MICHELLE HIGELIN & KATHERINE TU. Australia’s climate inaction is far worse when you look beyond our borders

Dec 22, 2019

Australia’s contribution to the climate crisis is bigger than we think. ActionAid Australia uncovered that Australian companies are expanding coal, oil and gas operations with little oversight in some of the poorest areas in the world – and women are paying a high price.

1.3% is the figure that Prime Minister Scott Morrison relentlessly holds up to defend Australia’s inaction on climate change, as the percentage that our country contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Look beyond our borders, even past Australia’s disappointing performance at this year’s UN climate talks, and the situation is far worse than Mr Morrison would have us believe.

1.3% does not account for the impacts of Australian mining companies overseas, which evidence suggests have far reaching effects on our planet and some of the poorest communities around the world. The Australian Government’s unwavering support of the fossil fuel lobby is cause for concern.

In recent years, our Government approved a $500 million loan to Exxon Mobil, the Papua New Guinean Government, and Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) listed companies Oil Search and Santos for an LNG project in Bougainville. Export Finance Australia, the government body that administered the loan, has no blanket restrictions on supporting fossil fuel projects. But it’s not just about climate impacts; there were warnings that this gas project could spark a civil war.

Despite promises that the massive LNG project would transform Papua New Guinea, to date it has failed to deliver on economic promises, with the country’s economy going backwards on some indicators. The project was projected to generate about $570 million in revenues per year, when in fact it is generating less than half that, at under $203 million.

A recent report by ActionAid Australia highlights the harmful impacts that the PNG project had on women and girls. Landowners are competing and fighting, often violently, to receive benefits from the exploitation of natural resources. The growing state of lawlessness and proliferation of guns threatens the safety of women and girls and the risk of violence. Wages earned by men working on the PNG LNG project are fuelling inflation of ‘brideprice’ and are being used to buy guns that intimidate reluctant parents or resistant brides, driving the abuse and neglect of women and their children.

There’s also the ASX-listed fossil fuel companies that the Government lets operate overseas without any regulation or accountability for impacts on the climate, women and the broader community. ActionAid’s report on Australia’s expanding global fossil fuel footprint illustrates that while the overall number of planned and operational projects decreased, ASX-listed companies are increasing their reach in the furthest corners of the world – with total carbon emissions potential up by 13% compared to the year before.

These projects have the potential to cause almost 2.8 billion tonnes of emissions — five times Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. This is from 34 operational projects, owned either wholly or partially by ASX-listed companies. According to publicly available information from annual reports, 99 more are planned.

The Australian Government has touted private sector investment as a pathway to faster and more sustainable development outcomes, but there is mounting evidence that the activities of Australian mining companies are having a negative impact on women and their communities. The town of Phola in Mpumalanga province in South Africa is one clear example.

Phola is surrounded by 15 mines and situated in close proximity to a number of large coal mines including the Kilpspruit mine, which was owned and operated by a subsidiary of ASX-listed company, South 32, until it was sold this year.

Mining projects were supposed to bring new employment opportunities and wealth to Phola but women report that they are not benefiting from the mine’s promised riches. Far from it — evidence shows their quality of life has measurably worsened.

Women lost access to their farm lands and with it the ability to feed their families. The mining presence has brought increased violence and harassment with some women reporting that jobs can only be accessed through sexual favours. Girls are dropping out of school at alarming rates and trading sex for survival. There’s increased air and water pollution, including high levels of dust, resulting in health problems like asthma, sinus issues, and tuberculosis.

These are just some of the documented impacts that are a product of the failure of the Australian Government to take serious action on climate change and Australian mining companies to play their part.

Morrison’s touting of the 1.3% figure is his idea of a clever political tactic – it allows him to deflect responsibility. But the effects of climate change know no bounds. Women, poor communities, and other marginalised groups will of course be hit the hardest, but ultimately we all suffer the consequences.

We are seeing this happen already. Our country is literally on fire; Sydney and other parts of New South Wales are choking on smoke haze, and doctors are calling a public health emergency as air pollution is up to 11 times the hazardous level. It’s time Australia faces up to our real contribution to the climate crisis and its far-reaching and damaging impacts at home and abroad, and drastically shifts government policy before we hit the point of no return.

Michelle Higelin is the Executive Director of ActionAid Australia, which is part of a global federation working in 45 countries to campaign against unjust trade and tax policies that drive gender inequality and deepen poverty.

 Katherine Tu is the Head of Policy & Campaigns at ActionAid Australia.

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