louder.

Just as that there are differences of opinion among EU member states, there are differences of opinion between corporations.

“Each business will be affected differently by these measures”, said Sabido. “There will always be winners and losers. The winners are able to say: let's be more ambitious.”

So the European Photovoltaic Industry Association – the solar panel industry – is one of the signatories of an open letter calling for “an ambitious objective for greenhouse gas emissions reductions”. And the coal industry is calling for a “realistic” target.

Shaping the debate

But the letters are also meant to shape the debate, said Sabido, who said "40-40-40" is still "incredibly inadequate".

“You have your 40-percenters, your 20-percenters, so politicians think: these are the progressive, these are less progressive, we'll go somewhere in in the middle and everybody ends up happy.”

With the debate framed like that, the request in the letter to Luxembourg prime minister Bettel becomes rather extreme.

The author of the letter, who wrote on behalf of several Luxembourg NGOs, among which Greenpeace, called for “at least 55 percent reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, 40 percent energy efficiency and 45 percent renewable energy in 2030”.

The draft conclusions of the meeting include percentages of respectively 40, 30 and 27 percent. It is not likely that the final conclusions will include higher percentages.

“Yes it's a defeat, there's no question about that”, said Riley. “Worse, it's been called ambitious by people who are promoting it.”

Of course, open letters are but a small part of the lobbying machine in Brussels - of which not only the mentioned companies but also the two NGOs are part.

The media effect

But which open letters are effective and which ones aren't? Hard to say, according to Arco Timmermans, professor of public affairs at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

“It is amazing how little systematic empirical research there is on advocacy”, Timmermans said.

What he can say is that open letters need to be picked up by mainstream media to have an actual effect on policy-makers.

“Does it lead to a cascade of attention and generate critical mass? If nothing happens then such a letter is useless.”

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