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Anna Martin: Targeting Green in Brussels

Thursday, 21 Feb 2008 | 7:15 AM ET

The European Business Summit takes place each year in Brussels and this year the event is focusing on green issues.

This brings to mind the question of whether businesses will be as keen to tackle environmental change if we see a severe global slowdown. The corollary to that argument is that with oil over $100 a barrel, can businesses afford not to invest. Most of the delegates here would probably tell you they are in the latter camp.

I think 10 years ago it would have been strange to see heavy polluters like steel companies, airlines and car makers here at a green summit. But these days everyone has to talk green, and some have started to act greener. The Dutch airline KLM is here to talk about the importance of more energy-efficient aircraft. For the airline sector, of course, there are no alternatives to fossil fuels. Airlines don't yet have to trade carbon credits but in a couple of years they will, so KLM is keen to argue for a global market rather than the regional secondary market we have now.

One industry that knows a thing or two about carbon is the steel sector. I spoke to the CEO of Finnish steel maker Outokumpu. He's here with the unenviable task of convincing delegates of the need for nuclear power to bridge the gap between fossil fuels and renewables. This is a business audience so perhaps he is among friends there, even if the green lobby is still divided on the topic.

There is some disagreement in the EU about the way to prevent "carbon leakage." That's the fear that companies might move outside the EU to avoid tough environmental restrictions. Mr. Rantanen from Outokumpu has mixed views about the European Commission's idea of a "border agreement scheme" (that's an import tax to you and me). This would tax products from outside the EU that have benefited from more lax environmental rules.

On the fringes of the exhibition center here in Brussels, Friends of the Earth, the green lobby group, is calling this a whitewash, questioning European businesses' commitment to the green agenda. Somebody should have told the organizers here that this is a green conference. All the huge sky-light windows have been covered over to keep out the sunny day, in favor of spot lights! That's no good for our carbon footprint.

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