Can German industrial giant Siemens save the climate? | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 05.02.2020
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Can German industrial giant Siemens save the climate?

At Siemens' annual shareholder meeting in Munich, climate change took center stage as activists protested outside. The company's vocal CEO, Joe Kaeser, acknowledged the issue, but is sticking to his plans.

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Climate protests overshadow Siemens shareholders' meeting

Climate protests loomed over the Siemens annual shareholder meeting Wednesday, as activists demanded the industrial giant exit fossil fuel projects and shareholders sharply questioned the firm's handling of a coal mine contract in Australia.

Activists' pleas were largely brushed off by the firm's leadership, which highlighted its sixth-consecutive year of increasing dividends. It also plans to take its energy division public later this year as part of a larger restructuring plan that includes a growing focus on renewable energy.

"They are right to warn us," CEO Joe Kaeser said of protestors early in his remarks. "But protests alone do not provide solutions."

The event promised a meeting of crosscurrents in Europe's largest economy, where environmental concerns have rocketed to the top of the social agenda and fueled the student-led Fridays for Future climate movement.

Promises are promises

Siemens has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030. But the firm recently entered activists' crosshairs for its planned participation in the Australian coal mine in Adani, where carbon emissions would amount to 705 million tons annually.

The firm has an €18 million ($19.8 million) contract to provide signal technology for a rail line connecting the mine to the coast.

Sydney-based climate activist Varsha Yajman, 17, asked Siemens to stop its participation in the project, as did Murrawah Johnson, a representative of the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council, an indigenous Australian group that has been protesting the Adani mine for years. 

Siemens counts 385,000 employees around the world, more than 70% of them in Germany, where it is one of the country's oldest firms. Its Gas and Power division handles oil, gas and renewable energy projects, often tied to transportation, and is set to spin off into Siemens Energy later this year.  

Helena Marschall, a Fridays for Future leader, said she wanted shareholders to take responsibility for their business and its contribution to global carbon emissions.

"It's not that I'm impatient," Marschall said in an interview with DW before her remarks to shareholders. "It's just that science tells us we don't have time. And I don't have any time to give to Siemens."

Looking back

The calls by activists reflect the urgency of a largely youth-led climate movement and its ambivalence over what such an abrupt change in business could mean for workers and investors. Many of the shareholders filing into Munich's Oympiahalle said they were sympathetic to climate concerns, but cautious.

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Uniting the attendees, however, was criticism of Kaeser's handling of the Adani project. Kaeser, who has been vocal over labor and environment issues, drew headlines when he agreed to reconsider the contract over the summer. He later said pulling out of the deal would be problematic, and the Siemens board unanimously approved remaining.

Kaeser then offered a seat on the firm's advisory board to one of the Fridays for Futures leaders. She rejected the offer, and Kaeser later denied he had offered a seat.

Representatives of larger shareholder groups scolded Kaeser on Wednesday. Some argued Siemens lost standing among its clients by threatening a pullout of Adani. Others said the firm had hurt itself by pursuing the project in the first place.

Shareholder representative Daniela Bergdolt said Siemens needed to focus on business. The back-and-forth with climate activists was a black eye, she said.

"What this conversation offers a large company like ours is questionable," Bergdolt told attendees.  

Kaeser conceded the firm's handling of the contract was "not optimal" and said decision-making procedures were being re-examined. 

Read more: The complicated life of a Siemens' CEO

But the CEO, who has one year remaining on his contract and whose successor will be chosen this summer, said the climate issue was "not black and white." And he wondered if every order — even pro-sustainability projects — would be judged by the client.

Quarterly results released earlier in the day set a bracing tone to the shareholders meeting: Siemens profit between November and December last year fell 3% compared to the previous year. 

Looking forward

Renewable energy projects and sustainability played a prominent theme. Siemens announced it had increased its share in wind turbine builder Gamesa. It also presented a plan to spend €1 billion on improving sustainability in its supply chain and said it would create an independent sustainability board in its Siemens Energy spin-off.

Many shareholders expressed optimism about the company's renewable energy portfolio.

"Climate protection and profit are not mutually exclusive," said Vera Diehl, shareholder representative for Union Investment. "The opposite in fact."

Kaeser also noted during the meeting that Siemens was closely watching the spread of the coronavirus in China and had created a crisis team to make up for any supply deficits from the country. The CEO otherwise said it was "too early" to look at the virus' effect on revenues.

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