Investors in the energy and environmental space know that, for better or worse, policy matters. Some examples are obvious, like direct government subsidies for renewable power generation. Others are equally recognisable but have a more indirect impact, like landfill tax. And then there is a large number of ‘micro’policies such as industry- and product-specific standards covering things like chemicals used in consumer products, energy efficiency standards in electrical goods and recycled water quality. Whilst these ultimately manifest themselves as legal or regulatory requirements, they are often preceded by consultation, debate and lobbying.
To many people, lobbying brings up an image of vested interests (like ‘Big Oil’) trying to preserve the status quo. But, of course, in the environmental sphere there is a range of actors who lobby on behalf of renewables, clean fuels, low-carbon housing and so on. Certainly they are smaller and more diverse than their counterparts who represent the incumbents in these industries but nonetheless they have an impact. However, is it always the right impact?
Politicians may say that the public audience has a limited appetite for detail and prefers clear, strong messages. Lobbyists may say the same of most politicians. This leads us down the path where every issue is black or white and all interested parties are good or bad. Even though the subjects are complex, the nuances get lost in the heat of argument. So if central government assumes responsibility for approving wind farms, fracking sites or waste-to-energy plants, it is either confronting the nimbyism which is holding back necessary development or it is riding roughshod over the reasonable concerns of local communities. If government devolves these decisions to the regions but allows commercial interests to offer a share in the profits to local communities then that is either a win-win for localism or encouragement of corruption and bribery.
The European biofuels sector provides an excellent example of the often perverse impacts of lobbying. Having, in the face of opposition from the oil industry, promoted a biofuel industry as a way to partially decarbonise transport fuels, the European Commission was subjected to a bombardment of criticism from a range of environmentally-minded parties including prominent NGOs. Their message met all of the effectiveness criteria: food-based biofuels were bad because they caused starvation in the developing world, served to increase carbon emissions not reduce them and were responsible for sweeping deforestation in Asia. There was little-to-no differentiation between various types of biofuels and their respective feedstocks, at least partly because that kind of subtlety would have undermined the simplicity of the message.
On the other side of the debate, the response was equally lacking in nuance. Because industry lobby groups represented producers of all biofuels, they too were unable or unwilling to differentiate between them. So the only possible response was that all biofuels were good because they substituted for carbon-intensive fossil fuels, they reduced dependence on imported oil, they created markets for European farmers and they did not have a material impact on global supply and demand for foodstuffs.
A more considered analysis might have argued that, taking into account all of the relevant criteria, some biofuels were better than others and that policy should favour those products. It might have said that the impact on emissions would depend on where the feedstocks were sourced (and the farming practices in those places) and what kind of energy generation was used in the processing plants. It might have said that Europe had significant excess wheat production capacity that could be used to support bioethanol production. And it might have said that the impact of bioethanol demand on the global grain market was small relative to biodiesel demand on the much smaller oil seeds market (contributing to both price volatility and deforestation).
At the time, the situation was far from clear and there were some legitimate concerns on most sides of the argument. But most of the lobby groups were not interested in highlighting the complexity of the issues; all that mattered was the clarity of the m essage which had to be yes or no, one or zero. The result was years of uncertainty in policy-making during which time the European biofuel industry ground to a halt and little progress was made in reducing the carbon intensity of transport fuels.
We should be able to do better.