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Keeping up appearances?

21 June 2021 at 5:29 pm
David Ritter
Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter reflects on the outcome of AGL’s recent law-suit against the charity and the widespread media coverage it generated. 

David Ritter | 21 June 2021 at 5:29 pm


Keeping up appearances?
21 June 2021 at 5:29 pm

Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter reflects on the outcome of AGL’s recent law-suit against the charity and the widespread media coverage it generated. 

At the heart of AGL’s recent ill-fated court case against Greenpeace is the question of what matters most – appearances or reality.

Earlier this year, Greenpeace launched a campaign parodying AGL’s logo as a way of drawing attention to the company’s undisputed status as Australia’s number one climate polluter. AGL responded by suing Greenpeace in the Federal Court of Australia.

AGL’s status as Australia’s worst domestic corporate climate polluter was not in issue. The official Australian Energy Regulator figures confirm that the company is responsible for 8 per cent of Australia’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions – more than double that of the next worst offender. Yet while AGL does not deny this, you would not necessarily guess the company’s reliance on dirty coal burning power stations from its website – which contains lots of pretty pictures of windmills and solar farms. This is despite the fact that 85 per cent of the electricity produced by AGL comes from burning coal and a meagre 10 per cent comes from renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The latter amount has barely increased since 2015.

The former CEO of AGL also admitted that the company did not regard itself as bound by the Paris international climate agreement

In suing Greenpeace for this parody, AGL confirmed that what really bothered them was appearances. In the real world, AGL is contributing more domestic greenhouse gas emissions than any other Australian company to drive extreme climate damage, like devastating bushfires and the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. But what the company seems to care most about is its image. As Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon Brookes tweeted wryly; “good to see the order of their priorities”.

In 2017, AGL’s then CEO, Brett Redman, told a conference that “the new AGL brand position is about demonstrating how we are shaping a sustainable energy future for Australia” which would “support AGL’s licence to operate in the eyes of the community and help build customer advocacy”. In trying to explain why a multi-billion dollar fossil fuel company was suing an environmental charity, an AGL spokesperson said they reserved their “rights to defend our brand under Australian law.” 

AGL’s cynical greenwashing strategy might explain why, when you go to its corporate landing page, the word “coal” isn’t even mentioned, although “solar and renewables” make the cut. AGL’s promotional materials contain numerous pictures of wind farms and solar panels. The company is fond of inflated claims. On one web page, AGL claims that it plays “a leading role in developing a pathway to a modern, decarbonised generation sector, developing and investing in new renewable and near-zero emission technologies” despite the fact its uptake of renewables has remained basically stagnant in recent years; moving from 9 per cent of the company’s total electricity output in 2015 to just 10 per cent in 2020. 

In my view, AGL’s ill-fated lawsuit was just the latest in a long line of attempts by big polluters to stifle, intimidate and censor civil society. It is what is known as a SLAPP suit – standing for “strategic lawsuit against public participation”. SLAPPs are designed to overburden charities, NGOs, activists and community groups in an attempt to censor criticism.

Fortunately, his Honour Justice Burley of the Federal Court decided that the parody exceptions under Australian intellectual property law applied in this case and overwhelmingly ruled against AGL’s court case. 

Burning coal is the greatest driver of climate change and AGL operates three old and dirty coal burning power stations: Liddell, Bayswater and Loy Yang A. AGL has openly admitted that its long-term business strategy is inconsistent with the internationally agreed Paris climate goal of keeping global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees.  

In May, the International Energy Agency released modelling requiring all unabated coal-burning power stations in advanced economies to close by 2030 at the latest. But AGL plans to keep all of its coal-burning power stations open until the very end of their technical lives. This means the company intends to keep on running Liddell power station until 2023, Bayswater power station until 2035 and Loy Yang A power station until 2048. 

In hindsight, suing Greenpeace might not have been the wisest decision for a company dedicated to keeping up appearances. The decision generated widespread media in Australia and globally as an important precedent for the democratic right to freedom of expression. The court case has already resulted in more than a thousand discreet media articles drawing attention to AGL’s record as Australia’s worst domestic climate polluter. AGL has effectively slapped itself in the face.

Although this round of legal proceedings is over, the campaign on AGL will continue until the company has decided to do the right thing for the Australian people and the planet. AGL needs to bring forward the closure of all of its coal burning power stations to no later than 2030, and to become a pure-play renewable energy company. Then AGL will truly be able to take pride from all those windmills and solar arrays on their website.

David Ritter  |  @ProBonoNews

David Ritter is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

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