28th Jan 2023

Europe's captains of industry say they're steering a greener course

  • Businesses want a greater competitiveness focus (Photo: EUobserver)

The great and the good of corporate Europe have been meeting in Brussels over the last two days (21-22 February) for the fifth annual European Business Summit, burnishing their green credentials.

The summit, whose theme this year is "Greening the economy: New energy for business", holds the attention of the European Commission perhaps more than any other stakeholder meeting that takes place in the 27-nation bloc.

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Some eight commissioners and President Jose Manuel Barroso took time to meet and debate with Europe's business leaders at the summit which is organised by Business Europe, the European employers' association.

Referring to the commission's far-reaching climate and energy package unveiled in January, President Barroso acknowledged the grumbles in some business quarters about elements of the package's proposals.

"At the beginning, there may be some doubts," he said. "The challenge is to integrate security of [energy] supply with growth."

"We are moving towards a low-carbon economy, not a low-growth economy."

Ernest-Antoine Seillere, the head of Business Europe, stated his organisation's policy preferences.

He said he was worried that Europe was "moving to things that go away from the key element of our economy into such areas as labour, consumer protection and the environment."

"So we say, can you please focus a bit more on European competitiveness," he said, touching on a sore point for many of the conference attendees.

Dimas takes on Danish climate sceptic

The tension the business community between maintaining competitiveness in the face of strict green goals was highlighted in a discussion between environment commissioner Stavros Dimas and Danish climate sceptic Bjorn Lomborg, who was warmly received by sections of the audience.

The Danish professor disagreed strongly with the commission's climate package – whose main element is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent on 1990 levels by 2020 - saying that the problem of climate change, if it exists, is a problem that needs to be tackled over a 50-100 year time span, not by immediate but very expensive cuts to emissions.

"The EU feels like it must do something over the next five to ten years," he said. "But if we cut deeply right now, it will cost much more than the €60 billion the commission reckons it will."

Instead he called for spending that money on research and development of new technologies that will solve the climate problem in the long term.

"We've focused so much on cutting emissions that we forgot about investing in technological innovation," said Mr Lomborg.

Commissioner Dimas, however, countered that the right technology might not be developed in time.

"No one disagrees with the importance of technology, but the science of this, it is not disputed any more as it was a few years ago."

To wait for technological solutions to come about before policymakers make any change is a dangerous perspective, he said. "What if human ingenuity does not deliver in time?"

'Green-washing' the economy

Environmental groups, however, remain cynical about business's commitment to tackling environmental issues. On Thursday morning, Friends of the Earth Europe held a protest at the gates of the summit, saying many companies are not interested in 'greening the economy', but in 'green-washing the economy'.

Paul de Clerk, the group's corporate campaigner, said that these companies are spending millions of euros to "paint themselves green instead of making real efforts to improve their environmental performance."

Meanwhile, they allege that BMW, one of the major sponsors of the event, produces the least fuel-efficient cars of the 20 top-selling car brands in Europe, and another participant, Fortis bank, owns €98 million in shares in Freeport McMoran, operator of the world's most polluting gold mine.

Valerie Guilmin, a spokesperson for Fortis, told the EUobserver that Friends of the Earth is misinformed. "We're involved in green projects around the world. There is no connection to this gold mine whatsoever."

Philippe Lamberts, a co-spokesperson for the European Greens also attended the summit. He was supportive of the protest, but remarked: "Greenwashing of course happens, but you can't say that all of them have a false green agenda. Some play by the rules, and others cheat.

"We have to support the good guys. Because industry is out to maximise short-term profit, as a whole it only moves when pushed by consumer pressure, government regulation or campaigning.

"Deregulation is just this short-term thinking, and it ends up rewarding the laggards in industry and punishing the innovators," he said. "Voluntary corporate social responsibility actions only gives an advantage to the bad guys. But with regulation, there's a level-playing field."


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