Skip to content

Newsletter 14th December 2007

- EU funding of lobby groups - Offshore wind farms - Passing the baton to Beddington

EU funding of lobby groups

A recent BBC radio 4 programme (The Investigation, 6th December) looked into the funding of environmental lobby groups by the European Commission, and reported that a total of 40 organisations received over €7.7 million from DG Environment in 2006. Nearly half of this went to the Green 10, a network of groups which actively lobbies the Commission, Parliament and Council and includes WWF and Friends of the Earth Europe. As has previously been reported, FoE Europe receives about half its total income from the Commission. Other members of the Green 10 include BirdLife International, the Climate Action Network Europe, CEE Bankwatch Network (which is critical of organisations which fund developments they consider environmentally unfriendly) and Greenpeace Europe.

Of this group, only Greenpeace is known to have refused funding from the Commission. Other NGOs, however, did take the money, and used it to fund…lobbying of the EU institutions. This somewhat bizarre situation is justified as an attempt to allow environmental groups to compete with corporate lobbyists. A Commission spokesman is quoted as saying "Industries and companies involved are much richer and they will be here and the NGOs have to be on an equal footing".

This still seems a somewhat strange attitude. It is surely not up to the Commission to decide how lobbying can be made "fair". Experience also suggests that the effectiveness of lobbying groups is not really related to their funding. Companies indeed generally have far larger turnovers than do NGOs, but that money is used to run the business and funding for lobbying activities is often not large. Businesses are also very constrained as to what they can say and do, often having to adhere to industry-wide compromise positions. Many NGOs, on the other hand, are campaigning organisations which spend the bulk of their resources on communications activities (including lobbying) and present far stronger messages very effectively.

Judging by the direction of EU regulation, which is becoming increasingly precautionary, industrial lobbying is far less effective than that of the Commission-funded environmentalists. In the case of the recently-introduced REACH package, the governments of France, Germany and the UK worked in unison (something which doesn't happen very often) to put the case for the chemical industry, but even this had a relatively small influence on the final outcome.

NGOs are very quick to attack anyone funded by industry as lacking credibility, on the basis of "he who pays the piper, calls the tune". However, with the notable and commendable exception of Greenpeace, they appear quite comfortable with an almost incestuous relationship with the organisation they are lobbying. Either DG Environment is providing the money to receive messages the Commission really does not want to hear (an unselfish but unlikely case) or it is effectively contracting environmental lobby groups to spread messages it already believes in, in which case the argument for levelling the playing field seems pretty weak.

However comfortable the Commission may be with this situation, not all MEPs are. Chris Heaton-Harris of the UK and Ingeborg Grassle from Germany have raised the issue, apparently to some approval, and it is to be hoped that they will get a proper parliamentary debate on the topic. If pro-industry lobbyists were being funded in this way, FoE would be the first to try to stop it. In the interests of fairness, the current situation cannot be allowed to continue.

Offshore wind farms

John Hutton, UK Energy Secretary, this week announced the government's intention to raise the target for installed off-shore wind generating capacity to 33 GW by 2020. To put this in perspective, the present target is 8 GW, but there is less than 0.5 GW of total wind power capacity currently in place, both off- and on-shore. This ambitious new proposal has been presented as capable of providing power for every home in the country if current energy demand remains stable. Even assuming that demand plateaus, the key part of this statement is "capable of".

In effect, this means that if every turbine was running at rated capacity – that is, the wind was blowing at the optimal speed all round the coastline – there would be sufficient output to meet present domestic demand. The chances of this happening are remote, and average power generation is likely to be only a fraction of that. In the meantime, conventional power stations have to be left running inefficiently on standby to meet base load demand while the contribution from wind turbines constantly varies. And these drawbacks are before gearboxes fail or other faults develop. It is unusual to see all turbines in a wind farm operating, and the costs and complexities of maintaining off-shore ones must be much higher than for land-based generators.

Not only are wind turbines inefficient and unreliable, but they require subsidies (ie, the taxpayer coughs up). Denmark is on course to spend over half a billion pounds in subsidies for its wind power industry this year, but its necessary reliance on conventional backup means this does nothing to help it meet its carbon dioxide emissions reduction targets. It seems clear that wind power can sensibly only be a minor part of the future generation mix. European governments – the UK included – need to grasp the nettle and approve a significant number of new nuclear stations if they are serious about emission reductions in the mid-term.

Passing the baton to Beddington

Sir David King will step down from his role as government chief scientific adviser at the end of the year, to be replaced by Professor John Beddington, an applied population biologist from Imperial College, London. It seems clear from his statements to the Commons Innovation, Universities and Skills committee (the replacement for the old Science and Technology committee) that he will adopt the same stance as his predecessor on many key issues.

In particular, he has come out in favour of GM crops and nuclear power. While not seeing agricultural biotechnology as a panacea, he sees no safety reason to oppose GM crops, and believes each new development should be considered on its merits. On the power issue, he thinks that new build nuclear has to be part of the mix and that we cannot rely purely on renewables to replace fossil fuels. In his words, science "points in one way" for both issues. We would expect no less from the government chief scientist.

He also, unsurprisingly, endorsed Sir David's work on climate change, and said he would now focus on technological solutions. Changing ways we generate and use power certainly seems a more rational approach to the issue than simply setting targets and then trying to get people to change their lifestyles.

Professor Beddington's other main aim is to raise the status of scientific advice within government, so that it would be as inconceivable to make policy without scientific input as it would be not to take legal or economic advice. We wish him well with his ambition.

And finally…

This will be the last newsletter until the New Year. Most of you will have other things on your mind by next Friday. We wish all our readers a happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.