ACTU: Greenwashing the mining industry?

April 4, 2008

After decades of "greenies versus jobs" propaganda, it is high time unionists and environmentalists started working together on the looming threat of catastrophic climate change. Sadly, the Australian Council of Trade Unions' (ACTU) policy on global warming released in March barely strays from what is acceptable to the government and big business.

Blaming the world's poor?

The report is keen to support the Kyoto protocol in placing "accountability for emissions at point of energy use or emission creation". The reverse of this position, the report says, would "transfer responsibility for a large proportion of US emissions from oil use to the Middle East" and "hold Australian coal miners directly accountable for the emissions of their (export) customers, with any resultant shortfall in Australian exports simply being met by third countries filling the breach in world supply".

This apparently logical principle equates wealthy multinationals such as BHP with poor Third World economies that export oil. Whether equitably (such as Venezuela) or not (Saudi Arabia), Third World oil producers use their exports to attempt to lift their country (or a section of it) out of poverty. Wealthy Australia and its ultra-wealthy multinational mining giants hardly fall into the same category, and can't expect to be taken seriously if they pretend they do.

Friends of the Earth have pointed out that the G8 richest countries are responsible for around two-thirds of historic carbon dioxide emissions. If you added to the G8 other rich countries like Australia (with close to the highest per capita carbon emission rate in the world) this figure would climb still higher. On this basis, Australia and its industries have a lot to answer for.

Defending coal mining

Defending coal exports, the report states that "Australia has no right to unreasonably withhold the supply of energy to those who need it but must … commit to resourcing and participating in international research and development efforts to substantially reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuels at the point of use, such as power generation". What is meant is explained as upgrading coal-fired power stations and "carbon capture and storage" (CCS).

CCS, or carbon geosequestration, is the "clean coal" panacea of the Australian coal industry. It supposedly buries CO2 back under the ground, but the technology is still unproven on any large scale. Not only is securing large quantities of gas under poorly-understood and potentially porous rock formations risky, there is a big question as to whether enough appropriate sites really exist to make any real dint in carbon emissions.

A recent study by Dr Xina Xie of the University of Wyoming suggests that, for the US, as many as 100,000 new wells would be needed to sequester carbon emissions. As Xie also notes in the online Energy Tribune on March 19, "The petroleum industry has been injecting carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery (E.O.R.) for over 30 years", suggesting another possible motivation for the increased interest in sequestration techniques at a time when many oil reserves are running low and proving difficult to extract.

In Australia, there may be even more ridiculous plans afoot. The country's first underground carbon storage plant was unveiled on April 2, and is said to bury 100,000 tonnes of CO2. Strangely, this site in south-western Victoria is reportedly not far from another site where industrial CO2 is extracted from the ground. What sense is there in that? But it makes good sense to the ACTU apparently.

@question = No nukes! Power stations, that is.

The document puts a concise and convincing case against nuclear power — construction is too long and expensive, creates greenhouse gases itself, and creates very expensive electricity, as well as the "unsolved issue of waste". But nowhere is there mention of Australia's expanding uranium mining industry. Perhaps nuclear power is only inappropriate when it's generated in Australia? Not to mention weapons proliferation, which is not mentioned either — surely peaceful Australian uranium wouldn't end up in bombs?

The false nuclear "solution" on climate change is touted by many (including some environmentalists who ought to know better) as a possible way of replacing carbon emissions, but the ACTU document stops far short of really debunking this red herring or identifying Australia's real place in the nuclear cycle.

Let car manufacturers rot?

In strange contrast to its support for the mining industry, there is not much to be said about car manufacturing. Transport accounts for 13.5% of emissions in Australia (the third largest single source, just behind agriculture and far behind stationary power generation, which is 49.6%). The report lauds the increase in fuel efficiency over recent decades, speculates about which new fuels (like hydrogen) might be better in the future, and puts in a general statement in favour of more public transport.

The assault on car manufacturing jobs is caused (so far) only by factors like free trade and increasing petrol costs, not rampaging greenies. The car manufacturing industry seems threatened with extinction in Australia. But, in contrast to mining, the report has no great rush to the defence of our vital manufacturing capacity (vital if we wish to build the infrastructure for a sustainable economy, regardless of the current waste on cars). Are the thousands of jobs in manufacturing somehow worth less than the thousands in coal mining to the ACTU? Fuzzy statements about more public transport and renewable energy do not address the concerns of the thousands currently being thrown out of work at car plants.

Carbon trading

Like many of the conservative environmental organisations (and the ALP government of PM Kevin Rudd), the ACTU supports some kind of carbon trading scheme. "Market mechanisms have a critical role in the transition to a sustainable low emissions future", the report states. As is usual with this sort of hype, the small print to explain this is missing, despite calling for a "robust market in net emissions rights". If only the union movement could approach greenhouse pollution with the same strength it approached earlier deadly industrial pollutants like asbestos — which was banned, not allocated trade rights!

While this is the official ACTU document, rank-and-file union members might be concerned about how workers — especially the many on low incomes — will be affected by rising energy and water costs under current market rules in these sectors, and whether carbon trading will increase the cost to the consumer. Will the poor be forced to pay the carbon bill of the big polluting corporations as costs are passed on to the consumer?

While endorsing market mechanisms, the report has nothing to say about public ownership, despite the current union campaign in NSW against electricity privatisation.

Union action

The paper proposes a number of practical principles for workers' rights, including the right to know about the environmental impact of practices at their workplace, the right to protection in blowing the whistle on polluting practices, and the right to refuse work that harms the environment. These are all individual rights. Only a few suggestions for collective union action are made, such as including emissions reductions into workplace bargaining.

How far this is from the ACTU's recent Your Rights At Work campaign! Whatever its faults, YRaW had a clear succession of collective actions in the form of mass rallies followed by an effective marginal seats campaign in the election. Apparently it was a unique, one-off campaign strategy — obviously far too effective to be used against the government that it put into office!

A proud history forgotten

Australian unions in the 1970s were at the forefront of environmental campaigns. The Builders Labourers' Federation initiated green bans to save heritage buildings, parks and working class suburbs. These have carried on: construction unions have continued to place green bans with good effect, such as in support of the successful 1990s campaign to stop the Werribee toxic waste dump in Melbourne. The Australian Railways Union in the 1970s banned the carrying of uranium for some time, supporting the then mass movement to leave uranium in the ground.

Unfortunately many unions are in the same camp as the ACTU. Like forestry unions backing the logging industry to the last tree (and therefore last job), there is a worrying tendency to cling onto the coat-tails of the big polluting businesses that employ their members.

The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, which covers coal miners, has spoken out against climate change — but in favour of the CCS panacea. The Maritime Union of Australia has a proud record of defending just community causes — but supports the current dredging of Melbourne's Port Phillip Bay, which will likely stir up 100 years of accumulated toxic industrial sediments. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union in 2002 had an environment policy that could even put many green groups to shame in its thoroughness and radical approach — but in 2006 fell in line with the ALP-led mainstream to adopt a policy that supports CCS and does not mention any opposition to uranium mining.

All rank-and-file activists ought to ask the leaders of their unions: why are the unions lagging so far behind on this vital question? Climate change will mean disaster for union members: maybe the sudden catastrophe of events like Hurricane Katrina, or maybe only slowly increasing food, energy and transport prices, but it will happen and it will be irreversible. There is a short time to act in order to really prevent climate change, and if unions aren't part of the solution they risk catastrophe for their members and society as a whole.

[Socialist Alliance member Ben Courtice is an activist in the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the environment movement. He will be speaking at the Climate Change — Social Change conference in Sydney on April 11-13.]

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