Green Deal griftsHow the arms industry is hijacking a sustainable future

Documents released by FragDenStaat show a consistent focus on funding commitments that will benefit industry, rather than the public and climate, with keeping a ‘competitive advantage’ for European companies a top priority.

- Gabrielle Jeliazkov

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In 2019, the Commission launched the European Green Deal, which was passed by Parliament in 2020. The relevant initiatives under the Green Deal include the ‘Fit for 55’ proposals for legislation on climate, energy and transport; the ‘European industrial strategy’ aimed to strengthen EU competitiveness and enable industry to lead the digital and green transition; and ‘clean, affordable and secure energy’.

FragDenStaat’s access to document requests reveal the content of meetings between aerospace and defense industry representatives and the EU Commission from 2017-2022, providing a window into the Commission’s correspondence and priorities. The companies included in the documents are Airbus, Leonardo, SAFRAN, Thales and Indra, as some of the most influential aerospace and defense companies in Europe.

Among other things, the documents illustrate the Commission’s dependence on the ‘twin green and digital transition’ framing to continue funding polluting and deadly industries, and tactfully avoid any serious plans to reduce consumption and emissions globally. The documents illustrate the Commission’s repeated refusal to make the necessary decisions to reduce air travel and military spending if the world is to stay within 1.5 C warming. Instead, their Research and Innovation (R&I) funding remains focused on things like ‘disruptive technology’.

The emphasis on economic competitiveness and the over reliance on technology as the solution to climate and environmental issues is pushing the EU into reckless extraction across the globe. The focus on extraction and intertwining the digital and green transitions is not new to the Green Deal, finding its roots in previous iterations of the Horizon Europe project, Covid-19 recovery plans, and other funding pots delivered by the Commission for research and innovation.

This is alongside a growing focus on the defence and security agenda, once largely peripheral to EU strategy, which was focused on implementing market mechanisms across Member States. Now, we see a growing number of policy initiatives and public funds for arms development and purchases, with examples including the creation of the Directorate-General Defence Industry and Space (DG DEFIS) in 2019, the launch of the €8 billion European Defence Fund (EDF) in 2021 and the 2021- 2027 European Peace Facility, providing €5 billion to cover EU military missions and arms deliveries to Ukraine.

An overview of the documents finds that:

  • Keeping a ‘competitive advantage’ for European companies continually trumps the urgency to reduce emissions;
  • ‘Greening transport’ focuses entirely on R&I funding rather than concrete plans to reduce air travel demand and aerospace manufacturing and infrastructure; and
  • A persistent focus on ‘greening the cloud’ and supporting the alleged digital transition harmfully intertwines digital and green futures.

The documents show a consistent focus on funding commitments that will benefit industry, rather than the public and climate. Since 2022, and the end of this set of documents, the EU has continued to avoid substantive commitments to reduce production – and as a result, emissions – across the aerospace and defense industries.

This is no surprise, when the defense and aerospace lobby regularly meets with members of the Council, the Commission, and the European Parliament. Airbus has the second highest number of lobbying meetings, second only to Google and spent €1.25 million in 2022 on lobbying EU officials, through controversial lobby consultancies such as Avisa Partners. Indra, another company in the released documents, spent over €1 million on lobbying in 2021.

Overall, in 2022, the combined annual EU lobbying budget for the top ten European arms companies was €4.7 million, not including the lobbying budget of their trade associations, associated think tanks and forums.

The Critical Raw Minerals Act

The drive to meet the objectives in the Green Deal has turned into what some campaigners have called an ‘open-bar’ for industries such as the defense and aerospace sectors. This includes the example of the Critical Raw Minerals Act (CRMA), which has faced little political scrutiny despite its negative effect on environmental protections and its clear drive for unsustainable extraction. This is illustrated by EU environmental law framing that mining critical minerals is in the ‘overriding public interest’, where mining companies should be allowed “to circumvent the water framework, habitats and birds directives” – even when there are no guarantees that the materials mined would be used for the green transition.

Using the Green Deal to further unsustainable extraction is showcased in a briefing note by the Directorate-general Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE) for a meeting with Safran in 2022, where they outline the demands from the Aerospace, Security and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD) for the CRMA, which include:

  • Ensuring that titanium, nickel-based superalloys (alloys with higher melting temperatures) and aluminum are part of the strategic minerals;
  • Ensuring a “level playing” field for critical raw minerals contributing to strategic autonomy;
  • Developing a European tool to map critical raw materials end-to-end from the upstream industry (mining) to the downstream industry (Original Equipment Manufacturers) across aerospace and defence and other sectors consuming these materials.

DG MOVE goes on to explain how critical raw minerals are “essential prerequisites for the development of strategic sectors such as aerospace and defence”. Citing how – for example - rare earth minerals are indispensable to remotely piloted aircraft systems and precision guide munitions, and how beryllium is used in jet fighters and missile gyroscopes. The CRMA – explains DG MOVE – would cover these critical raw minerals, given the strategic dimension of their applications.

Instead of acquiring critical raw materials that can be used to meet the Green Deal's renewable energy targets, the CRMA is being misused to secure critical raw materials that Europe's aviation and defence industries consider strategically important. The EU’s practice and methods of acquiring minerals from the Global South for any use frequently relies on neo-colonialism and emphasizes extractive production models, but using the CRMA for the defence and aerospace sectors is also locking the world into increasing emissions. In addition to the devastating human cost of war and occupation, military operations and combat activities are enormously emission-intensive and harmful to the climate.

The myth of the twin green and digital transition

One of the Commission’s main focuses in a number of documents is promoting the idea of the ‘twin green and digital transition’. This is common framing European leaders have used over a number of years and is incredibly problematic, both by regarding the two transitions as equivalent, and acting as if the digital industry in its current form is not massively polluting. As Corporate Observatory Europe covers in their report Blood on the Green Deal, this framing has also opened the door for other, even more problematic areas – such as manufacturing arms and planes – to gain a “new aura of respectability”.

Another clear focus for the Commission is maintaining European competitiveness across the aerospace and defense sectors, which can look like maintaining or increasing funding (particularly after Covid-19), devoting R&I resources to the industries, and developing policy favorable for them. In a briefing note for Director-General Olivier Guersent released by the Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) from January 2022, the Commission explicitly states that “the EU is the largest commercial and investment power and needs an open world economy to succeed.”

Throughout the documents, there is never a clear acknowledgment that maintaining competitiveness is antithetical to the need to reduce emissions by reducing the demand and supply of aerospace and defense products if the globe is to stay within 1.5 degrees warming.

Stay Grounded’s 2019 report Degrowth of Aviation: Reducing air travel in a just way outlines the rising contribution to emissions by the aviation sector, and the steps governments can take to reduce aviation demand and emissions. In the European Union alone, the losses in state revenue due to subsidies to the aviation sector amount to 30 to 40 billion euro annually, and this was before Covid recovery protocols.

The proposed ‘disruptive technologies’ that the documents cover are either highly theoretical or are being designed with the intention to allow aerospace and defense industries to continue production at the scale they are now. It is a waste of crucial time and resources to spend energy on proposals like Airbus’ Vahana aircraft: “a single passenger, all electric, fully autonomous, vertical take-off and landing air-taxi demonstrator.” Where the intention is for the Vahana aircraft to be a cost-comparable replacement for short-range urban transport like cars or trains.

In other words, the Commission entertained R&I funding going toward developing air crafts that would carry single passengers at a time and only function at short-range distances. Essentially, a fully autonomous private jet meant for urban environments.

The R&I priorities set out by the aerospace and defense industries are red herrings, distracting from the clear solutions the EU should be pursuing. Realistically, there is no successful green transition in line with 1.5C warming without the de-growth of the aerospace industry. The Commission itself has come close to acknowledging this, stating things like ‘the path to climate neutrality in 2050 is not obvious in aviation.’ And yet, it insists on doubling down on disruptive technologies rather than taking the joint approach of reducing subsidies and increasing regulation for air travel, while investing in publicly owned, high speed surface transport.

To illustrate this resistance by the Commission, it is important to remember that commercial aviation fuel is currently tax exempt under the legislation of all Member States. In a briefing note for a meeting between DG MOVE and Safran in November 2022, DG MOVE outlines the proposed kerosene tax to be introduced gradually over a 10-year period. DG MOVE explains how, through implementing the tax gradually over 10 years – alongside the forecasted continued growth of air travel – it is ‘expected that, overall, the flight frequency on most intra-EU routes would be still higher at the end of the transitional period than at the beginning of it.”

It is clear from this explanation by DG MOVE that the intention is not to reduce air travel, but rather to implement an insufficient tax – which is also exempt for cargo only flights – spread out over the course of a decade. This is in direct contrast to rail travel, where passengers currently pay VAT and energy tax on tickets.

With aviation expected to reach a share of 22% of global emissions by 2050, the concept of ‘green flying’ remains an illusion. Electric flying remains impossible for passenger or freight engines because of the weight of batteries and forecasted efficiency gains in fuel use are out paced by the growth rates of air travel and air freight. 

The idea of pushing for alternative fuels, something that is scattered throughout the EU’s priorities and correspondences in these documents, is misguided. If the focus is biofuels as a solution, they are made from plants like palm oil, and could drive a massive increase in deforestation and peat drainage, causing massive carbon emissions. Not to mention the land grabbing, human rights violations and loss of food sovereignty that comes with biofuel production.

The other option, synthetic fuels made from electricity, are technically feasible – but would have to be produced using a surplus of renewable energy, something we are simply decades away from. We do not have the renewable energy needed for transport on the ground, agricultural production and heating, never mind excess energy for aviation use. Moreover, aiming for unrestricted growth of renewables is simply incompatible with preserving biodiversity and preventing neo-colonial solar and wind development on indigenous territories and/or in the Global South.

In terms of the defense sector, we are again faced with the reality that increasing EU militarism is incompatible with a green transition in line with 1.5C. Global military spending has been rising since the 1990s, reaching a record $2,000bn USD in 2021. The reality is that realistic fuel alternatives for transport and equipment (which makes up 75% of military energy consumption) face the same issues as alternative fuel for the civilian aviation sector: they are expensive, unavailable and unsustainable.

Prioritising a competitive advantage

The Commission is unable to focus on effectively reducing emissions when it remains preoccupied with maintaining a competitive advantage or leadership in the aerospace industry. Aviation is, according to the Commission, ‘at a crossroads of international competitiveness and environmental issues.”

In many of the documents released to FragDenStaat, it is clear that attempting to remain competitive comes in the form of funding for R&I. The Commissions’ support for companies like Airbus is allegedly due to their private sector investment and commitment to R&I, but a number of documents show the Commission concerned about bridging the gap of reduced private sector funding for R&I, either to complement private sector funding or to make up for R&I funding the companies claim they are no longer able to provide – particularly in post-COVID contexts.

For instance, a document preparing for an online meeting with aeronautical stakeholders in June 2020 outlines the need to “align the current aviation research and innovation agenda to the current post COVID crisis economical context while maintaining it as a main tool to bridge the gap between maintaining EU competitiveness and reaching environment/climate objectives.” In further documents outlining COVID recovery responses, the Commission continually refers to aviation stakeholders needing additional help to maintain their research base.

In a briefing note for a Commission meeting with Aeronautical stakeholders in June 2020, they outline the three strategic priorities proposed for the European Partnership on Clean Aviation (EPCA) – one of the 10 public-private partnerships covered by the Single Basic Act – to which the EU contributed nearly €10 billion of funding:

  • Disruptive technologies for a Hybrid Electric Regional Aircraft;

  • Disruptive technologies for an ultra-efficient short and medium range aircraft; and

  • Disruptive technologies to enable non-drop in (including hydrogen) powered aircraft.

Documents such as this one illustrate how the Commission continues to intertwine responding to climate objectives with competitive innovation and digital development. Responding to the economic downturn after COVID by prioritising disruptive technologies and encouraging re-growth in the aerospace industry is an incredibly short term solution. Disruptive technologies refer to innovations that significantly alter the market, and are rarely profitable when they are first being developed. The Commission’s decision to support this R&I by existing market-dominating companies amounts to supporting the aerospace industry to continue at scale, rather than entering difficult conversations about the urgent need to de-centre and reduce air travel.

In a May 2020 briefing note from the Commission’s branch for Research and Innovation (DG RTD) for a teleconference with Safran, the Commission reaffirms that recovery for the aeronautics industry will be impossible without “massive financial support and firm political commitment.”

The briefing goes on to note that the current financial situation of the aeronautics industry means an “impossibility for the industry to continue financing R&I projects at the current rate” and “the need to extend the scope of innovation projects covered by Horizon Europe beyond clean aviation to all the subject necessary to maintain the competitiveness of the European industry and cover the innovation needs of the entire supply chain (digitisation, automation, cybersecurity, safety, industrial tools, etc.).”

In a more recent briefing note from DG COMP in March 2022, the document details the Commission agreeing to aid for projects like the design of improved products. According to the Guidelines on State aid for climate, environmental protection and energy (CEEAG), public authorities are not supposed to cover design and manufacturing of environmentally friendly products. In this case, DG COMP stipulates that it can, as it “qualifies as a research and development activity” – highlighting a major loophole in the guidelines.

Altogether, the documents released to FragDenStaat outline the Commission’s focus on industry-led funding for competitive, digital solutions to the climate crisis. When in practice, the real issues are poor resource allocation and deference to profit.

The Commission also intertwines support for defence funding with green initiatives. In a briefing note for Airbus’ Technoday in 2019, the Commission writes that the challenges of greening transport can be met by space and the European Defence Fund building “synergies with Horizon Europe under [Airbus’] leadership”.

This sort of framing increases legitimacy for defence funding and altogether ignores that a shift to prioritising de-growth in the aerospace and defence industries, alongside a just transition for workers in the industries, is required to stay within 1.5C warming. DG MOVE summarized the Commission’s approach to reducing air travel in a briefing note to Safran in 2022, stating, “there is no doubt – transitioning to sustainability is the aviation sector’s license to grow. It is both in [their] interest and that of society as a whole.”

Explore the documents  

The majority of the documents released to FragDenStaat are meetings and correspondence with aerospace and defense industry companies focused on specific EU funding and policy initiatives. These include programmes and events such as:

  • European Alliance for Industrial Data Edge and Cloud: includes businesses, Member States representatives and relevant experts working on edge and cloud technologies. Creates recommendations, road maps and standards for public procurement.

  • Clean Sky 2, Horizon Europe: launched in 2014, successor of Clean Sky and part of Horizon 2020’s Research and Innovation Programme. Was the main contributor to the Commission’s Flightpath 2050 goals set by Advisory Council for Aviation Research and Innovation (ACARE). Also committed to maintaining European ‘leadership’ in aeronautics.

  • Clean Aviation (Clean Sky 3), Horizon Europe: successor of Clean Sky 1 and 2. Opened calls for proposals in March 2022 for €735 million of funding over 36 months for hydrogen aircraft, hybrid electric aircraft, short- and medium-range aircraft, “transversal” technologies, and co-ordination and support.

  • Paris Airshow 11-23 June 2019: exhibitions by aeronautics and telecommunications industry actors.

  • ReFuelEU Aviation: an initiative within the EU’s Fit for 55 package, to increase the demand and supply of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) meant to address SAF’s main barriers of low supply and high prices.

  • Alliance for Zero-Emission Aviation (AZEA): a voluntary initiative of private and public partners whose objective is to make hydrogen-powered and electric aircrafts commercially available.

  • Copernicus: the Earth observation component of the European Union’s Space programme. It offers information services that draw from satellite Earth Observation and in-situ (non-space) data.

The full list of documents can be found here.

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