Wopke Hoekstra (featured) has spoken of the “transitional” role gas will play in the EU and explicitly said its inclusion in the taxonomy is not something he would change. Photo: @WBHoekstra/Twitter

European Union’s new climate chief inspires no confidence on mitigation and finance

Wopke Hoekstra, a Dutch politician who has worked with oil and gas giant Shell, will lead EU climate diplomacy at COP28. Developing countries can expect a tougher stance on finance and a push for technologies like carbon capture and storage

The European Union (EU) will have a new man at the helm as it prepares for crucial negotiations at COP28 slated to start at the end of the month in Dubai. Questions swirled on who would be leading the EU’s delegation to the UNFCCC following the resignation of Frans Timmermans after a four-year stint as the bloc’s climate chief. The answer came about a month ago, on October 9, when the EU appointed Wopke Hoekstra, a Dutch politician from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), as the new Commissioner for Climate Action.

The appointment was far from non-controversial given Hoekstra’s work history with the oil and gas giant Shell and the global management consultancy McKinsey. There are also concerns among observers from the developing world—a worrying political track record and a penchant for statements that inspire little confidence when it comes to responsibilities on the climate front.

During the hearing before the European Parliament regarding his appointment as Climate Commissioner, Hoekstra emphasised carbon pricing and aviation taxes as sources of revenue generation to meet climate finance demands and called on “all other large emitters” to contribute to climate finance and to develop their own carbon market instruments. He spoke of the “transitional” role gas will play in the EU and explicitly said its inclusion in the taxonomy is not something he would change. And he deflected from answering questions about the phaseout of fossil fuel subsidies within the continent.

He also said “carbon capture and storage should be prioritised for hard to abate sectors in Europe.” In fact, “intensify efforts on carbon capture, usage and storage” is listed as one of Hoekstra’s official responsibilities as EU’s climate commissioner.

“Hoekstra has offered little beyond the same pro-business agenda from the European Commission on climate so far. More tech promises and carbon pricing that does not scratch the surface of responsibility the EU has to take at COP28,” said Martha Myers, climate justice campaigner, Corporate Europe Observatory.

“The EU’s credibility on questions such as the phase out of fossil fuels was already undermined by the EU taxonomy, which allows gas to be used, by the rush to coal following the Russia-Ukraine conflict and through investments in European countries’ own coal mines and new gas infrastructure,” Faten Aggad, adjunct professor, The Nelson Mandela School and former advisor to the African Union told CarbonCopy. In 2022, coal production and consumption in the EU increased by 5% and 2%, respectively compared to the previous year. The continent also imported more coal to fill the gap left by Russian gas.  

“Selecting a climate chief with the background of Hoekstra only helps confirm to the Global South that, when it comes to fossil fuels, the EU is saying do what I say but don’t do what I do,” Aggad added. 

Potential conflict of interest

During the hearing before the European Parliament, Anja Hazekamp, another Dutch politician from the European Left, said “We [Left parties] believe we should change the system, not the climate. And your track record represents the system… working in an oil company, in McKinsey which is a leader in advising the most environmentally dangerous companies.” McKinsey, with clients like Exxon Mobil and Aramco, is also reportedly pushing for fossil fuel interests at COP28 as an advisor to the UAE presidency.

At around the same time, climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, ran a campaign #NoToHoekstra4Climate seeking signatures for a petition urging against his appointment given risks to “corporate capture of EU politics” arising from conflicts of interest.

“Hoekstra’s fossil fuel ties raise concerns about whether his allegiance lies with private interest or the public good ahead of COP28,” Myers said. As for his decade long work with McKinsey, due to public pressure, he has committed to disclose the list of clients and projects he handled back then.

As minister of finance in the Netherlands, Hoekstra gave 3.4 billion euros in subsidies to KLM airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic, he actively weakened Dutch nitrogen reduction targets and he has pushed for further gas expansion in the Netherlands. His party, the EPP, recently walked out of talks on a nature restoration law for the EU. More broadly, EPP has played a divisive role in polarising climate action in the Netherlands.

Hoekstra also espouses fiscal austerity, which has drawn disdain from southern European countries in the past. This raises the question: if he is unwilling to loosen the purse strings even within the EU, what would make him fulfil climate finance responsibilities to the Global South?

Fadhel Kaboub, associate professor of economics, Denison University, Ohio and senior advisor with Power Shift Africa, said Hoekstra’s appointment was unsurprising. “After all, the EU is a major block of historic polluters and colonial powers that continue to delay climate action and refuse to pay for climate and colonial reparations,” he explained, adding that Hoekstra’s “very conservative finance background” is inconsistent with the climate finance ambitions needed to meet the climate challenge. 

CarbonCopy sent questions regarding all of the above to the EU Commission’s spokesperson in-charge of climate action. Rather than answering the specific questions regarding conflict of interest, climate finance and technologies like carbon capture and storage in the context of Hoekstra’s appointment, they issued a statement broadly reiterating previously stated positions. They said the EU’s climate ambition “remains as high as ever”, their climate finance commitment is “the largest” towards the $100 billion goal and the role of technologies like carbon capture is “targeted at limited sectors while we push for an overall phase down of fossil fuels.”

“The EU needs a genuine and candid introspection about the role it must play in fighting climate change,” Kaboub said, pointing out that the continent is “one of the biggest promoters of green neocolonialism in Africa” with a push for carbon markets and other punitive measures like the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) in the name of climate action. A study published this year quantified the impact of CBAM as costing Africa, home to 33 of the world’s 46 least developed countries, up to $25 billion each year. 

Alignment with broader EU stance

Sven Harmeling, international climate policy coordinator for Climate Action Network, Europe (CAN-Europe) offered a slightly different perspective. “Decisions taken by the Environment Council and the Economic and Financial Affairs Council will inform the EU position at climate negotiations. This is what ministers have agreed on. The Commissioner, of course, has a role to play during COP28 and, in this case, [Hoekstra’s] past work with the fossil fuel industry should be looked into critically.”

Indeed, in some cases, Hoekstra seems to have only reiterated the larger EU stance. For instance, in a COP28 position paper released on October 17 by the Economic and Financial Affairs Council, the EU underlined private finance stating “the private sector will have to undertake the largest share of the required investments.” During his hearing, responding to a question about EU responsibilities to the Global South to deliver climate finance, Hoekstra, too, spoke of “a very substantial chunk of private money” in the overall mix. Although, pays to note, he explicitly referenced loans as well without clarifying whether these would be at concessional rates. 

Laying out the board contours of the EU’s stance for COP28, a developing country negotiator, who did not want to be named, said their focus is on expanding the contributor base and defining a new finance regime for the 21st century based on common and shared responsibility rather than differentiated responsibility.

In fact, the EU position paper “encourages a discussion aiming to broaden the contributor base” for climate finance mobilisations as part of the New Collective Quantified Goal and “calls on all Parties to the Paris Agreement to contribute to this global effort according to their financial capabilities.” As mentioned earlier in this report, Hoekstra, too, called on “other large emitters” like the UAE and China to contribute towards climate finance. 

The EU also simultaneously appointed another Climate Commissioner, Maroš Šefčovič from Slovakia who will lead work on the European Green Deal. During his hearing before the European parliament, he said, “ the European Green Deal is our growth agenda, proving to the world that modernisation and decarbonisation can go hand in hand… we need to have a Green Deal, with European capacity in key sectors like critical raw materials, batteries, and wind turbines.” But much like Hoekstra, Maroš, too, is a strong proponent of natural gas in the EU’s energy mix.

The separation of the climate portfolio between two commissioners, one internally-facing focusing on the EU Green Deal (Maroš Šefčovič) and one focusing on the EU’s external agenda on climate (Hoekstra) is interesting, Aggad said. “The choice of Hoekstra, a frugal former finance minister, may signal that the EU wants to adopt a hard tone on climate finance and separate that from its internal discussion on its own climate commitments, at least institutionally.”

Overall, developing countries could expect tough negotiations on climate finance at COP28 and the EU’s backing for measures like carbon markets, carbon pricing and as-yet-unsuccessful technologies like carbon capture and storage. And while some of this might not be very new—Timmermans, too, had called on China to pay into the loss and damage fund and emphasised carbon pricing and carbon markets—the ways in which Hoekstra’s conservative background with the EPP and his corporate background could influence global climate negotiations deserves close scrutiny.

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