Why the economic game still outplays the environment
From Paris to Berlin and Brussels: The standardization of conflicts of interest on public decision making.
This article was featured in The Beam #8 — Together for Climate Justice, subscribe to The Beam for more.
An article written by The Beam Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Anne-Sophie Garrigou.
“Many companies fear the deployment of renewables as new competition and are trying to prevent the global energy transition.” — Hans-Josef Fell
“The international community has set a course in Paris. Now remains the most difficult task: to draw the road to achieve this goal and define the vehicles to reach them in the shortest time.” That was French Minister of the Ecological Transition, Nicolas Hulot, speaking at COP23 in Bonn in 2017. At that time, French journalists were already making bets on how long it would take before he would resign. It took nine more months, on live radio, on the morning of August 2018 You could hear the emotion in Hulot’s voice. “I can’t lie to myself any more,” he said, “I don’t want my presence in the government to give the illusion that we’re facing up to such stakes.”
An ecologist to the government
On that morning in August, Hulot voiced his frustration about the “small steps” being taken to deal with climate change. “This subject is always relegated to the bottom of the list of priorities,” he added. In what seemed to be a sincere moment of striking self-awareness, Hulot continued: “Have we started to reduce our CO2 emissions? No. Have we started to reduce our use of pesticides? No. To prevent the erosion of our biodiversity? No.” It seemed almost too dramatic to be true. But what caused an outcry in the government was what he said next: “At some point you have to raise the question, because it is a problem of democracy: Who has the power, who governs?” That was all it took to put the whole issue of lobbies and possible conflict of interest back on the table.
Three of Macron’s predecessors — Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande — had failed to convince Nicolas Hulot to become minister. Hulot has campaigned for environmental protection for decades, he knew about lobbies, their power, and possible conflict of interests. In fact, he’s had to fight against them with his own foundation (known today as “The Foundation for Nature and Mankind”) since 1990. So the only reason I can imagine his acceptance to take part in Macron’s government is that he honestly thought that it was a good time, that he would be able to make a real difference, and that maybe Macron was better than his predecessors. Well, when it comes to the environment, he’s certainly not.
The imbalance of the power
Hans-Josef Fell became a Member of Parliament for the German Green Party in 1998. He is considered the father of the German Renewable Energies Act and was also actively involved in establishing the legislative framework for renewables at the European level. When asked about the main obstacles to the development of renewable energy, he explains that “the businesses based on fossil and nuclear resources still play an important role in the world economy, especially in the energy, building, and transport sector. Therefore, many companies fear the deployment of renewables as new competition and are trying to prevent the global energy transition. Very often they involve media and lobby groups, sometimes they even influence politics and society in the public debate.”
In an article from 2009, (proof that this is not a new question), Le Monde wrote: “Brussels is about to supplant Washington in the hierarchy of places of influence.”
Since the adoption of the European Union Climate and Energy Package 2008 and the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, lobbies around the world have concentrated their efforts on defending the interests of industries, therefore opposing to environmental regulations. Le Monde continues: “In the opinion of many, it remains to organise this ‘Far West’ lobbying in Brussels, to end the ‘anything, anywhere, no matter how’ that denounces Ms. Lepage [Vice-President of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee of the European Parliament]”.
According to recent data from the European Parliament, there were more than 82,000 people from 11,327 organisations lobbying the EU as of July 2017, and it is estimated that two-thirds represent industrial interests. 2.3% of these groups of influence spend more than one million euros per year on these lobbying activities and academics have estimated total lobbying spending in Brussels at three billion euros per year. The financial capabilities of these industry lobbies enable them to effectively lobby at every single step of Europe’s decision-making process: they influence the overall thinking of the most important decision makers on crucial societal issues, including of course, on the environment.
At the time of drafting this story, there was 1,671 representatives of interests registered in the directory of the High Authority for the Transparency of Public Life in France. This ranges from non-governmental organisations such as WWF France to professional organisations such as the Union of Plant Protection Industries, whose clients include companies such as Bayer (who bought Monsanto, who’s responsible for Roundup). When it comes to the environment, there are good and bad lobbies.
“We need to stop looking into neoliberalism as a solution to cope with the ecological catastrophe: Neoliberalism is the cause of our ecological catastrophe.”
Christiane Averbeck is the Executive Director of the Climate Alliance Germany, a network of 110 civil society organisations, including environment groups, development groups, trade unions, and consumer associations. When I asked her about the power of lobbying, she said that even though politicians were usually willing to listen to organisations like hers, the representatives of energy companies or industries in general were much more powerful with their political lobbying. “They have more resources, they have more man or woman power than we have. These are approaches we cannot afford, therefore we have to find other ways to gain the ear of a politician.”
In France, the industrial lobbies seem to win every battle
“Health has little weight when faced with the agricultural and chemical lobbies”, wrote former French Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon on Twitter after the government decided to postpone the prohibition of glyphosate. Yet, glyphosate — which is best known for its use in the Monsanto product Roundup — has been recognised as “probably carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. But glyphosate is also used by two-thirds of French farmers, so it comes as no surprise that France’s Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume has come out in defence of the decision to postpone the glyphosate ban until 2020.
Glyphosate is only one example of the many victories won by the industrial lobbies since Macron became president. At COP23, Nicolas Hulot announced that France would not be able to meet the objective of reducing the share of nuclear power in electricity production to 50% in 2025. This backward movement was so unexpected that the foundation that Hulot himself created decades ago decided to criticise his decision in a “counter-press-conference” only minutes after his. Only days before, the same Hulot described nuclear energy as “an economically and technically useless madness, in which one persists.” Try to make sense of that.
At the other side of the globe, the French government has given Total the authorisation to extend its offshore oil research in French Guiana, despite the law to ban the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons in France. In an article from the Journal of Petroleum Technology, Maria Cortez, from the global energy, chemicals, renewables, metals and mining research and consultancy group Wood Mackenzie said French Guiana “has hit the jackpot”. A few months after the beginning of the exploratory drilling operations, Total abandoned the projects as no hydrocarbon had been found.
In France, among the many rejected proposed laws, one set out to prohibit the use of drones to spread pesticides in agricultural fields, another one intended to create protection zones around housing. There was also a proposed law to make the pesticide industry more transparent and another to create a compensation fund for victims. All rejected by MPs at the request of the French government.
A place at the heart of power
In an article published by Liberation in May 2018 entitled “Ecology: why do lobbies always win in the end?”, Maximes Combes, economist and member of Attac France says that the instruments used by lobbies are well documented. He mentions the transmission of amendments and turn-key arguments to deputies who are not concerned with the quality and sincerity of parliamentary work and the financing of studies presented as “scientific” and aimed at planting the seeds of doubt about the impacts in public debate.
Another instrument used by lobbies is ‘revolving doors’ which allow private executives to return to the higher public administration positions and ensure lobbies have close proximity to key decisions. Less than two months after Nicolas Hulot resigned, Emmanuelle Wargon was appointed by the French president as Secretary of State to the Minister of Ecological and Solidarity Transition. Since 2015, Emmanuelle Wargon was Director of Public Affairs and Communications, at Danone. Translation: lobbyist in charge of the food group. Danone is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Break Free From Plastic revealed that of the 180,000 pieces of plastic waste collected in 42 countries in June and September 2018, those produced by Danone were in fourth place after those from Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestlé. According to a 2016 study from the WWF, Danone is also one of the 25 French companies that deplete the most ecosystems on the planet.
Disrupting the economic game
Hulot said he wanted his resignation to be seen as a wake-up call. “I hope that my act is not an act of resignation but one of mobilisation.” It is a matter of absolute urgency and overwhelming necessity that our governments take regulations today to stop climate change. The inestimable power of lobbies over the decision-making processes of our democracies is no longer acceptable. We can not adjourn to tomorrow what should be done today (but really, it should have been done yesterday).
The main problem here is that Macron — like many other politicians — does not want to disrupt the economic game. They all advocate for a laissez-faire economics, driving the planet to a dead end. We must review the ideological foundations of our capitalist societies that only worsen global warming, destroy biodiversity, weaken ecosystems and worsen inequalities. The whole system has to change and elected leaders from democratic countries need to be at the forefront of ecological and climate warfare. They have to make courageous and visionary decisions, even if this is to disrupt the economic game.
“Nature will not be complacent of our slowness,” said Hulot at COP23. We need to stop looking into neoliberalism as a solution to cope with the ecological catastrophe: neoliberalism is the cause of our ecological catastrophe.