With Westpac joining the growing list of corporations that are questioning the climate policy stance of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), it seems that major companies that take climate change seriously have sussed out the strategy of one of Australia’s most toxic denialist lobby groups.
The Business Council, denialist? Surely this is the business group that, according to its website, supports “action on climate change” and supports our Paris Agreement commitments? The reason the BCA is one of Australia’s most dangerous denialist groups is because its strategy is to accept climate change and the need for climate action, but aggressively sabotage any actual policies designed to address it. That’s what ultimately serves the interest of a number of its high-profile multinational members: ExxonMobil, the world’s fifth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter, Shell, the ninth biggest, BP, the 11th, Chevron, 12th, BHP, 20th — not to mention local greenhouse champions like Woodside and owners of coal-fired power stations, and denialist advocate News Corp.
The BCA’s strategy for over a decade has thus been to publicly support climate action and even a carbon price, then savage any serious policies to implement them. In June 2007, with even the Howard government embracing a carbon trading scheme, the BCA said it supported efforts to “link sensible and credible emissions reduction targets to a long-term, well designed national emissions trading scheme”.
At the same time, it also opposed the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. And while the council continued to insist “the best way for Australia to transition to a low-emissions economy is through a market-based emissions trading scheme”, it claimed the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme would “exacerbate the impact of the economic downturn or unduly slow the recovery in economic growth”.
It also attacked Rudd’s unambitious emissions reduction targets, demanded the complete watering down of the CPRS and the protection of coal mining, and wanted the scheme delayed as well. And in what would be a continuing theme in the BCA’s campaign to block climate action, it would piously call for both sides of politics to work together, even when the Coalition fragmented and a denialist rump in the Liberals blocked any action of any kind.
It got worse after the election of the Gillard government and the introduction of a carbon pricing scheme. As always, the BCA “supports a market-based mechanism” to reduce emissions. But that government’s scheme “presents considerable risks to Australia’s long term” and, when it was legislated, the BCA claimed it would “significantly increase risks to Australia’s economic growth and competitiveness” and was “extremely disappointing”.
The Gillard government scheme would see a significant downward trend in Australia’s emissions at minimal cost to the economy, with impacts even below the modest forecasts of Treasury. But when the Abbott government repealed it (ushering in five years of rising emissions and continuing higher electricity prices), the Business Council was overjoyed, joining other business groups to “welcome today’s repeal of the carbon tax”. For good measure, the BCA demanded the axing of the Renewable Energy Target as well.
Of course, the BCA has continued since then to pay lip service to the need for climate action, although it saw the Abbott government’s low-ball Paris emissions target more as an opportunity to call for lower company tax. When that government briefly flirted with an actual safeguard mechanism as part of its bizarre “soil magic” program, which might have actually regulated companies that increased their emissions intensity, the BCA was quick to demand that any safeguard mechanism not impose any burden on industry.
When Labor committed to a carbon price ahead of the 2016 election, with the detail to worked out following the election, the BCA was happy enough (it always likes to be told business will be consulted), but attacked the one actual detail in Labor’s policy, a higher emissions reduction target. It also attacked Victoria for its renewable energy target — any state-level climate policy is opposed by the BCA, even in the absence of Commonwealth action. By 2018, Labor’s science-based commitment to the Climate Change Authority’s 45% emissions reduction target was “economy wrecking” and the BCA’s Jennifer Westacott was coordinating with the Liberal Party to run a campaign against Labor on it.
It’s a pretty simple strategy: lip service to climate action, resolute hostility to even the most trivial policies that stand a chance of being implemented. That the BCA even thought the Coalition’s risible safeguards mechanism had to be watered down to homeopathic levels illustrates that the BCA will tolerate no climate action policies of any kind.
At least bodies like the Minerals Council have been open about their climate denialism. However selfish and resistant to science, they’ve been honest participants in the debate: they oppose climate action because it will hurt their members. The BCA has, for more than a decade, pursued a more malicious and dishonest approach: endorsing the need for action, but acting as saboteurs the moment anyone — and it’s usually Labor — has sought to do it. At least some members are starting to see this for what it is.
BERNARD KEANE is the Politics editor of Crikey