On the one hand Joe Kaeser, the boss of Siemens, one of the most powerful German industrial conglomerates, on the other, Luisa Neubauer, a young activist, nicknamed the "German Greta Thunberg" and, in the background, the fires ravaging Australia some 16,000 km away.
All over Germany, around 15 demonstrations were organized on Monday, January 13, on the initiative of the high school and student collective Friday for Future to denounce Siemens' collaboration in the controversial giant Carmichael mine project in Australia. These actions were the culmination of continued pressure that the German branch of the movement, founded by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, has been holding onto the German industrial group since December.
This struggle is embodied by Luisa Neubauer, a 23-year-old student who has spoken out in the media to criticize Joe Kaeser's obstinacy in honoring the contract between Siemens and Adani, the Indian mining giant, prime contractor of the Carmichael project. "Australia is burning, Siemens must regain its senses," she notably launched in early January. "It's a matter of common sense," she added before the hesitation displayed by Joe Kaeser.
Siemens supervisory board seat offered
The boss of Siemens has tried in recent days to clear the media field by multiplying the hands extended to his detractors. He notably met Luisa Neubauer to “listen” to her complaints and even offered her a seat on the supervisory board of Siemens Energy, where she would have been able to “influence the group's decisions,” he said.
But nothing helps. Luisa Neubauer rejected the offer, which could have brought in more than 100,000 euros a year. "I know the rights of shareholders. I would no longer have been in a position to comment on Siemens' activities independently," she replied. And to emphasize that the time was no longer for negotiation, or reflection, but that it was necessary to act.
Ich habe erklärt warum ich das Angebot von @JoeKaeser abgelehnt habe & wen ich stattdessen vorschlage.
Die großen Fragen sind gerade aber ganz andere: Es geht um die Verantwortung globaler Konzerne & um eine Kohlemine, die es nicht geben dürfte. Da ist Siemens gefragt. #StopAdani https://t.co/e2SuWrS61T
Commentators and politicians have even joined the protest against Siemens' participation in the Carmichael project. Ricarda Lang, spokesperson for the Young Greens in Germany, called the group an accomplice in building a “climate killer” in Australia, while editorials in newspapers as influential as the Süddeutsche Zeitung or the Handelsblatt recognize that is a debacle in terms of image and reputation for the industrial group.
One of the most controversial projects of the decade
Siemens did not expect such a backlash by sealing a deal with Adani in July 2019. However, the group was aware that it was one of the most controversial projects of the decade. From the start, in 2010, the project attracted criticism: Carmichael must indeed become the largest coal mine in the world, capable of producing more than 60 million tonnes of coal per year. The resulting CO2 emissions would be higher than those, combined, of Sri Lanka, Austria, Vietnam and Malaysia. Heresy at the time of the fight against global warming, denounced over the years environmental associations.
The giant mine would also consume 9.5 million cubic meters of water to operate, and transporting coal by sea to India would be a blow to the Great Barrier Reef, already in poor shape.
But Siemens considered its participation in the project too modest to attract criticism. After all, the conglomerate must be content to put up the railway signage that will transport the coal from the mine. A case which must bring about 20 million dollars (18 million euros) to the German group, rather accustomed to contracts involving billions of dollars.
The fires that have ravaged Australia since the end of summer 2019 have changed the game. For German activists, it is out of the question for a German group to take part in a project which, by further deteriorating the climate, will increase the risk that disasters similar to current fires will repeat in the future. "The absurdity of this project is such that sixty companies have decided not to work with Adani on this site, but Siemens is stubborn," regrets Luisa Neubauer.
For the moment, the pressure has not made the German group bend. Joe Kaeser recognizes that he is caught in the crossfire: on the one hand, he has obligations to society, but on the other, he also has obligations to his business partners. The Siemens boss refuses to honor the contract signed with Adani because his reputation in the business world would be damaged, risking depriving the company of future opportunities. In other words, now that the hemlock has been poured into the chalice, you might as well drink it to the dregs.
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