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How the fossil fuel lobby is hijacking the European Green Deal

In it's first 100 days, how many times did top officials in charge of the EU's Green Deal meet with lobbyists?

Belén Balanyá
8 July 2020
Artur Widak/NurPhoto/PA Images

Today the European Commission is presenting its Hydrogen strategy. It aims to contribute to the European Green Deal (EGD), and “to help the EU recover from COVID-19’s economic impact”.

But while officially prioritising green hydrogen (made of renewable energy), the Hydrogen strategy keeps the door firmly open to hydrogen made with fossil fuels. Meanwhile scientists tell us that the climate emergency requires us to leave fossil fuels in the ground, and that includes gas, which is as bad as any other fossil fuel. We simply do not have time for more dangerous distractions.

So why is the Hydrogen Strategy, and more worryingly, the European Green Deal – the EU's major new plan that seeks to make its economy 'climate-neutral' – courting fossil gas?

A Corporate Europe Observatory report published yesterday explores the dirty fingerprints of the fossil fuel lobby over the EGD, the number one lobby topic in Brussels.

In the first 100 days after its launch, top Commission officials in charge of the EGD met 29 times with representatives of the public interest and 151 times with business lobbyists, around 11 meetings a week. However, the number is likely to be even higher given that limited transparency rules only cover the top one per cent of officials, so we do not know how many lobby meetings below this level have taken place, nor what is being discussed.

The most targeted decision-makers are Commissioner Frans Timmermans and his cabinet members, and they also score badly on transparency. They only took notes for 3 meetings out of 56 meetings on the EGD with industry. Shell, Eurogas, Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE), the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic), Eni, and Gas Infrastructure Europe are among the fossil fuel lobbyists who met with the Commissioner or members of his Cabinet, with no records filed.

Privileged access is only one part of a multi-prong strategy. Big polluters have spent literally hundreds of millions on lobbying the EU. This money pays for a wide variety of tactics, from hiring experienced lobby firms, to organising a myriad of events, to exploiting the revolving door between public office and the private sector. Unfortunately, the grip of big polluters on decision-making has resulted in decades lost to really tackling the climate crisis, with far too many examples of wrong-headed, or watered down, climate and energy policies.

As for the European Green Deal, although the Commission and particularly Frans Timmermans gives a truly great speech, their action so far on climate and the environment has given us fifty shades of grey, and not enough green to make a difference. The Green Deal crucially does not phase out fossil fuels; on the contrary, it gives a prominent role to carbon trading which will continue to allow big polluters to slow the transition; its emissions reductions targets are too modest and too slow, and it wastes public money to finance industry's ‘false solutions’.

One of the key elements of the EGD is the Climate Law, proposed on 4 March 2020 and designed to set a legally binding target for the EU to reach 'net-zero' emissions by 2050, and intermediate targets for 2030. The current target for 2030 (decided in 2014) is a 40 per cent reduction compared to 1990 levels, and it was clear even at the time it was set that this is a ridiculously low target. Climate NGOs demand a EU target of 65 per cent emissions reductions cuts by 2030 to limit global heating to 1.5°C, based on what science and equity requires.

What the Commission has proposed now is to “explore options for a new 2030 target of 50 to 55 per cent emission reductions compared to 1990”. And IF they decide that it is necessary to amend the current target of a 40 per cent reduction, they will make a proposal to the European Parliament and the Council. Over 30 youth strikers, including Greta Thunberg, reacted to the proposed Climate Law calling it a “surrender”. “We don’t just need goals for just 2030 or 2050. We, above all, need them for 2020 and every following month and year to come.” They explain, “Because distant net-zero emission targets will mean absolutely nothing if we just continue to ignore the carbon dioxide budget – which applies for today, not a faraway future.”

Moreover, rather than learning the lesson from Covid-19 that we need to listen to scientific warnings – whether about novel diseases or climate change – the fossil fuel lobby has also used the current crisis in an opportunistic way. The powerful employers federation BusinessEurope repackaged its demands to delay and further weaken the Climate Law, asking that climate targets not be raised without an impact assessment on long term effects of Covid-19. The fossil fuel lobby has exploited the shock caused by the pandemic and in the name of "recovery" managed to double invest EU funds for hydrogen and CCS (unproven carbon capture and storage technology). This is the perfect example of what author and scholar Naomi Klein calls the "shock doctrine".

In general, the fossil fuel lobby is quite happy with the focus the EU is putting on “net-zero by 2050” and the push for hydrogen. Why? It keeps their business model largely intact and allows huge energy companies to remain in control of a centralised energy system, from which they can keep profiting now and in the decades to come.

As with other false solutions prioritised by the fossil fuel industry in recent decades, the hydrogen option allows fossil fuel companies to keep polluting without much disruption to their business model. These "solutions" do not fundamentally solve climate change and in fact can be a dangerous distraction from real action, locking us into planning for and building infrastructure for a fossil-fuelled future, rather than one fuelled by renewables and decentralised energy. The latter, as some towns are already showing today, can benefit citizens, local communities, and the climate.

But this new energy paradigm is a scary vision for the dirty energy giants who have dominated politics and industry for a century. This is why the privileged access of the fossil fuel lobby is so politically toxic.

But the current health, climate, and economic crises are also a historical opportunity to change the ways we do politics. We know that to avert climate breakdown, the vast majority of the fossil fuel industry's gas, oil, and coal reserves need to stay in the ground. We also know that fossil fuel lobbyists have relentlessly tried for decades, and continue to, sabotage climate action. Why are we allowing them to shape the "solutions" to the climate emergency when their interest is to keep burning fossil fuels?

We need to install a firewall that protects the EGD, and all climate and energy decision-making from the fossil fuel lobbyists. This means no more meetings, conflicts of interest, partnerships, or collaborations with fossil fuel lobbyists. This means Fossil Free Politics now.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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