Opinion

Letter from the editor: On Big Tech and climate, Brussels flexes its muscles

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This week offered perhaps the clearest evidence yet that Europe is charting its own course on two critical files: tech governance and climate change. 

There was surprise in London on Tuesday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson—who needs a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S.—vowed to push ahead with a British digital-services tax, staying the course just hours after the White House threatened to punish France with tariffs for a similar measure.

The prime minister—for at least one more week—said internet companies needed to make a “fairer contribution,” confirming his commitment to a two per cent tax on the domestic revenues of search engines, social networks and online marketplaces. 

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Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, Johnson’s main opponent in the general election, has also pledged to tax large tech firms.

At a summit in Brussels next week, meanwhile, EU leaders will reportedly commit to cutting net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

To meet that target, and to get private companies on board, the European Parliament and EU diplomats agreed on Thursday to a framework for classifying green investments to help stop “greenwashing,” the practice of countries and companies embellishing their environmental records.

Members of the European Parliament have pressed the European Central Bank to join the climate fight. This week, the bank’s president, Christine Lagarde, hinted again that climate considerations would play a role in the bank’s forthcoming review of how it makes decisions about monetary policy, and would be included in its economic modelling. It’s a path broken for her by Mark Carney, the Canadian Bank of England governor who for years has been vocal about the role central banks can play in fighting climate change. When he leaves that post at the end of January, he will become the UN’s special envoy for climate action and finance; part of his mission will be to ensure central banks price climate risk correctly. 

But it’s not just Brussels—private investors are also stepping in.

The U.K. hedge fund TCI said this week it would punish directors of companies that fail to disclose their carbon emissions. “Investing in a company that doesn’t disclose its pollution is like investing in a company that doesn’t disclose its balance sheet,” said Christopher Hohn, the fund’s manager. “If governments won’t force disclosure, then investors can force it themselves.”

Hohn also took a swipe across the Atlantic, accusing BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, of greenwashing because it does not require emissions disclosures. “Asset owners should fire asset managers that do not require such disclosure,” he said.

Implicit in its efforts on both files is a recognition of the global leadership vacuum. Washington may not resume its former stature any time soon, and Europe may feel a third way is needed to defend against a rising Beijing. 

But its efforts to assume the mantle of global responsibility may be hampered by its own economic challenges. There is trouble lurking in European waters.

Germany, the Eurozone’s biggest economy, is in the midst of a two-year downturn, and its industrial sector is suffering its steepest drop-off in a decade. Amid the continuing U.S.-China trade war, Brexit uncertainty and a sharp decline in auto exports, Germany’s woes could be a harbinger of things to come. 

The real test may be whether European governments can stay the course on tech and climate as their economies tumble.