By Kate Abnett and Anthony Deutsch
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European lawmakers made Wopke Hoekstra sweat as they scrutinised his bid to be Europe’s next climate chief, but after the former Dutch minister and one-time Shell employee made further promises to strengthen green measures he received their approval on Wednesday.
Hoekstra, 48, is poised to take charge of shaping European Union policies aimed at fighting climate change, a role that puts him at the vanguard of cutting CO2 emissions in the world’s third biggest economy.
He does so at a time climate action is facing political pushback in Europe as living costs surge and tensions mount with China and the U.S. over the race to manufacture green tech, and as countries face record-breaking floods, drought and wildfires.
Divisions amongst the EU-27 over green policies are widening.
Hoekstra hails from the centre-right European People’s Party political group, which has sought to block some recent EU environment laws and are wary of measures that could impose red tape on industry or costs on consumers.
But to get business done in Brussels, he will also need support from Green and left-leaning lawmakers.
The EU already has among the most ambitious emissions-cutting plans of any major economy, and has signed into law the main measures it says are needed to cut CO2 this decade – including higher CO2 costs for polluting industries and binding targets to expand renewable energy.
Hoekstra won’t be able to change those laws and will hold his role only until after EU Parliament elections in June. Nonetheless, he has set his sights on a few key changes.
He told lawmakers he would push for the EU to slash net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% by 2040, a move backed by climate scientists, but which some industries have warned is unrealistic.
“I will not be a caretaker. It simply wouldn’t do justice to the scale, to the magnitude of our challenge,” he said during an hours-long grilling in the EU Parliament on Monday.
“I will be driven by facts, by numbers, by science.”
Pressed further, he wrote in written responses seen by Reuters that he would adopt a tough stance in EU climate diplomacy, vowing to push for a global deal to phase out all fossil fuels at the United Nations’ COP28 summit in November.
That would put Europe at odds with oil-and-gas-producing nations that want to use technologies to “abate” – meaning capture – the emissions from burning fossil fuels, rather than directly reduce use of the fuels.
Hoekstra began his career with a three-year spell in commercial roles at Shell before working for a decade at consultancy McKinsey. He said he did not work on behalf of oil firms during this time and lambasted companies he said had sought to ignore the evidence on their contribution to climate change.
“I find it truly unethical,” he said, without naming specific companies.
Between 2011 and 2017, Hoekstra served as a senator in the Dutch upper house of parliament, while staying on as a partner at McKinsey, before being appointed finance minister by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Much of that term was dominated by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Hoekstra oversaw a multi-billion euro bailout of Dutch airline KLM – while also pushing, so far unsuccessfully, for Europe-wide green taxes on flights.
“Looking at your CV until now, you’ve not really been a climate champion. And I think that’s putting it mildly looking at your Shell history, McKinsey, Minister of Finance where you gave money to KLM, ” Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout told Hoekstra during his hearing.
Most recently, he served as foreign minister from Jan. 2022 to Sept. 2023.
Hoekstra still needs to pass a vote in the full EU Parliament on Thursday. EU officials say he should comfortably get majority support now he has the committee’s backing.
“Hoekstra has the qualification most needed right now – diplomacy. We cannot save the climate alone; other major economies must also lend their support,” said German EPP lawmaker Peter Liese.
(This story has been refiled to edit the headline)
(Reporting by Kate Abnett, Anthony Deutsch; editing by Richard Lough, Alexandra Hudson)