UPDATE: See this EXCELLENT piece by Ian Dunlop on how the Australian elites have fundamentally failed us on climate change
[minor corrections spotted by eagle-eyed people, and corrected]
The Australian climate policy soap opera is a bit like the TV show Neighbours. It’s been going since the late 80s. It survived the departure of some key characters. There have been times when it got quite ridiculous, times when hardly anyone was watching, and that you might in fact be wasting your time. And, just like Neighbours, you’re never that far from a new episode.
On Monday 29th of June, after a year of secret meetings, a new alliance was announced. The ‘Australian Climate Roundtable’ is made up of 9 groups – some green, a trade union and social care body and four business lobbies. It has a bland ‘statement of principles’ and its ultimate aim is to “to reset the tumultuous debate and try to establish a civil and constructive discussion”(1)
As much for me as you, gentle reader, I will try to situate the group in the context of recent (2009 onward) episodes of the soap opera (no, not Neighbours), and take some guesses at the motivations of the participants.
As for the likely impact of the group. Well, I will come to that, but the tl:dr is – ‘it ain’t earth-shaking’. Or saving.
The Roundtable is made up of the following groups;
Australian Conservation Foundation – set up in the mid 1960s by establishment figures, the ACF has shifted (a bit) to the ‘left’. It specialises in forming precisely these sorts of broad coalitions. For example, in April 2006 ago a group the ACF had brokered released a report called the “Business Case for Early Action on Climate Change.” (you could quibble over whether action on climate change almost twenty years after the scientists started raising serious alarm is ‘early’).
The Climate Institute – set up in 2005, during the dark days of Prime Minister John Howard’s until-then-successful efforts to keep climate change in the ‘too hard/too unnecessary/too unfair-on-Australia/technology will save us all’ basket. Crucially, the ten million that the Climate Institute was set up with is mostly gone, and the latest annual report is sombre about its future.
WWF- Australia – a corporate-friendly elite lobbying group that had worked with Howard during his dark days, much to the dismay of other greens (see ‘Taming the Panda’), but has been slightly less terrible since 2004 or so
Australian Council of Trades Unions – the peak trade union body, which had made some of the right noises in the late 80s/early 90s, produced a policy that may have been the first trade union statement in the world, and worked with ACF on a ‘Green Jobs Unit’ in the early 90s, before having to focus on core business during the long reign of Howard and his union-destroying habits.
The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) is, to quote it, “the peak body of the community services and welfare sector and the national voice for the needs of people affected by poverty and inequality. Our vision is for a fair, inclusive and sustainable Australia where all individuals and communities can participate in and benefit from social and economic life.”
There are four business lobby groups/trade associations
Business Council of Australia – established in 1983 as a ‘peak body’ for big business, consciously modelled on US corporate political mobilisation of the 1970s, the BCA had taken a keen interest in environmental regulation in the late 80s and early 90s. Its example and some of its personnel/supporters had been crucial in the creation of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, which is the home of the ‘greenhouse mafia’, .
Australian Industry Group
The Australian Industry Group is, to quote it, “a peak industry association in Australia which along with its affiliates represents the interests of more than 60,000 businesses in an expanding range of sectors including: manufacturing; engineering; construction; automotive; food; transport; information technology; telecommunications; call centres; labour hire; printing; defence; mining equipment and supplies; airlines; and other industries. The businesses which we represent employ more than 1 million people.”
And the AIG on climate? In response to the Rudd Government’s May 2008 Green Paper on emissions trading the Australian Industry Group, claimed up to one million Australian jobs were at risk (Chubb, 2014: 50). By 2011, they seemed to have changed their position. In researching ‘Power Failure’, his excellent account of the struggles over Australian Climate Policy in the years 2008 to 2013, Philip Chubb spoke to many actors. One told him ‘that the Australian Industry Group, for example, representing more than 60,000 businesses, some of which had a lot to lose, operated rationally.’ (Chubb, 2014: 187)
Australian Aluminium Council
This one is a surprise. Set up by Western Mining Corporation’s Hugh Morgan, the AAC has been a long term member of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, and a key part of the ‘greenhouse mafia’. To quote Guy Pearse’s magnificent 2007 expose of that mafia, High and Dry –
Those with the greatest resources, or greatest enthusiasm, contribute relatively more [to the costs of economic modelling that provided the intellectual basis for special treatment] . For example, one AIGN insider told me that enthusiasm depended on the nature of the research to be done, but when the hat was passed around you could always rely on the Australian Coal Association and the Australian Aluminium Council.
(Pearse, 2007: 204)
The final group Energy Supply Association of Australia. They do what they say on the tin. Just remember, that most electricity in Australia is still generated by the burning of black coal (esp NSW and Queensland) and brown coal (Victoria). In 2014 the ESAA absorbed the National Generators’ Forum. That group had spent the period 2008 to 2011 predicting imminent blackouts if Labor so much as thought about legislating an emissions trading scheme. Times have changed, it seems.
Umbrella groups past and present
Three previous climate umbrella groups are worth a look, all formed in the climate-crazy year of 2011, when the pressure for action that had been building since 2006 peaked (and then spectacularly plummeted).
There was the ‘Say Yes’ grouping, which paid for an ill-judged advert with Cate Blanchett and staged a rally before disappearing into well-deserved oblivion. For further gory details, see Chubb, (2014:175-77)
In April 2011 the “Southern Cross Climate Coalition” formed, with what the social movements studies call ‘frame extension’. There are four groups – the Australian Conservation Foundation the Climate Institute, ACTU and ACOSS. In other words, the Climate Roundtable has bolted on WWF and some corporates…
The SCCC was set up ‘to help lead an effective and fair response to climate change.’ The coalition called on ‘All Australians to work together to unlock substantial economic and job opportunities in tackling climate change and moving to a clean, safe economy.’
Meanwhile, in July 2011 the Australian Trade and Industry Alliance announced its existence.
With a $10m advertising budget, it was consisted of the “Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Minerals Council of Australia, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, the Australian Coal Association, the Plastics and Chemical Industries Association and the Australian Logistics Council, which is a loose collection of freight and transport companies’ (Coorey, 2011) The purpose? To ”build public opposition to the carbon tax so that it is either substantially modified or fails to pass the Parliament’‘ (Coorey, 2011).
To give you a flavour of them, here is an advert they released
Why are these groups involved in the Roundtable?
Before I get all cynical, let’s do some compassion. Let’s remember that (most) people don’t go to work everyday to find new ways of hood-winking the public and trashing the planet. People who work for (most) organisations take on the beliefs of the organisation they work for, or they get out. And most intelligent people know that we have a climate crisis of horrendous proportions, about which we did nothing in the decades that we could have. More and more people are waking up to just how screwed we are. It’s scary, and most people can’t face that abyss for very long, so retreat into ‘bargaining.’
Right, on with the cynicism: The green groups need some victories. They are over halfway through a miserable miserable three years (with no guarantee that Abbott will be gone after September 2016). They need to convince potential (financial) supporters, both individual and institutional, to keep sending the money
The ACTU and ACOSS know that their membership wants to see them acting on this issue, and that this issue is only going to become more relevant. ACOSS says it well
“People experiencing poverty and inequality will be hardest hit by the negative impacts of climate change and the least able to adapt. The only way to develop stable and equitable policies to avoid 2 degree global warming is to work together. The Climate Roundtable exemplifies the commitment of its members to help Australia maximize the opportunities and reduce the risks associated with climate change.”
What is in it for business? Well, clearly, they need a little bit more stability in domestic climate and energy policy than the last 8 years have brought. Funny that. To quote WWF,
“Delayed, unpredictable and piecemeal action will increase the costs and challenges of achieving the goals and maximising the opportunities. We also know that policies won’t work if they don’t last and stay on investors’ radars. The foundations of climate policy need broad and durable support, and we all have a role in building it.”
Australian Aluminium Council Executive Secretary Miles Prosser said: “It is time to set climate policy on a path that will efficiently reduce emissions while also enhancing economic prosperity and maintaining industry competitiveness.”
But there is I think something else going on.
This is speculation, but I think they are making a calculation that a global emissions trading scheme might not be too far off, and if the Australian government doesn’t knock it off with its cartoonish stupidity, they might be excluded. Let’s go back to the aftermath of the Kyoto Protocol, where Australia extracted (extorted) an extremely favourable deal and then refused to ratify. According to Clive Hamilton’s ‘Scorcher’
When it heard that some businesses were worried that they would be harmed by exclusion from Kyoto, [the Government] insisted that Australian firms could still participate in international emissions trading even if Australia did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. At best this was wishful thinking; at worst the Government was misleading Australian businesses… Because of the misleading statements emanating from various Australian ministers, in [March] 2002 the European Commission’s Delegation to Australia issued an unambiguous denial…
(Hamilton, 2007: 105)
What do some of the groups that not involved think?
Let’s have a look at four; the Australian Greenhouse Network, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry the National Farmers’ Federation and the Minerals Council of Australia.
The Australian Industry Greenhouse Network was, for a very long time, able to ‘reverse engineer’ the policy of bigger and more public groups such as the Business Council of Australia.
The AIGN’s people are so well embedded in the BCA that ‘reverse-management’ has been pretty easy. There was some resistance a few years back as certain key BCA members came to appreciate just how insignificant the AIGN interests are to the Australian economy. There was particular concern when former BCA chief executive David Buckingham, and former BP regional boss Greg Bourne started pushing for a position more relevant to the interests of the whole BCA in 2000. They even toyed with ratifying Kyoto and backing a domestic emission trading scheme. It was tricky at times, but by reverse-managing the processes, and taking advantage of their aces in high places, the AIGN kept the BCA where it wanted it…
(Pearse, 2007: 241
As recently as March 2011 the AIGN and BCA were holding a joint forum on carbon pricing, as part of a concerted effort to defeat or water down the Gillard government’s Clean Energy Future package of legislation. Better informed people than me can tell you when the interests of the two diverged. If this does signal the final loss of the AIGN’s suppression/veto power, then all you can say is that they had a very good run – almost 20 years of being the sand in the engine, the monkey in the wrench (that’s a Die Hard reference). From the perspective of their funders, money extremely well spent.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a member of that 2011 anti-carbon tax alliance, has nothing to say either, but its latest media release on environmental matters breathes a sigh of relief that the Mandatory Renewable Emissions Target has been watered down again. So probably not converts to the cause of low carbon electricity just yet….
The National Farmers’ Federation, which finally started talking about the climate impacts on agriculture only as late as 2006 (see Pearse, 2007: 182). According to an in-depth article in the Australian Financial Review about the negotiations on the Gillard government’s ‘Clean Energy Futures’ package, an independent politician, Tony Windsor, tried to engage the NFF.
“I ran the what if: ‘What if you could get $2 billion a year for research and development in relation to agriculture. Can you let me know?’” says Windsor of his attempts to engage the NFF, and get them to come up with a wish-list of projects and funding requests.
“One bloke handed me a piece of paper with pencil on it as he walked out and it said ‘heavy vehicles’. And [exclusion of fuel for] heavy vehicles came out of the deal. None of these people said we really need $200 ¬million for plant breeding technology to overcome heat stress. Pathetic. Absolutely pathetic.”
On the subject of the Roundtable, Bettles (2015) writes
NFF natural resource management committee chair Gerry Leach told Fairfax Media he wouldn’t go as far as saying the NFF supported the Roundtable concept.
But he said the NFF acknowledged the new group had made a “high level statement” about climate change policy.
Finally, we turn to the Minerals Council, the home of intransigence and the enforcers of broader business silence. Well, the MCA has opinions about LOTS of climate issues. However, on the existence of the Climate Roundtable, the cat seems to have their tongue
Mark Ludlow of the Australian Financial Review writes –
Interestingly, the resources sector has snubbed the Australia Climate Roundtable, even though they are the nation’s biggest polluters.
Apart from closing down older, dirtier coal-fired power stations, the industry is looking at adopting new technology to retrofit power stations to reduce emissions.
The Japanese are pioneering the ultra-supercritical technology, but it is yet to reach commercial scale.
What Ludlow doesn’t say is that the ultra-supercritical technology promise has been made since the very early 1990s, and that between then and now the ‘carbon capture and storage’ story has been told to death.
Meanwhile, another Fin journalist, Ben Potter (2015) observes
As the Minerals Council of Australia – a representative of the largest fossil fuel energy exporters but not a member of the Roundtable – points out, the pack leaders are vastly different, post-industrial, service-based economies.
They have outsourced much of their emissions-intensive production to China and Japan and those nations’ energy suppliers such as Australia and Canada.
On an end-user consumption basis, Australia is less emissions intensive – emissions per unit of gross domestic product – than the US, Canada, India and China, and not much more so than Japan, Germany and Britain.
The Minerals Council’s view is not going to hold sway in this debate. Advancements in renewable energy and storage are proceeding too swiftly for that. But their analysis will play a part in business and government deliberations on what constitutes Australia’s “fair part”.
What does it all mean?
That at long last the costs to business of policy uncertainty are outweighing inertia and the political power of the elements of fossil-fuel lobby that really have nowhere to hide. For some, this may be a moment of cautious optimism. For those of us who can read a Keeling Curve and the emissions trajectories, it’s a moment for a rueful smile and for thoughts of what might have been.
(1) The chief executive of the Climate Institute, John Connor, quoted in Taylor (2015)
AFR (2013) Climate of chaos: the backroom deals that set a government’s agenda Australian Financial Review 27th April
Bettles, C. (2015) NFF cautious on Climate Roundtable The Land 1st July
Chubb, P. (2014) Power Failure: the Inside Story of Climate Politics under Rudd and Gillard Melbourne: Black Inc.
Coorey, P. (2011) Industry push to wipe out carbon price Sydney Morning Herald 1st July
Hamilton, C. (2007) Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change Melbourne: Black Inc.
Ludlow, M. (2015) Tougher climate policy ‘inevitable’ industry says Australian Financial Review 29th June
Pearse, G. (2007) High and Dry: John Howard, Climate Change and the Selling of Australia’s Future. Melbourne: Viking
Potter, B. (2015) Climate roundtable’s detail-free principles will do little Australian Financial Review 29th June
Taylor, L. (2015) Australian climate policy paralysis has to end, business roundtable says The Guardian 28th June