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Opinion

Corporate lobbying is rife during this energy crisis. Business leaders need to do more

Corporations are using the misery of our geopolitical situation to advance their own interests amid an energy crisis. Ahead of Earth Day, Beth Thoren, environment director at Patagonia, calls on business leaders to do more.

If you have been paying attention to news stories on solutions to our energy crisis and the effects of the war in Ukraine, you may have spotted a recurring theme: manoeuvring by corporate lobbyists. 

Recently, it was announced that a landmark bill to restore nature was being delayed by the European Commission. Rumblings suggest that this nature package, which could have increased food security through more productive soils, cleaned up our water and provided flood protection, was being kicked down the road due to lobbying from the industrial food industry, using the excuse of the Ukrainian grain crisis.

Elsewhere, we hear the forest lobby advocating that we chop down forests to reduce our dependence on Ukrainian gas – forests that individuals and corporates are busy planting elsewhere to protect us from climate change. 

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And finally, there’s a solution being discussed in nearly every government across Europe to the very urgent energy crisis looming over us: long-term investment in fossil fuels – which will take decades to implement and decades to pay back.  

Let’s get honest about this. What we are witnessing is the effect of powerful actors, using the misery and uncertainty of our current geopolitical situation to advance their own interests. 

Our fears around lack of food are deeply fundamental to our collective psyche. And energy poverty – leading to desperate advice such as ‘Heat the human, not the home’ – is already firmly on the news agenda this spring and set to get much worse come autumn. However, the solutions with which we are presented are ineffectual and backward-looking. We are being offered answers that make little sense in the short term, and which also fail to tackle the triple threats of climate change, nature loss and social inequality that loom behind this immediate crisis. 

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So as responsible business leaders, do we stand by and watch this happen? It’s bad but it’s not our problem, right?  

The reality is that these problems can’t be solved without us. Because one thing we do know is that governments listen to business. Society has been polarised and misinformed, through the weaponisation of social media. Governments are under enormous pressure from lobbying groups.  If we want our elected leaders to invest in forward-looking innovation, if we want consistent regulation, if we want genuine energy resilience, stable supply chains and a stable society, then we need to engage, now. 

Of the trillions invested in the response to Covid, only two to six per cent went into the clean energy transition – the rest went to ‘business as usual’. In the war on Ukraine, we now face another pivot point. And it is up to us to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again. If we focus on agriculture and energy, two of the fundamentals we need to fix if we are to turn threat into opportunity, there are solutions readily available. 

In the realm of agriculture, currently, over 60 per cent of European cropland is used for animal feed and only 23 percent of cereals grown here are eaten by humans. If we were serious about tackling food security, we would protect our grain, not feed it to livestock.  We would move agriculture away from unhealthy and fossil-fuel based inputs and focus on the reduction of waste, plus minimizing the consumption of animal products and the use of land for bioenergy. We would target our money to those who really need it – those in food and energy poverty – rather than the mega farming companies. 

And when trying to solve the energy crisis, it’s one thing to take a pragmatic approach to using existing reserves – oil and gas wells, for example – to get us through the next 12 months. But it will take up to 20 years for us to see a return on proposed investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure, or in the rapid expansion of nuclear, that the UK government has put at the heart of its new Energy Security Strategy.  

Instead, the real solution is investment in energy efficiency and in a clean (wind and solar), decentralised energy system. Efficiency is central to the plan because many energy-efficient products and services are cost-effective and existing programmes can be ramped up straight away. These measures for homes alone could cut Russian gas imports by 80 per cent and, combined with a renewables drive, the UK could eliminate Russian gas from its supply completely this year.

These actions would create three times more jobs than investment in fossil fuels. They position our economies for the future. And they reduce the numbers of people suffering from asthma and lung problems

A recent Carbon Brief report on ways to cut the UK’s need for gas shows that the impact of boosting supply through fracking is dwarfed by that of cutting demand. These are achievable measures such as turning the thermostat down by one degree, reducing boiler flow rates or insulating homes. And they are measures that, unlike fracking, have wide-scale public support too.

But we must act now. The question for employees and business leaders is “What can you do?” 

The first step is to get your own house in order. Know what your company and your trade associations are doing so that what you say isn’t completely undermined. Next, decide what issues you want to take a position on and be ready to use your voice, for example, through the ‘We Mean Business’ Coalition or any of its partners.

And then finally, when the opportunities arise to act together in the coming months, join the movement.  In his inaugural address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy counselled his government officials to put pictures of their children on the walls and desks of their offices, and to make all their major decisions looking at those pictures. It’s time for us to do the same.

Beth Thoren is the EMEA environmental action and initiatives director at Patagonia  

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