Vested interests, emerging interests, and obstacles for the green agenda

This comment by Jos Dings was first published by Business Green.

It’s a question I get asked a lot: so are you having any success in greening transport in Europe? I presume not. There are still an awful lot of cars around, aren’t there?

And yes, it’s true that there is no lack of green challenges, let alone complete green failures, in transport. Transport is expected to be the biggest CO2 emitting sector in Europe in 2030. Aviation is still heavily subsidised and hence exploding. Shipping emissions are growing very fast too. Despite all the hype and bluster, and the odd law here and there, cars, trucks, aircraft and ships have actually not yet become much more fuel efficient in real life. It is typically still much more attractive for a business to give its employees a car to use instead of simply salary. And surprise, surprise, oil companies are reacting to high oil prices by investing in tar sands and deep-sea drilling, not in solar panels or wind parks.

So why are these issues proving so thorny? In our case, almost all of our campaigns revolve around a fairly fundamental change in the way a fairly large industry does its business. As an illustration: the top 20 biggest companies by revenue feature 12 oil or car companies. And that’s just oil and cars; we also deal with the aviation-industrial complex, the shipping business, biofuels, etc. Even the tyre industry, the object of one of our campaigns, is huge with €30 billion of annual revenue in Europe alone. And none of these industries really want change. Of course, we work with the most progressive companies within each of the sectors and those that stand to gain from greener transport such as suppliers of clean tech.

But almost invariably, the naysayers are bigger and in the majority. I have often asked myself why, and many of the answers have been given already in political economy textbooks. Costs are often concentrated on a single (typically vested) industry that will scream blue murder, whereas benefits are too dispersed throughout society to make anyone incredibly excited – except of course some green NGOs and their supporters. Vested interests – those that typically suffer from change – have had the time and money to build their political representation; emerging interests – those that typically benefit from change – have had neither. CEOs of companies are more interested in quarterly profits – which green rules can harm – than in long-term survival prospects and societal licences to operate, which green rules can help.

I am also personally convinced that more emotional issues are at stake; in the end the CEOs of these big companies want to build their business the way they want it, and green rules are one of these annoying obstacles that can make this more difficult.

The bad news is that all of this is not getting better. Corporations keep getting bigger and more globalised, and politics fails to keep pace. Europe’s politics gets weaker and retreats behind national borders, while business lobbies in Brussels get stronger. The failure to do anything meaningful about the environmental impact of aviation is a dramatic example of the consequences of an almost complete lack of international governance. And sometimes governments actively contribute to their own demise: at the time of writing, EU and US trade negotiators are talking in Brussels about ways to enable international corporations to sue US and European governments not just through regular courts, but also in special secret trade arbitration panels. This piece is too short to go into this so-called ‘investor-state dispute settlement’, or ISDS, but google it and be amazed at what’s going on.

The good news is that we are not the only ones to understand that our presence may be smaller, yet no less meaningful than these interests. We can often punch above our weight and manage to contribute to meaningful change, be it new CO2 standards for cars or better ship fuels, tyres, lorries or biofuels.

And while doing so, we keep on annoying some vested interests, delighting many emerging ones, and make Europe and sometimes even the world a better place. There are surely worse ways to spend your working time and earn your salary.

To sum up: our impact leaves a lot to be desired, but per head, or per euro of revenue if you like, we are doing quite nicely indeed. And one day all those cars will be gone for sure.

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