It’s been just another month in the life of the fossil fuel industry – digging up stuff out of the ground, making loads of profits, tax dodging. If you’ll pardon the pun, you know the drill. But for those of us who closely follow the news and its coverage of the mining industry, it hasn’t quite been just another month. It’s been a month that showcases the full width and depth of the industry’s depravity, as different reports come out that peel back the PR to reveal its true character.
Let’s start in Egypt, where governments and civil society leaders from around the world gathered at COP27 – the annual soiree of climate change discussion. Most of the news coverage about COP has focused on the passing of a resolution agreeing developed nations should financially compensate the poorest countries for loss and damage caused by climate change. This is welcome news, but has somewhat obscured the other big report released at COP – the “High Level Expert Group on Net-Zero Commitments of Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities and Regions” findings on whether promised climate plans of corporations were actually realistic.
Turns out, and this won’t surprise many of you, the net-zero plans of fossil fuel companies would have done more for climate action had the paper they are written on been left standing as trees. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres declared “The problem is that the criteria and benchmarks for these net-zero commitments have varying levels of rigour and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through. We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing. It is rank deception. This toxic cover-up could push our world over the climate cliff. The sham must end.”
The hypocrisy highlighted in the report is very familiar to Australians, where countless proposed new fossil fuel projects are in various stages of development, helmed by companies who have pledged net-zero.
The report had several pertinent recommendations, including: net zero pledges actually be in line with official scenarios limiting warming to 1.5℃; that they include emissions cuts rather than relying on carbon offsets; and that they cover all greenhouse gas emissions, including those occurring along a company’s supply chain and through the use of its products.
In the end, no resolution was passed regarding corporate greenwashing at COP27. Some would say that this is because trying to stop people talking about climate action while not actually doing much would put everyone at COP out of a job. But I’d like to take this moment to point out that amongst the delegates at COP were 636 fossil fuel lobbyists – up 25% from last year, and more than any single national delegation bar the UAE (many of the UAE delegates of course were fossil fuel lobbyists!). The fossil fuel industry was better represented at COP than the combined total of the 10 countries most affected by climate change.
One of the companies present at COP27 was Glencore – Australia’s biggest producer of thermal coal. Glencore’s representatives probably didn’t need to pick up a travel guide for the trip to Africa, a continent they are very familiar with. Earlier this month, Glencore plead guilty in British courts to charges of bribery in the African continent. They were fined £281m, which is quite a lot of money, though significantly less than the $1.1 billion Glencore had been fined in the US earlier this year for bribery and market manipulation. British judge Justice Fraser said corruption was “endemic” within the African oil trading desk of Glencore – the company’s employees and its agents had given bribes worth $27m to unnamed officials in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and South Sudan, causing harms worth $128m. Senior Glencore employees signed off on cash withdrawals used for the pay-offs.
How do we measure the true cost of Glencore’s actions? You can put a dollar figure on how much the company paid and how much profit they got out of it, but what about the social cost? Here is one of the world’s biggest corporations going to some of the poorest countries and using its immense wealth to entrench inequality in the African continent by bankrolling corrupt regimes. In South Sudan, 7.7 million people – two thirds of the population – are currently malnourished through natural disasters and conflict. Glencore is returning record profits from stealing Sudanese resources, which of course when used will only make the climate crisis worse.
For most of us, paying over a billion dollars in fines and reparations would be quite a hit to the hip pocket. But Glencore paid a $4bn dividend to shareholders last year as it reported record adjusted profits of $21.3bn – so you might say it’s just good business.
Glencore was also in the news in Australia last week, one of six companies named in documents tabled in parliament by independent MP Andrew Wilkie that detail how coal companies in Australia are using “fraudulent” coal quality reports for their exports – paying scientists to lie about the quality of their coal and paying bribes to overseas officials to keep the matter secret. Wilkie said “this has allowed them to claim, for years, that Australian coal is cleaner than it is, in order to boost profits and prevent rejection of shipments at their destination“.
Those of you with good memories may remember the approximately one million times in recent years that industry and government have justified Australian coal exports on the basis that the coal is better quality than overseas coal and therefore good for the environment. Turns out those claims belong on the fiction shelves alongside the same companies’ net zero pledges.
Thus passes another month of lying, cheating and bribing from the fossil fuel industry, although this one was a bit different from the usual in that someone actually called them out on it. For most of us who watch the mining industry with any degree of attention, these revelations come as no surprise. Around the globe, the mining industry thrives with a combination of silver tongue, astute power plays, and brutal violence to opponents when it thinks it can get away with it.
One of the most depressing lines in all these reports came at the end of the article about Glencore’s bribery conviction. Lawyer Iskander Fernandez said the conviction may prevent Glencore bidding on some public contracts, and some of their shareholders are angry at the lost dividends this has all caused. But “bar the above, there is nothing else that would prevent a company from moving forward and carrying on with its business.”
That business, presumably, will still include their trademark “endemic corruption”. At this point it’s probably worth remembering too what the normal – non-corrupt – business of the mining industry is: find resources they did nothing to create, make billions of dollars profit digging them up, then claim no responsibility when it turns out their products are driving the world towards catastrophic climate change.
No one doubts that there are principled people with good intentions working in the mining industry. But that’s all the more reason to point out the big picture of what that industry actually does. Those people’s hard work ultimately goes towards ruining the world’s democratic institutions and natural environment, while sabotaging attempts to actually improve either. Our survival at this stage depends not on any minerals we can dig up, but on the hard work being done to restrict the destructive power of big mining corporations – like the examples I just mentioned.
Just another month living with the fossil fuel industry I guess – defending our lives and planet from a morally bankrupt but astonishingly powerful nemesis, who keeps telling us how much of a favour it is doing us all.