VW Boss Does a U-Turn on Diesel

by Sven Afhüppe and Stefan Menzel for Handelsblatt

The CEO of Volkswagen has become an unlikely voice for phasing out diesel subsidies. He suggested that the money be put toward green driving technologies instead, a proposal that met a mixed response.

Matthias Müller, left, has a surprising message. Georg Kell, founder of the United Nations Global Compact and a VW adviser, listens. Source: Dominik Butzmann for Handelsblatt

Matthias Müller, left, has a surprising message. Georg Kell, founder of the United Nations Global Compact and a VW adviser, listens. Source: Dominik Butzmann for Handelsblatt

Some issues are sacrosanct for the German auto industry, and the subsidy on diesel fuel has traditionally been one of them. Volkswagen and its rivals have turned this €8 billion-tax break into a big selling point for diesel cars.

So it may seem surprising to hear calls for an end to that policy coming from the executive suite in Wolfsburg. But that’s exactly what Matthias Müller, Volkswagen’s CEO, suggested during an interview with Handelsblatt, saying the tax breaks should be gradually shifted toward environmentally friendly technologies.

“I’ve become convinced that we should question the sense and purpose of the diesel subsidies,” he said. “If the switch to environmentally friendly e-cars is to succeed, diesel combustion engines can’t continue to be subsidized the way they have been forever.”

Though Germany’s annual car tax is higher for diesel models, subsidies for diesel fuel generally offset those costs, since the tax on diesel is roughly 18 cents less per liter (68 cents per gallon) than on gasoline. Ending those subsidies would almost certainly reduce sales of diesel models, as well as revenues for VW and other carmakers.

My point is, how do we support the technological transition, the systemic change toward electromobility?

Particularly since 2015, when the Dieselgate affair came to light, diesel has lost its luster. Volkswagen ultimately admitted to installing illegal software on millions of diesel cars to beat emissions tests, and the company has since faced more than €20 billion of euros in fines and other costs.

Though diesel cars emit less carbon dioxide than petrol-powered models, they spew more nitrogen oxide, the toxic air pollutant at the center of the scandal over VW’s cheat devices. With a growing list of cities looking at local bans on diesel vehicles, customers are staying away: In November, diesel cars accounted for just over one-third of vehicle sales in Germany, compared to nearly 45 percent a year ago, according to government figures.

Mr. Müller told Handelsblatt that blanket bans would have serious consequences for Germany, and that politicians and carmakers should do everything possible to avoid them. The Volkswagen CEO instead endorsed a blue-sticker scheme for cars with acceptable levels of nitrogen oxide emissions. “Only those that are under [the limit] will be allowed to drive in cities in the future,” Mr. Müller said.

Environmental activists involved in efforts to control urban air pollution have long been calling for an end to diesel subsidies. Berlin’s annual budget for investments in electromobility is about €1 billion ($1.18 billion), but the tax breaks for diesel cost the government eight times that amount every year, according to Maria Krautzberger, the president of Germany’s federal environment agency, UBA.

Despite those numbers, Ms. Krautzberger has been unable to get politicians on board, and even Chancellor Angela Merkel has rebuffed calls for an end to the policy. Mr. Müller is the first CEO of a German carmaker to suggest that the government consider doing exactly that.

Volkswagen, he said, would be able to withstand the hit on sales of diesel models without having to worry about the company’s survival. “The past two years have shown that we’re quite a financially resilient company,” Mr. Müller told Handelsblatt.

But the VW CEO is likely to face resistance from elsewhere in the industry. In recent months, his competitors have restated their long-term commitment to producing diesel cars, with BMW boss Harald Krüger vowing to continue making them.

Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said the technology is critical to helping meet climate protection targets, since they emit less CO2 than petrol-powered cars. The head of Germany’s automotive industry association, VDA, made a similar argument at the IAA motor show in September. “Modern diesel is indispensable to reaching carbon dioxide goals in Europe,” Matthias Wissmann said.

Starting in 2020, manufacturers will be required to pay penalties if the average CO2 output of the cars they sell in Europe exceeds 95 grams per kilometer. In VW’s case, every gram above that limit would cost the company €400 million.

Matthias Müller became boss of VW days after the carmaker admitted to manipulating 11 million diesel cars worldwide. He previously led sports carmaker Porsche, part of VW Group.  Source: Dominik Butzmann for Handelsblatt

Matthias Müller became boss of VW days after the carmaker admitted to manipulating 11 million diesel cars worldwide. He previously led sports carmaker Porsche, part of VW Group. 

Source: Dominik Butzmann for Handelsblatt

The fact that electric cars produce zero direct CO2 emissions gives the automotive industry all the more reason to embrace electromobility. By 2025, it’s estimated that electric cars will represent about a quarter of all vehicle sales.

Yet despite the billions of euros that carmakers are investing in electric cars, there’s a critical lack of infrastructure to support them, such as charging stations. “My point is, how do we support the technological transition, the systemic change toward electromobility?” Mr. Müller asked. “Cutting diesel subsidies, and in exchange incentives for electric cars would be the right signal.”

As it looks to repair its brand, VW has done a good deal of soul-searching on the diesel issue. A year after its emissions-rigging scandal first came to light, the carmaker set up a Sustainability Council to advise it on matters such as climate protection.

Chairman Georg Kell told Handelsblatt that he was skeptical at first about VW’s commitment to learning the hard lessons from Dieselgate. “In the end, I decided to participate,” he said. “Because I view the work of the Sustainability Council as a huge chance to see Europe’s largest industrial company through the transformation toward a new, better time.”

Mr. Kell said VW has an opportunity to lead the charge on the diesel subsidy issue, though he acknowledged that the tax break wouldn’t vanish overnight. “I do ask myself, though, why diesel is still subsidized in most European countries and at the same time politicians wonder why electric vehicle sales aren’t progressing quickly enough,” he said.

Mr. Müller said both private and commercial customers have grown accustomed to those privileges. “There’s no question that tax-related subsidies have made it much easier to sell diesel cars in Germany,” he said. The VW CEO pointed to the need for a more intensive but less ideological dialogue with politicians on the issue.

“Today there’s a need for a high degree of cognitive flexibility,” Mr. Müller said. “Anyone who doesn’t have it will lose – in business and in politics.”

Auto industry expert Ferdinand Dudenhöffer told news agency DPA he was impressed with Mr. Müller’s suggestion, saying he hadn’t expected such a proposal from the industry. “Finally, someone’s made the suggestion,” he said. Mr. Dudenhöffer, who heads the CAR center at Duisberg-Essen University, said he believed the proposal could give e-cars a much-needed boost.

Reactions were more mixed from politicians. Oliver Kirscher, deputy floor leader of the Green Party, said in a media interview that the next government should pursue Mr. Müller’s proposal. But the floor leader of the pro-business FDP party, Michael Theurer, criticized the blue-sticker scheme proposal, saying this opened up a whole new can of worms. He told Handelsblatt that VW was responsible for the Dieselgate scandal, which had proved costly for German car drivers.

Criticism also came from the industry, with one manager from a VW rival asking why the CEO had opened up a whole new set of problems. Such alarm in the sector is unsurprising as companies struggle to switch to e-car production. Carmakers are plunging billions into the transition to electric and some, including BMW and VW, have committed to generating up to a quarter of their sales with electric vehicles by 2025.

But this is a risky investment with ripples that go beyond carmakers as critical infrastructure is still lacking, from charging points to energy suppliers. Without this, the carmakers will not be able to achieve these sales targets. But if the government does switch the subsidy from diesel to electric, that would go a long way to helping.

The New Frontier in Sustainable Investing: Interview of Omar Selim

Interview by Leslie Norton for Barraon's

Omar Selim.jpg

Omar Selim founded Arabesque Asset Management to invest sustainably. He built the most comprehensive database to date—and he’s using it to beat the market.

Arabesque Asset Management is a relative newcomer to sustainable investing, but the young firm has made a big splash. Steered by Omar Selim, 54, who led the European firm’s 2013 buyout from Barclays (where he was a top banker), Arabesque manages $150 million, including two European quantitative funds that have outperformed their benchmarks. The board is a who’s who of the sustainable universe, including chairman Georg Kell, the founder of the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, and Barbara Krumsiek, the former CEO of socially responsible powerhouse Calvert Investments, as well as academics with specialties including finance, neuroscience, and computing.



Businesses Are Facing a New Reality. These Are the Ones That Are Succeeding..

By Peter Lacy for Fortune.com/Commentary - The Circular Economy

Astrid Stawiarz Getty Images for UN Global Compact

Astrid Stawiarz Getty Images for UN Global Compact

Evidence is mounting to show that the frequency and ferocity of extreme weather events is intensifying on a global scale. From severe droughts to powerful storms, we are living in an increasingly changeable, uncertain, and unpredictable world.

Arabesque's Georg Kell: ESG is Not a Fad

Picture (c) NordSIP

Picture (c) NordSIP

Stockholm (NordSIP) – The opening keynote speech at the ESG Integration Summit hosted in Stockholm by Nasdaq and Skytop Strategies on 29 August was given by Georg Kell, Chairman at London-based asset manager Arabesque and Founder of the UN Global Compact. He spoke about the journey of sustainability into the financial world, insisting in particular on its recent acceleration. Even if the progress may have seemed painstakingly slow for those on the front line, Kell finds that by stepping back one can see how incremental changes over time have led to real paradigm shifts.  The UN Global Compact, a United Nations initiative to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies, was officially announced 17 years ago. It took about 15 years for finance to take notice, but the trend turned dramatically about two years ago. According to Kell, “something suddenly clicked”. Data was made available and a correlation was established between good ESG and long-term financial performance. In 2015, Arabesque and Oxford University jointly published a study, “From the stockholder to the stakeholder” which highlighted how sustainability could improve financial returns. The interest for this paper was unprecedented. The financial community seems to have finally become receptive, but will ESG retain its attention beyond the next change in market trend?

For Kell, there are tree fundamental forces which explain why this new sustainability movement in finance is not just a temporary trend. The first one is technology. Technology has enabled an irreversible increase in transparency. It has never been easier and cheaper to gather and process data, which makes it more difficult to hide issues. Problems must be recognized for what they are and solutions therefore must be explored. The second one has to do with the discovery of boundaries on a planetary level. The need for the planet’s population to compose effectively with natural resources will not disappear; to the contrary, it is likely to increase. The third force Kell talks about is more complex: he mentions governance changes at a high level, “how human societies worldwide are increasingly empowered, challenging established institutions and our old way of life”. This change was enabled by network effects and the sharing of open source ideas.

“We have now reached a point where it is possible to create real catalytic synergies”, Kell proposes. Before, there was a clear separation between the role of governments, who were responsible for society’s well being and the preservation of common resources, and the role of business and corporations, whose goal was to purely maximize their economic profit for their shareholders, with a short-term time horizon. Now the boundaries between public and private interests are increasingly blurred. “The future success will lie in the ability to recognize the overlap,” says Kell.

ESG Meets Quantitative Analysis

Financial Advisor Magazine

"The job of Arabesque S-Ray is to move money from the bottom of the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) value chain to the top, by assessing the sustainability performance of over 4,000 companies worldwide. This will help investors to take action and require corporations to think about their future place in that value chain." That's Omar Selim, founder and CEO of Arabesque, talking about the firm's proprietary analytics tool that is now available to U.S. investors, along with investor shares of the Arabesque Systematic USA Fund.   

VW Leader on Accelerating in Midst of Crisis

Korea Joongang Daily/KIM JEE-HEE

“It takes a crisis for big companies to change direction,” says Georg Kell, chairman of VW’s international Sustainability Council, which began in September. [PARK SANG-MOON]

“It takes a crisis for big companies to change direction,” says Georg Kell, chairman of VW’s international Sustainability Council, which began in September. [PARK SANG-MOON]

“Crisis is an accelerator for change,” says Georg Kell, chairman of Volkswagen’s two-month-old international Sustainability Council, set up to counter the automaker’s tainted reputation after its widespread emissions-rigging scandal.

When he sat down for an interview on Dec. 2 at the Conrad Hotel in Yeouido, southwestern Seoul, he seemed excited. “I personally really like crisis,” he said.

Volkswagen has undertaken radical moves such as dismissing 30,000 staff members and replacing them with IT engineers, aiming for a rapid shift to electrification and digitization of transportation. The carmaker also plans to build a battery plant in Germany, which would be a first in the country.

“It takes a crisis for big companies to change direction,” Kell said. “The CEO of Volkswagen actually put it quite nicely during one of the internal discussions. He said, ‘Look, we would have done this change probably anyway in five or six years’ times but because of the crisis we are now forced to accelerate. The more I think about it the better it is, because if we prepare the future then it actually makes sense to start earlier.’

“So it [the sustainability council] is a serious organization.” 

The council launched in September as an immediate reaction to recover from the automaker’s emissions scandal and to “critically and destructively engage with CEO leadership on the issues of climate change and related governance issues,” Kell says. Among nine experts invited to join, Kell was appointed to lead the group for his long career of pursuing sustainability management. 

He is the founding director of the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest voluntary corporate sustainability initiative, launched in 2000, and is now Vice Chairman of Arabesque Partners, an Anglo-German asset management firm that integrates environmental, social and governance data with investment strategies.

Every year since 2001, Kell has been named among the “100 Most Influential in Business Ethics” by Ethisphere Institute, an Arizona-based organization that defines, measures and promotes corporate ethics.

“Within the corporate world, over the last 20 years, step-by-step changes have been introduced. Many companies are still slow and very early in the learning curve but … more and more companies luckily realize that we have to move towards low carbon, resource efficiency is a good thing and that treating your workers well actually makes sense to build a positive brand, positive engagement,” Kell says.

Sustainability, in his terms, means a “business is fully conscious in how they impact the lives of people and the natural environment.” Until recently, businesses lacked sustainability, as there was little understanding of how the world is small and we are all connected, according to Kell.

“On average, companies which perform better on environment, social and governance outperform companies that are not doing very well [in those factors.],” Kell said. “This is a fundamental game changer because it means … those who are lagging will be punished indirectly by the market.”

As for Volkswagen, while it has long been a popular brand in Korea, its market share in the local import car market halved to 7.09 percent in October from 14.67 percent last year, while Audi also fell from 13.34 percent to 8.62 percent, according to data from Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Association. 

When asked to assess how Korean companies are doing in sustainable management, he said, “Korean companies are actually, by global comparison, fairly strong on a number of issues, where they seem to be lagging behind is a little bit on the governance issue, which is a critical one in many countries.”

According to Kell, Korea is very strong in environment and resource efficiency thanks to highly developed tech industries. Social aspects are partly strong as there is “very high level of self-education and social cohesion.” Korea needs to develop in governance and information disclosure issues, he said.

BY KIM JEE-HEE [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr

Volkswagen pumps €20m into Sustainability Council and low-carbon aspirations

edie newsroom

The company’s recently established Sustainability Council elected founding director of the UN Global Compact Georg Kell to act as chair as Volskwagen set its agenda for future planning related to emissions reductions at the Council’s inaugural meeting on Monday (24 October).

Die ewig Unterschätzten - Performance von nachhaltigen Geldanlagen

Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Investoren, die nachhaltige Anlagen links liegenlassen, begründen dies oft mit der Sorge, auf Rendite verzichten zu müssen. Die Fakten sprechen eine andere Sprache.

English translation of the first paragraph:

Investors who ignore sustainable investing often justify their actions with a concern that it might not yield returns. The facts clearly prove otherwise. Businesses increasingly pay attention to ESG issues and good governance. This is due partly to a genuine belief that these are important factors for success, and partly due to increasing outside pressure. Investors as well as the general public are becoming more aware of aspects other than financial figures or conventional reporting. Moreover, regulatory changes guide corporations toward more sustainable behavior.

'A Quiet Revolution' On Green Finance With China Taking The Lead

by Dina Medland, Forbes

Leadership stared us in the face via a video-link to China at a global conference on responsible investment held last week in Singapore,  ranked second recently in a list of global finance hubs.

Dr Ma Jun, Chief Economist at the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), giving a Keynote Address on efforts at establishing a ‘green’ and sustainable financial system, quietly mentioned that China is moving towards mandatory disclosure of environmental information by companies.

Georg Kell, vice-chairman of Arabesque Partners, was founder and Executive Director of the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest voluntary corporate sustainability initiative, for 15 years. He spoke about the importance of listening to the needs of what he called Generation S – for ‘sustainability – the millennials, and listening to what they value. 



Governor of Bank Negara Malaysia and founder of UN Global Compact open Responsible Finance Summit



Following the Governor of Bank Negara's address, Mr. Georg Kell, Vice Chairman of Arabesque Partners and Founder and former Executive Director of the UN Global Compact delivered a keynote address to an audience of more than 400 leaders from across the world. Drawing from his experience in developing an initiative to implement universal sustainability principles that now has more than 12,000 signatories in more than 170 countries, Mr. Kell spoke of the need for forge a more inclusive and global responsible finance industry.

Georg Kell named one of 2015's 100 Most Influential People In Business Ethics


Ethisphere Institute, a global leader in defining and advancing the standards of ethical business practices, announced on 7 January 2015 its annual 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics ranking. The honor recognizes not only those who have devoted their careers to furthering better business behavior but also those who understand the impact companies have on improving the world and have made efforts to increase the quality of life for humankind

Founding Executive Director of the UN Global Compact to deliver Keynote Address for Upcoming Responsible Finance Summit

Zawya Thomson Reuters

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - RFI Founation, organizer of the Responsible Finance Summit, is excited to announce that Georg kell, now Vice-Chairman of the world's first ESG quant fund, Arabesque Partners, and founding Executive Director of the UN Global Compact, will speak at the Summit hosted by  Bank Negara Malaysia.


Georg Kell, Arabesque Partners, board vice-chairman

Financial Times

At our meeting in New York, Georg Kell hands me two new business cards. One is for the United Nations Global Compact, which Mr Kell founded in 2000 to promote corporate labour and human rights standards. Having just stepped down as executive director, he is now its senior policy adviser. The other announces that he is board vice-chairman at Arabesque Partners, a sustainability-focused investment firm. This card is made of decidedly thicker paper.

COP21 and Investors: What will Paris deliver?

Investment & Pensions Europe

One month away from the Paris climate change talks, Jonathan Williams asks how likely are investors to be faced with a repeat of the failed summit in Copenhagen. Will failure to reach a global agreement still stifle the growth of the low-carbon economy?

A changing of the guard at the UN Global Compact

Devex Impact

Georg Kell was there at the start — he crafted the speech that planted the seed, took that idea and an initial $20,000 and led the development of what is today’s United Nations Global Compact. When he stepped down at the end of August, he left a labor of love and a 15-year legacy to new leader Lise Kingo.

UN Global Compact Letter to Pope Francis Opens Dialogue on Business as a Force for Good

3BL Media

The United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability network, said that the recent papal encyclical on environmental principles “should inspire the private sector to do more to protect the environment and address climate change,” in an open letter delivered Friday to the representative of His Holiness Pope Francis in New York.