European Parliament fails planet, panders to profits

Tough regulations on planet-imperilling chemicals rejected

Feature story - 26 October, 2005
The European Union voted today to ignore its own Environment Committee's recommendations to tightly regulate global-warming gases. It was a victory for multinational profits, and a defeat for the children being born today who'll inherit a warmer, more dangerous world.

Greenfreeze: the ozone and climate-friendly solution for home refrigeration. Industry said it wouldn't work, was too costly, and would never find a market. Until we proved them wrong.

The debate in the European Parliament today was ostensibly aboutregulating a class of chemicals, fluorinated greenhouse gases, known asF-gases.  But it was really a battle between the interests of amultimillion dollar industry and the future of our planet.

Members of Parliament at the plenary session in Strasbourg rejected a proposal to replace hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs (a fluorinated gas 1,300 times stronger than carbon dioxide), in household refrigerators, even though the EU market is already dominated by the climate-friendly alternative Greenfreezetechnology.  They rejected other strong measures recommended bytheir own environment committee and instead approved only the weakestprovisions.

F-gas: the cure that's as bad as the disease

F-gases are used in many appliances such as refrigerators, airconditioning, foam blowers and car tyres. They replaced ozone-depletinggases such as chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs), which are being phased outglobally as part of the 1990 Montreal Protocol. F-gases likehydrofluorocarbon (HFCs) are thus often portrayed by theirmanufacturers as 'environmentally friendly'.

However, whilethey were introduced to address the problem of the hole in the Earth'sprotective ozone layer -- discovered in 1985 --they were introducedbefore scientists became worried about dangerous climate change, andwere subsequently discovered to be highly potent greenhouse gases.

In most appliances, natural alternatives to F-gases are either alreadyavailable and widely used, or are in development. For example,Greenpeace and German company DKK Scharfenstein introduced "Greenfreeze" hydrocarbon refrigerators into the European market in the 1990s.

"Greenpeacebegan research on Greenfreeze (hydrocarbon) refrigeration technology toreduce the destruction of the ozone layer. It is now a highlysuccessful example of a green organisation and industry workingtogether..."

==UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking at the launch of the Sustainable Development Commission (October 2000).

Todayfridges made by major European companies such as Siemens and Bosch arenearly all F-gas free. Big food corporations are switching to F-gasfree commercial refrigeration.

But American manufacturerscontinue to expand their use of F-gases, and they're looking for newforeign markets, despite the documented dangers of these chemicals forour planet's climate.

They also hold a sizeable market sharein Europe, and have not been idle in trying to ensure that profits, notthe planet, are primary on the EU agenda.

The counterforce

Enter Mahi Sideridou, one of the secret weapons in the Greenpeacearsenal. You won't have seen pictures of her handcuffed to an anchorchain or hanging a banner from a smokestack. As a Greenpeace climateand energy policy advisor stationed in Brussels, she's more likely tobe decked out in a smart suit than a wetsuit, working the corridors ofthe European Parliament. And if it weren't for her nearly lonepresence, the industry would be the only point of view that EuropeanMinisters would hear.

"I'm totally outnumbered here" she saidin a recent phone interview. "There are dozens of industry lobbyistsyammering on about how these climate-killing chemicals are 'a part ofthe social fabric of Europe' and suggesting that banning them will meandisaster for European industry. When I tell parliamentarians that thehome refrigeration market has already demonstrated that alternativesare available and commercially proven, it's often the first they'veheard that alternatives even exist."

Because she works forGreenpeace, Mahi has found herself excluded from the back-roomdiscussions that industry flacks like to have with parliamentarians inprivate. But despite the smart suit, Mahi is Greenpeace: getting into aclosed door meeting --like getting into the grounds of a nuclear powerplant -- just takes a bit of determination and inventiveness.

"I found out about a closed lunch session that was being held the dayof a debate between Parliamentarians on F-gases. Industry was going totell key parliamentarians why they should water down legislation thatwe thought was weak already. I called the German Liberal partyrepresentative who was hosting it and asked if I could be included togive a balanced view. He replied that there was no room.

I said I was a very small person, but he didn't seem to get the joke.

So I called the UK Liberal representative and asked him if he'd knownabout the meeting, as the issue was technically his area ofresponsibility. He invited me to come along as his guest. This didn'tgo down very well at the door, and they insisted there was only a placefor one. The British MEP graciously excused himself and instructed thatI be given his chair. Had I not been there, nobody would havechallenged the "facts" according to Hill and Knowlton, the industry'sPR company, which turned out to be running the lunch."

Hard work and hard information led the EU environment committee topropose extremely aggressive controls on the F-gas industry. Butall that fell victim today to a well-funded industry assault.

Why would a PR company be lobbying the EU?

The most vocal lobby on the F-gas regulation has undoubtedly come fromthe F-gas producers themselves. But they generally do so in disguise.If you, as a parliamentarian, were asked to take a meeting with the'European Partnership for Energy and the Environment' to hear theirviews on F-gas regulation, you'd probably expect to be meeting withenvironmentalists. From Europe.

You'd be wrong on both counts.

It's actually an industry front group, made up largely of American andJapanese multinationals with plants in Europe, who are lobbying againstregulation of F-gases out of cost concerns. And while their websitemakes a flashy show of how their chemicals don't destroy the ozone(which is true) they fail to mention that they're contributing toglobal warming.

It's exactly the kind of economy with thetruth you could expect from a smarmy PR agency. In this case, Hill& Knowlton is painting DuPont and other f-gas manufacturers inearth-friendly shades of green for their wonderful ozone-friendlychemicals.  Ironically, Hill & Knowlton is exactly the samecompany which, in 1975, trotted out reports and scientists claimingthat the Ozone hole was a myth, environmentalists were scare-mongering,and industry shouldn't be required to take costly and unnecessary action to ban CFCs.  They now make flashanimations which pat themselves on the back for not making the ozonehole any bigger than the 8 times larger than Europe that it already is.

Democracy: on sale now at prices any multinational can afford

Under current EU legislation, lobby groups such as the EuropeanPartnership for Energy and the Environment are not required to revealtheir funding sources. Unless MEPs do some digging, or Greenpeace orClimate Action Network tells them, decision-makers might never knowthat the same multinationals which are making money off pollutingchemicals are the ones asking them not to regulate them.

And, as Sideridou points out, that's not the only place where democracy fails.

"Whilethe parliamentary discussions and votes are open and transparent, thediscussions of the environment ministers are closed. So we have todepend on leaks to find out what's happening behind those closed doors."

When the environment committee of the European Parliament recentlyendorsed the tough legislation which went to the full Parliament, theindustry responded with a detailed action plan. It instructs theirlobbyists to "raise safety issues," "call to question the committee'scompetency," "find friends who can put doubt on results...and carry themessage to wider parliament." What are friends for?

Unfortunately,industry's friends succeeded in weakening what would have been a goodstep toward addressing global warming.

"Why does anyone vote against phasing out a harmful, man-madegreenhouse gas if alternatives are commercially available and alreadyon the market? The companies that produce fluorinated gases have arguedthat life as we know it would come to a halt if these chemicals weregradually replaced. This couldn't befurther from the truth. The European Parliament has today failed in itsduty to act inthe interests of the public and the environment," said Sideridou.

But while she found today's vote particularly depressing, she's not quitting.

"I've taken this very, very personally. A year ago I thought aboutgiving up --wondering what the point of banging my head against thewall might be. But the motivation for staying is that if you leave theother side wins. And when you're right, you just can't let the otherside win."

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