Tag Archives: climate crimes

The Greenhouse Mafia strikes again

Originally published in Arena Magazine.

During the prime ministership of John Howard, the term ‘greenhouse mafia’ was coined to describe the fossil fuel industry representatives who were so influential they were literally writing the Federal Government’s climate and energy policies. With Martin Ferguson as Labor’s Minister for Resources and Energy, it seems very little has changed. The draft Energy White Paper (EWP), released in December 2011, provides as clear an indication as ever of the access and esteem granted to the organisations and individuals whose profits depend on Australia maintaining its fossil fuel-dependent status quo.

The EWP addresses questions central to the supply and use of energy in Australia and points to strategic priorities for the government in the face of expected challenges over the period to 2030. The answers it comes up with are as strikingly beneficial to fossil fuel industry interests as they are disdainful of the growing importance of renewable energy and the reality of responding to global warming.

The vision put forward in Ferguson’s EWP is one of a nation continuing to expand its fossil fuel use and exports, albeit under the Orwellian banner of a ‘clean energy transformation’. As the EWP proudly notes, ‘Australia is currently the world’s largest coal exporter, third-largest uranium producer and in future years will be the second-largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter’. Ensuring major, ongoing growth trends in fossil fuel exports, particularly to Asia, is a significant theme of the paper. Domestic energy supply will continue to be met by coal, made less emissions-intensive by the assumed commercialisation of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, and will see an increasing reliance on gas, which is expected to account for 44 per cent of Australian energy supply in 2050. Some diversification into renewable energy sources is envisioned, with qualified support for the potential of large-scale solar, geothermal and wind power. At the same time, the paper suggests the introduction of nuclear power should be considered. The EWP’s vision is also one of a fully privatised, deregulated energy sector, in which protecting the sanctity of the market is prioritised over the promotion of zero emissions technologies.

To begin to understand the EWP’s outcomes, it is worth noting the reference group that Minister Ferguson put together to help write it. The group does not include one person with any expertise or exclusive interest in renewable energy. There is also not a single representative from community or environment groups. Instead, the list of those invited to the table reads like a roll call of the usual suspects: BHP Billiton; Rio Tinto; Xstrata Coal; Woodside Energy; Caltex Australia and so on.

In many ways, the EWP is a typical neoliberal document in the tradition of the last few decades of Labor and Liberal party policymaking. It calls for the privatisation of all remaining government-owned energy assets and full deregulation of retail energy pricing. The EWP also sets the scene for the scrapping of policies designed to support the deployment of renewable energy, lending weight to the view that carbon pricing is considered a sufficient, catch-all response to emissions reduction by the Gillard Government. During his launch of the draft EWP, Minister Ferguson underscored this point by announcing the scrapping of the Government’s promised emissions standards for new coal-fired power stations, no longer seen to be necessary given the passage of the carbon price legislation.

Also in Ferguson’s sights are the various feed-in tariff schemes introduced by state and territory governments to support the uptake of solar panels. According to research presented in September 2011 at a renewable energy symposium in Taiwan, feed-in tariffs have been responsible for 64 per cent of wind energy and 87 per cent of solar energy installed worldwide. Rather than giving due credit to this effective policy instrument, the EWP dismisses it as a ‘market distortion’. In the meantime, the distortionary implications of support for the development of controversial carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, assumed in the EWP to allow coal to continue to play a major role in Australia’s energy future, is not brought into question. Nor is the over $10 billion in fossil fuel subsidies already supplied by taxpayers annually.

The introduction of a low carbon price and the absence of policies to support renewable energy deployment will ensure the increasing exploitation of fossil gas, including gas from non-conventional sources such as coal seams. Widespread community opposition to the emerging coal seam gas (CSG) industry is treated in the EWP as a minor hurdle. Rather than legitimise concerns about what the destructive impacts of this industry and what its planned expansion will mean for farming, water supplies and greenhouse gas emissions, the document merely notes that effort will need to be applied to build community support. More fundamentally, the assumption that gas is a ‘clean energy’, creating lower emissions than coal may not even be true, particularly when it comes to non-conventional sources with high uncertainty around fugitive emissions. Very little research has been done on the life-cycle emissions of gas, with at least one recent report suppressed by the gas industry.

The EWP displays a rose-coloured glasses approach when it comes to the future price of fossil fuels. Dismissing outright the potential for peak oil to occur between now and 2035, the EWP predicts an oil price of US$120 a barrel (in real terms) in 2035. That amounts to an approximate increase of 54 per cent on 2010 prices over twenty-five years, which seems especially naive considering the 300 percent oil price increase over the last seven years acknowledged by Minister Ferguson in his speech to launch the EWP.  Ferguson also admitted that the eastern states of Australia will be exposed to global gas prices once the export terminal in Gladstone is complete around 2015, which is likely to see gas prices triple and become as volatile as oil prices are currently.

Modelling included in the EWP also exposes Minister Ferguson’s questionable grasp on the price of renewable energy. Research by the University of Melbourne’s Energy Research Institute, commissioned by Ross Garnaut in May 2011, showed that the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism was consistently overestimating prices for renewable energy. In the case of rooftop solar panels, the study showed that they are already cheaper than the prices Ferguson’s department predicted they would fall to in the year 2030! Despite publicly acknowledging this data and promising to note changes to the cost of renewable energy, the EWP reflects continued use of outdated figures. One week after the EWP was launched, finance analysts at Bloomberg revealed that the cost of wind power had been exaggerated by 50 per cent, and the price of solar power by 300 per cent in EWP modelling.

Leaving aside these flaws in the EWP it is worth asking, more fundamentally, what a strategic, long-term energy policy for a wealthy, emissions-intensive country like Australia should look like, given what we know about global climate change and energy trends.

A forward-looking energy policy not tainted by vested interests would recognise the twin realities of the urgent need for emissions reductions and the favourable economics of a switch to renewable energy. It would recognise that these transitions require strong government leadership and support.

Policies built on this analysis do exist. One example is the Danish Government’s recently released package of initiatives, Our Future Energy which clearly emphasises the need to ‘avoid becoming trapped with inefficient and non-renewable technologies… [and] caught with an expensive and outdated energy sector in 30-40 years’. The investment required to meet its target of 100 per cent renewable energy in national energy supply by 2050, expected to amount to a net cost of less than 0.25 percent of that country’s GDP in 2020, is considered a necessary insurance policy to avoid higher costs in the longer term due to increasing prices of non-renewable energy.

The EWP contains no such vision. Instead, it shows that there is a contradiction at the heart of the Gillard Government’s climate and energy policies. On the one hand it fought to get the carbon price through parliament in 2011, while on the other Australia’s planned fossil fuel export projects will generate at least eleven times as many annual emissions as will be saved by the Clean Energy Future package. As Guy Pearse recently calculated, these projects will also contribute a staggering one eighth of the global carbon budget to avoid 2 degrees C global temperature rises (which, as many have explained, may not avoid disastrous impacts) between now and 2050.

The EWP claims to be working towards a ‘secure, resilient and efficient energy system’ and one which provides ‘accessible, reliable and competitively priced energy for all Australians’. Looking beyond motherhood statements, it contains policies which, if implemented, appear more likely to entrench energy insecurity, expose Australian energy consumers to ever-increasing fossil fuel prices, and completely contradict national efforts to abandon our greenhouse gas emitting path towards catastrophic climate change.

Taegen Edwards is a Research Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute. Pablo Brait is General Manager at Beyond Zero Emissions and Convenor of Yarra Climate Action Now. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisations the authors work for.

(Climate) Crime and Punishment

Originally published in the Australian Development Review and the Earthsign blog.

Climate change is worsening devastating droughts across East Africa (photo by Save the Children)

“…carbon polluters shouldn’t just be taxed they should be jailed.”– Martin O’Malley, state secretary of the SA branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, March 2011

Last year in Bolivia, a climate change conference was held that attracted over 30,000 people from 142 countries.

As part of this conference, 17 working groups were formed to discuss different aspects of the global climate crisis. These working groups were open to all and decisions were made by consensus. It was a far cry from the disastrous closed shop of the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen six months before and those in Cancun six months after.

One of the most interesting ideas of the Cochabamba conference was discussed by Working Group Five – the idea that an International Climate Justice Tribunal be established. After several days of tough and heated deliberations, they came out with a number of conclusions and this statement:

“The International Tribunal of Climate and Environmental Justice should have the authority to judge, civilly and criminally, states, multilateral organizations, transnational corporations, and any legal persons responsible for aggravating the causes and impacts of climate change and environmental destruction against Mother Earth. Claims may be made by all peoples, nations, nationalities, states, individuals, or corporations who have been affected, without having exhausted national remedies.”
Final Conclusions, 30 April 2010.

The Bolivian Government, as promised, has since lodged this proposal at the UN where of course it is being ignored by most governments who would face prosecution under such a body.

However, the idea is a popular one – at least in Canada where the Council of Canadians tested it via a national poll of 1000 people in October and November 2010. They found that:

77% of Canadians strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement: “There should be a World Climate and Justice Tribunal to judge and penalize countries and corporations whose actions have contributed to climate change and damaged the environment.”

It is not surprising this position attracted strong support. A court to try governments, corporations and individuals for climate crimes is a fantastic idea. The Global Humanitarian Forum in a 2009 report estimated that “every year climate change leaves over 300,000 people dead, 325 million people seriously affected, and economic losses of US$125 billion”. This was in 2009, and the toll is growing every year.

The people who are fighting to prevent action on climate change must be held accountable for the deaths and impoverishment that occur as a result of their actions. There are, however, many questions about how prosecuting climate criminals might work in practice.

I’m no lawyer but I figure a successful prosecution would rest on firstly establishing beyond reasonable doubt that human emissions are causing global warming and associated impacts, and secondly establishing that the person or government or corporation on trial was willingly undertaking actions (to be defined) that make climate change worse. The first point is already done and could be a founding principle as part of the tribunal’s establishment, or potentially you could set precedence in the first trial.

Resolving the second point would open up a big can of worms. Here in Australia there would be some pretty simple open-and-shut cases as well as some more complicated ones. Executives from fossil fuel corporations and their lobbyists in industry bodies and lobbying firms would be the most basic cases. These are people who are fighting appropriate action on climate change due to their greed. They should be in jail.

Climate change deniers who push their lies about the climate science and spread misinformation and doubt in order to stop or delay climate action would seem to be a simple case. However, which deniers should be held liable? Those who are in positions of power and authority? Those who are most active giving talks and commenting in the media? This is a very dangerous area as people are allowed to think what they like – free speech is valued in our society and rightly so. Dealing with climate change denial is probably best done not through the tribunal but by democratising and diversifying the media and splitting up the very few large corporations that control the newspapers and airwaves. Most climate change denial is given oxygen by companies like Newscorp, which have political agendas in line with the fossil fuel corporations and aren’t afraid to compromise their integrity in order to push them.

Then we come to politicians. This is where it gets really complicated. For example, Julia Gillard is currently trying to get a carbon price through the Federal Parliament. While the policy she favours is practically useless, you cannot argue that it is making climate change worse. However, at the same time her government supports (and is funding) a massive expansion in Australian coal and gas exports as well as new coal and gas-fired power stations. These actions will greatly increase emissions even with the implementation of a carbon price. Does one action balance the other? Or should the fact that emissions and coal exports keep rising be enough to condemn someone like Gillard?

The climate crisis is big and complex and we are all part of the problem as consumers of fossil fuels and products made from industrialised agriculture. However, there is a difference between passively accepting the injustices of the world and actively perpetrating them (although both are a problem).

History is littered with examples of justice denied and more often than not, those who perpetrate crimes against humanity are not held accountable (in fact, many retain their positions of wealth and power). In rare cases, justice does triumph and the small probability that a climate justice tribunal will be founded in the near future should not stop us from trying to have it formed. The climate crisis is already resulting in deaths here and overseas and is set to get much worse as the planet continues to heat up. A debate, both within Australia and globally, is urgently needed to determine whether actively worsening this crisis is a crime against humanity and how those responsible should be held accountable.

If anyone (especially lawyers!) is interested in exploring this further, please contact me on pablo@ycan.org.au.

By Pablo Brait