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Power Play and AGL

5 December 2022 at 5:13 pm
David Ritter
Greenpeace CEO David Ritter explains the story behind the organisation’s new documentary, which charts its fight to change the course of energy giant AGL.

David Ritter | 5 December 2022 at 5:13 pm


Power Play and AGL
5 December 2022 at 5:13 pm

Greenpeace CEO David Ritter explains the story behind the organisation’s new documentary, which charts its fight to change the course of energy giant AGL.

Greenpeace’s new documentary premiering this week, POWER PLAY: Transforming Australia’s biggest climate polluter, tells the dramatic story of the campaign behind one of the great breakthroughs in our nation’s rapidly accelerating clean energy revolution.

As two prominent climate change communicators noted recently, we must “be able to wrap our minds around two seemingly opposing realities: we are making substantial progress, and yet it’s wholly insufficient to the scale of the challenge”. 

In this context, it is all the more important to notice the sudden accelerations, the instances that remind us that great historical change is non-linear, and that huge jumps are possible. 

It is these leaps and bounds that will enable us to close the gap between the progress that we are already making – and what is needed and essential to create the possibility of a bridge through the climate crisis to a flourishing future. We can also study and learn from the strategies and conditions that enabled things to suddenly advance.

The breaking revolution in power generation in Australia is one such moment. AGL is Australia’s largest domestic climate polluter, responsible for around 8 per cent of emissions, largely because of its fleet of ageing dirty coal burning power stations. As recently as last year, AGL was planning to keep operating these polluting monstrosities until almost 2050. Today, under new business leadership, AGL is on the road to becoming a renewable energy powerhouse – with coal gone by 2035 at the latest, with 2030 or earlier a genuine possibility.

As Bruce Mountain, Director of the Victoria Energy Policy Centre at Victoria University wrote in October, “If future historians pick a point in time when Australia comprehensively turned its back on coal-fired generation, they may well point to AGL’s decision”.

AGL has gone from being a bulwark of the fossil fuel order to being in the vanguard of the clean energy transformation. It is an incredible turnaround, worthy of celebration. But how did it happen?

 In Power Play: Transforming Australia’s biggest climate polluter, award winning director Michael J. Lutman documents the campaign that changed the direction of AGL. As the blurb notes, it is a film about collaboration that explains how Greenpeace, together with a diverse group of people and organisations, took on Australia’s worst greenhouse gas emitter and prevailed, in what is surely a decisive encounter for the future of our country. 

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the new direction at AGL has been achieved through a combination of community activism and restless capital, tactically aligned and focused on a company that was vulnerable to changed technological, political, social and environmental circumstances, to which it had failed to adapt

The film really opens the door on the part that campaigning played in this extraordinary change, show-casing both the strategy and the tactics employed by Greenpeace and others to drive change. 

The campaign was waged on the streets, in the courtroom, at the company’s AGM, in the mainstream press, all over social media and even inside the business itself, as staff became disillusioned with the CEO and Board. Highlights included AGL’s unsuccessful attempt to shut down Greenpeace’s parodying of their logo in the Federal Court and the world-first attempt of school striker Ashjayeen Sharif to become a member of AGL’s board. 

As Simon Holmes à Court says in an interview for the documentary, “hundreds of thousands of Australians went on that mental shift”, forcing the company to reform and adopt a new direction for the business.

The film also has profound implications for corporate governance, revealing how board and executive groupthink failed to grasp the implications of shifts in the sector – despite a loud and varied chorus of external opinion urging a change in course. The lesson for any company director in Australia in an enterprise involved in the production and burning of coal, oil and gas is that you might want to pay some serious attention to what the impact investors, climate campaigners, scientists and shareholder advocates are trying to tell you: the world is changing fast and you need to get into the renewable energy fast-lane as soon as you can, or risk disastrous consequences for your business. 

Narrative has immense power. The story of AGL is that entrenched vested interests and fixed mindsets were able to be overcome through sustained campaign effort and the intervention of capital. This particularly matters in the context of climate change, because it is only the malign influence of fossil fuel corporations that is holding back the transition to renewable energy at emergency speed and scale. 

The campaign to shift AGL as depicted in Power Play shows what is possible. The renewable energy revolution will overcome the fossil fuel order. 

David Ritter  |  @ProBonoNews

David Ritter is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.


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