Opinion: Siemens chooses profits over environment

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Australia is burning, but Siemens has decided not to renounce plans to help build a controversial mine in the country. Climate activists are up in arms. Rightly so, says Malte Rohwer-Kahlmann.

Siemens has made its decision. It will provide infrastructure for the huge Carmichael coal mine in the Australian state of Queensland. It has thus chosen against being included on the Adani list, which already features 60 companies, including Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, that have explicitly decided to not have anything to do with the project.

The controversial project will contribute to more global warming. The plan is for up to 60 million tons of coal to be produced per year. This comes at a time when many acknowledge that the planet has to end its reliance on fossil fuels as soon as possible.

Prioritizing profits

So Siemens has decided to put profits ahead of the environment. The contract may be worth €18 million ($20 million) but with an annual turnover of almost €90 billion, the massive conglomerate could surely have gone without it. Yes, it signed the contract last year and if it went back on its obligations now, potential clients might see that as a sign of unreliability and take their business elsewhere. On the other hand, Siemens would have garnered a huge amount of brownie points if it had sent out a clear signal that it was putting the environment ahead of profits.

Instead of having to deal with a potential loss of contracts, Siemens now faces the wrath of climate activists. The German face of the Fridays for Future movement, Luisa Neubauer, who had met with Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser to talk about the project, said the decision was “irresponsible.” She is quite right.

Siemens’ decision is all the more disappointing considering it was made by Kaeser, a comparatively progressive CEO who has portrayed the company and himself as climate pioneers. But activists know full well that words are very different from deeds.

More forceful policies

This is particularly clear when one considers the goals of the 2015 Paris agreement to combat climate change, which was hailed as the start of a new era. Despite various efforts, humanity is now pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere than ever before.

One reason is that governments do not do enough to keep companies in line, for fear that national economies will suffer. They do not give them sufficient incentive to introduce effective measures that are more than simply image-related. The pursuit of profits takes precedence over protecting the environment.

One could argue that this is how the economy works, but I don’t think it has to be that way — and climate activists don’t either. They’re doing what governments should be doing: They are creating mechanisms to hold companies that contribute to global warming to account.

In light of the PR debacle that Siemens is now experiencing, I would be surprised if the environment does not play a greater role in future decisions.

DW

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