Time to end the paradox in BHP's response to global warming
The federal election in May relegated the prospect of ambitious carbon emission targets. But there’s been no slowdown in business planning for a post-carbon future; the strongest confirmation has been the speech by Andrew Mackenzie, CEO of BHP, the world’s largest mining company.
Mackenzie said on July 23 in London, “The evidence is abundant: global warming is indisputable.” If that was not an emphatic rejection of climate change denialism his next comment was a lightning flash: “We see this period as an escalation towards a crisis.”
With such language Mackenzie showed that heads of mining companies can’t separate themselves from what’s happening to our planetary home. And it might be that Mackenzie, with degrees in geology and chemistry, brings a scientist’s sensitivity to headlines about the melting of arctic permafrost, until now locking up an estimated 1.8 trillion tonnes of carbon, more than twice as much as currently suspended in the earth’s atmosphere. If the permafrost thaws it might release methane which Mackenzie would confirm - enlisting his PhD in organic chemistry - is 34 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.
But in the week that Mackenzie delivered his speech, leaked documents confirmed a coalition called COAL21 went to tender for an advertiser to mount a $4.5 million campaign to stall climate action. BHP is one of 26 corporate members in COAL21, ostensibly a body involved in researching carbon capture and storage. Now, it is funding an advertising blitz aimed at making Australians feel "proud about coal'', according to an ABC reportand is funded by a levy based on members’ coal production. The implicit message: keep incinerating carbon because it’s the Australian way.
BHP’s leaders might want to be judged on the Mackenzie speech not on BHP’s membership of COAL21. After all, their own children - Mackenzie has two daughters - have read only in the last month of the unprecedented melt of the Greenland ice sheet. They might be asking; what’s happening to our planet?
Their own thinking might be distinctly removed from that of the coal companies who comprise COAL21 and closer to that of the 16-year-old environmentalist Greta Thunberg. The eloquent Swedish schoolgirl might be the forerunner of a swelling movement over the next decade and beyond. She may pre-figure something we could call youth rage - generational anger that their elders didn’t decarbonise in the early 21st century when it was affordable through simple pricing mechanisms and there was still a prospect of saving the planet’s ice.
BHP has been criticised for failing to divest its thermal coal mines, but this is no small thing and the Big Australian is rolling in the right direction. The expectation that BHP will exit thermal coal, as Rio Tinto did in 2018, is not going away. And while BHP is not the first major resources company to accept responsibility for Scope 3 emissions (the carbon waste produced by its customers) it was still a policy move that has shifted the debate.
Climate aware investors will continue to push, with some ready to question BHP membership in organisations seeking to retard progress. Some of these investors belong to Climate Action 100+, a coalition of global investors worth a staggering $32trillion. Its Australian members include gold plaque names such as AMP Capital, BT Financial Group (part of Westpac) and Australian superannuation funds and asset managers. They also include mum and dad shareholders being urged on by their kids.
It will be hard for them to overlook BHP’s membership of groups that, contradicting every sentiment in Mackenzie’s speech, are fighting to slow the very transition that may keep the planet habitable.
These include not just COAL21 but the Queensland Resources Council and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. Of course, some of the climate aware investors could cut BHP some slack by saying the company, from inside the tent, may wean these bodies from denialism.
But have BHP’s membership dues had this salubrious effect? At the company’s two general meetings later this year - one in Australia, one in London - shareholder activists may ask for evidence that BHP’s membership has in fact dragged them kicking and screaming to the inconvenient truth about warming: that it’s now tending, as Mackenzie says, to “the upper end of forecasts”. Or has it just swollen their coffers and fed recalcitrant instincts?
Mackenzie stated boldly: “The global response [to climate change] has not yet matched the severity of the threat.” As a scientist who has published 50 research papers he could out-debate any of the hardliners in pro-carbon lobbies. It may be time to end the paradox that BHP funds organisations that urge delay and resistance, thus undermining the realism of its scientifically literate leader who has told the truth about the trouble the planet’s in.
Bob Carr is a former NSW premier and federal foreign minister. He is Industry Professor of Climate and Business at the University of Technology Sydney.
This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Read the original article.