x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The man who takes on the environmental conservatives

A Norwegian environmental NGO receives most of its funding from the very corporations it is trying to rein in.

You might have once found Frederic Haugeinvolved in one of the kind of stunts Greenpeace likes to stage, such as digging up toxic waste a company had tried to hide.

Today, all you have to do is look on the catamaran carrying executives from Shell, ExxonMobil and the US state department from the opening of a Norwegian industrial plant.

Mr Hauge is the founder of Bellona, an environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO) that advocates controversial practices such as burying greenhouse-gas emissions underground. It has forged close ties with industry and government alike. Most of its annual budget, which ranges between US$10 million (Dh36.7m) and $12m a year comes from corporations.

Bellona also pushes for a clean-up of Russia's military nuclear waste sites and green growth in the Middle East. But its pet project remains carbon burial - so much so that Mr Hauge jokes he invented it when he began advocating the idea two decades ago.

Was it hard for you on a personal level to move from fighting industry to working with it?

No, I've always had a very pragmatic view on that because as long as you don't make this personal, it goes quite well. And what I am after is achieving the results. It's the industry who knows what kind of framework they need to do the job. And then also we have a lot of stakeholders within the industry that want something. My job is to support them. And then also it's my job to shout loud and clear when the industry is not making the right strategy choices. But it was controversial among many of the other environmental organisations. They were shocked.

Why were they shocked?

Because the environmental movement can be quite conservative. It becomes a kind of search for symbol issues instead of creating real results. It's easier to get in the media if you criticise than if you are constructive. I remember once we found some illegal dump, I think it was mustard gas. It was really bad. It's very easy to go there and say, Oh, this is a problem. It's very difficult to tell what to do with it. Sometimes we do mistakes. We trust people more than we should.

In terms of?

If I go back to 10, 15 years ago, I was much more optimistic that the fossil-fuel industry would provide the solutions, and I've been quite disappointed by how some of the oil companies have acted.

I have always said that we need the knowledge and we need the capital to change this. But I think that's done very slowly. But it doesn't mean that it's wrong to try. So I'm very pragmatic with these issues.

Why did you begin to accept funding from corporations 15 years ago?

What we saw was that our challenge as an NGO was that there's many ways to get money. If I only have project funding, I will always end up in a situation where well-accepted projects get funding. But how do I make the agenda then? So the question is always how do you get enough free money to be able to work with the issues before anyone understands this is necessary?

So why do you think the companies are choosing to come to you?

If the industry and companies are just sitting and waiting for the politicians to do the framework, they know what they get - at least that's taxes and it's more taxes and then some more taxes. If we [Bellona and corporate donors] agree upon 85 per cent, why should I spend the time on the last 15 at this moment, when we have so much together to get carried out?

Is the main problem that people have some of the same feelings about CCS (the capturing and storing of carbon) that they did or still do about nuclear?

No, I don't think so. That's something that some of the coal companies like to tell us. It's more arguments that, well, we should go for only renewable, or it's too costly and it's stealing from the renewables - things like that.

In my opinion that's quite ridiculous and you don't take global warming seriously if you exclude such an important tool that CCS could be.

So I quarrel quite a lot. With Greenpeace in Germany I accused them of not taking global warming seriously, which is very fun always, and they get very angry. [He laughs.] But I think the most important thing for public acceptance is related to if they think it's well spent money.

Because they're costly projects?

Yeah. But it's even more costly to not do it.

ayee@thenational.ae