Business leaders in Europe prioritise environmental protection over economic growth, according to the 16th annual Europe Business Monitor survey conducted by logistics company UPS.

Business leaders across Europe think that protecting the environment should be the number one priority for global political leaders, placing this policy area ahead of sustaining economic growth or securing future energy supplies. When asked which issues should be the highest priority for global political leaders, 45% of Europe’s top business executives agreed on environmental protection, followed by 40% of mentions for sustaining economic growth.

1,450 business leaders were interviewed the survey in autumn 2006. The average annual revenue of the businesses interviewed is EUR1.2bn while the average workforce size is more than 3,000 employees.

Only a third (33%) of respondents mention securing future energy supplies, which is ranked similarly important to reducing world poverty (32%), reducing wars and global conflicts (31%), fighting terrorism (31%), or promoting education (29%). Bottom of the pile of political priorities for Europe’s business leaders come protecting human rights and free trade (both 18%), and combating disease and epidemics (10%).

An overall majority of respondents in the UK also believes that environmental protection should be political leaders’ top concern, with 56% of UK respondents prioritising this policy area, second only in Europe to the support registered for it in France (64%). At the other end of the scale, with only 28% of mentions, respondents in the Netherlands are the least likely to prioritise environmental protection, favouring instead sustaining economic growth, supported by 48% of respondents.

Europe’s business leaders clearly consider protecting the environment the key policy issue of the moment; with 57% of mentions. It is also the issue they consider most divides the European Union and the United States.

Renewable energy the way forward for Europe

In line with their concern for protecting the environment, Europe’s business leaders spurn fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy, with six in 10 respondents (59%) stating that the continent should stake its future on sources such as wind, hydrogen and solar power. Domestically generated nuclear power is seen as the next best solution, earning the support of a third (32%) of respondents. Only 3% thought Europe should stake its energy future on burning domestic fossil fuels, such as oil, gas and coal. Geopolitical stability and energy politics also seem to worry Europe’s business leaders, with a mere 4% and 1% respectively banking on Russian natural gas and Middle Eastern oil to guarantee their future energy supplies.

Business leaders in Spain are the biggest supporters of renewable energy in Europe with 68% backing the idea. It was also the most popular choice for UK respondents at 47%, however this was the lowest figure out of all seven countries surveyed. Senior executives in the UK and Belgium are the most likely in Europe to consider domestic nuclear energy the best solution with 38% in the UK and 41% in Belgium in favour. At 22%, German respondents were the least likely to favour this option.

Academic sources most reliable for information on the environment

When it comes to sourcing reliable information about the condition of the global environment, European business executives overwhelmingly trust academic sources over other stakeholder groups. 56% of respondents most trust university scientists and researchers to provide reliable information about the environment, well ahead of the media (16%), environmental organisations and interest/pressure groups (13%), and the EU (8%). National governments are seen to be the least trustworthy source of reliable information about the state of the global environment with only 4% of votes. Italy however bucks the trend by voting the media the most trustworthy source of information on the environment (62%) ahead of academic sources, who receive support from fewer than one in five (17%). Respondents in the UK are the second most trusting of their national government to provide reliable information on the environment (8%), marginally behind The Netherlands (9%) but ahead of France (1%) where respondents were least likely to trust the national government.

Taking personal action

Seven out of 10 European business leaders claimed to have reduced their energy use at home and only marginally more respondents reported doing this in response to rising energy costs (36%) as opposed to out of concern for the environment (32%). Only in Spain were business leaders more driven by environmental concern (46%) than by rising energy prices (17%).

Four out of 10 respondents have bought a more fuel efficient car, 32% use public transport more often, 31% have cut back on how much they drive, 20% have reduced their air travel and 13% use renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power at home.

When asked to indicate the main reason for these actions, concerns about the environment seem to drive the increased use of public transport, cutting back on the amount of driving, and the use of renewable energy, whereas the main driver for reducing energy consumption, buying a more fuel efficient car and cutting back on air travel is more equally balanced between economising and environmental protection.