Green economy, communication and participation are the issues discussed in the interview with Guido Ghisolfi, CEO of the Mossi&Ghisolfi Group, Italy’s second-largest chemicals company and a global leader in PET production, with locations in Italy, the USA, China, Brazil, Mexico and India.

The polymer group is also active in engineering, R&D and sustainable chemicals. It set up the world’s first second-generation biofuel production plant, in Crescentino near Vercelli, which began operations at the end of 2012 and will produce 40,000 mt/year of bio-ethanol when fully operational, providing least 100 jobs directly and 200 indirectly.

Often, if not almost always, environmental communication in Italy is associated with negative concepts: the environment only hits the headlines when there are floods, hydrogeological disasters, plants releasing polluting emissions and infrastructure that ruin the countryside. Why do you think we lack a positive “environmental narrative”?
The problem stems from the origins of environmentalism. Politicians have often farmed out environmental problems to associations whose only objective is to defend the environment at any cost, in isolation from everything else. The people responsible for defending the environment gives no thought to questions of employment or, far less, to ensuring balanced food supplies for 9 billion people: so obviously anything with an impact is only seen in a negative light …

Your Group is the leading player in green chemicals and biofuel. How important is communication not so much of your products but of the “values” your solutions deliver to the green market and the national economy?
It’s vital. While other types of industry only have to worry about the cost-effectiveness of production and the acceptability of the location, the products of green players are intended for a much wider system of stakeholders and your message needs to be not only that you’ve got a good product but that it meets all the ethical criteria of “greenness”.

In Italy climate change is still an issue for the scientists and experts. The business sector seems to be more sensitive to climate change. What does coming to terms with climate change mean for your Group?
Climate Change is tricky because it means you have to come to terms with a system of unsustainable growth that is apparently cheaper. I say “apparently” because it’s only a perception. Let me give you an example: if CO2 were correctly priced, renewable sources would not be so expensive with respect to fossil fuels, but of course the cost of burning oil and carbon is not considered. Business enterprises are more sensitive because they address a world market and so can sell solutions to the more sensitive markets. But Italy hasn’t got a market…

How do you overcome the approval-time obstacle for the construction of new facilities? What can the politicians do here and how much can be done by communication in the area and community hosting the facilities?
Unfortunately, with today’s laws, there’s no way round this. The problem stems from the fact that “permitting” has been pushed so far down the administration chain. A small town has neither the means nor the expertise to take a decision about the investments proposed by an organisation, nor does it have the financial resources to acquire that expertise. So it decides not to decide and the maximum 9 months for the Services Conference can easily turn into 4-6 years. And of course it’s much easier to put pressure on the mayor of a town with 10,000 residents than on the Minister of the Environment. Simple solutions to complex problems don’t exist, but I think a preventive approval system should be created, governed by very rigid parameters and with checks ex-post, and even contemplating the right to demolish in the event of macroscopic breaches. But I don’t think we’re moving in this direction, partly because politicians would lose their veto rights, and they have no intention of taking a step back.

What do you think of the tools to engage local residents in the construction of a plant with an environmental impact or a public work? Former Minister Passera devised a model to introduce public debate in Italy along French lines, with some differences. Could this help ease conflict?
Well, the devil’s in the detail. Let’s be clear about this: I have nothing against popular participation at a certain level in the approval process. But once everyone has had their say within a specific deadline and a decision has been taken, that decision must be accepted even by those who disagree and there can be no further room to block the investment. In the case of our bio-ethanol plant, the tenor of residents’ objections was: “if you build the plant in Tortona I shan’t be able to see Monte Rosa (a mountain 250 km away)”, “if you work 24/7 you’ll frighten the hares and pheasant”, “I want a short supply chain (70 km) but not tractors and lorries”. So if that’s the thinking, the country’s heading for disaster, but in any case people who come out with this sort of objection don’t care. In my area, the “No-Bioethanol” supporters were the same as the “No-Pista Pirelli”, “No-Campari” and now” No TAV” and “No Third Crossing”: it doesn’t matter if everyone has a fridge or a car… To sum up I think participation models can ease conflict when you’re talking about major works, but for plants with an investment of up to 500 million euro, this form of engagement is an unhelpful complication.

Since 2007 Italy has lost 1.5 million jobs. On the other hand jobs in the green economy have increased even in the last two dreadful years for the economy. Yet during the election campaign, very little was heard about the environment, sustainability and the green economy. Why do you think this is?
Let’s be realistic: the quality of the jobs in the Green Economy hasn’t been very high (with a few noble exceptions including my own). The real question is whether the cost to the country of providing incentives for installation instead of funding research won’t in the end turn us into nation of low-cost fitters rather than “masters” of the green economy. In practice 0.40 euro per kwh for ground-mounted photovoltaic and zero euro for research into trichlorosilane has made us customers of the Chinese at a very high cost. So I would say that if we really wanted to provide incentives, it would have been better to set aside large sums for that small group of cases of excellence who could have put the country among the technology leaders. For example: 5-10 energy projects for 3/400 million, not 500 projects for 10 million which are of no use at all. But people don’t want to hear this, of course: Confindustria, Confapi, Confartigianato, the unions, SMEs, everyone has been pushing policy makers towards a disastrous policy of piecemeal incentives, which, once the money’s finished, will leave an irrecoverable technological desert. The election campaign didn’t talk about the Green Economy because, in times of crisis, no one wants to take responsibility for providing benefits for a very few to the detriment of many. 

Your industrial Group also has factories in the USA, China, Brazil, Mexico and India. What are the main differences on the issues we’ve been discussing (environmental culture, communication, bureaucracy, economic conflicts and opportunities) between Italy and the rest of the world?
None of the countries you mentioned has to deal with a bureaucracy like Italy’s. In advanced democracies like the USA, it’s true that the mayor of the town in which you are investing has direct responsibility, but it’s also true that he or she takes civil liability for any delays. The mayor of Corpus Christi, in Texas, where we are investing more than a billion dollars, gave us approval in just two months.  But this was possible only because the type of plant concerned was included in the manual at his disposal, which we were given and were able to compile without any difficulties in 10 days. In countries like China, the system is more centralised. And although environmental protection procedures are now cutting edge, I have to say that the quantity of resources and obsessive attention to approval schedules makes investment much faster and certain. Conversely, the complete lack of clear legislation in Italy creates scope for a level of arbitration that is unheard of in a mature democracy.