Sep 17 2008

Greenwash Emissions on the Nose

Olga Galacho, The Herald Sun, Victoria, Australia– Aluminium titan Alcoa may pump more carbon into the state’s lungs than most companies. But it would have Victorians believe they can start breathing easy again after yesterday’s announcement that it has been recognised as a sustainability leader in its home country, the United States. The opening of its first new smelter in 20 years, in Iceland and powered by hydro-electricity, has cemented Alcoa’s position in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, it seems.

The index tracks the financial prowess of “leading sustainability-driven” companies, and this year is the seventh in a row that the highly energy-intensive Alcoa has been included.

The news might be a relief to those who were considering investing in portable oxygen tanks after the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) last week named and shamed Alcoa as one of 11 power generation owners doing “zero to reduce their emissions”.

After all, with Alcoa hogging nearly a quarter of the electricity produced in Victoria for its own purposes, its carbon footprint had many worried.

But a cocky Alcoa hit back at WWF, saying its claims were absurd and inaccurate.

No doubt it was emboldened at the support emerging from the latest Garnaut report for a “do nothing” approach to cutting Australia’s emissions if a global climate change deal fails next year.

The company countered WWF’s criticism by saying alumina produced by Alcoa in Australia used just over half the energy and produced less than half the greenhouse emissions compared to alumina produced in China.

With coal-guzzling, smoggy China used as a benchmark, why didn’t Alcoa think to advise WWF to use more energy to protect its icon pandas rather than wasting it on bagging a pint-sized power station? Perhaps it thought environmentalists don’t do irony.

WWF took issue with Alcoa’s Anglesea power station (pictured), used to supplement electricity at its Point Henry smelter, but the aluminium “dinosaur” retorted that the plant had the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per megawatt hour for brown coal generators in Victoria.

And this other lofty benchmark, brown coal-fired electricity, takes your breath away – probably literally if you are downwind of a plant generating it.

Alcoa’s sustainable development chief Tim McAuliffe was too busy to answer BNW’s questions yesterday because he was finishing the company’s submission to Senator Penny Wong’s climate change green paper.

Given the challenges Alcoa faced in meeting yesterday’s deadline for submissions, BNW will offer its questions on notice:

1. How much will it cost Alcoa to shut down its Australian operation and move offshore, as it has suggested it will do if it doesn’t like Senator Wong’s final emissions trading policy?

2. Is moving its operation offshore more cost effective than selling it to an organisation better able to navigate an Australian emissions trading scheme?

3. Which emissions trading-exempt regions has Alcoa identified as better for business than Australia that have no foreign ownership limits and low sovereign risk?

4. Why does Alcoa prefer using renewable energy in regions where emissions trading exists, but seek to avoid it in Australia?

5. Does Alcoa really expect to be taken seriously about its claim that it is helping develop wind power at its Portland smelter, when in fact it has merely made a switchyard available to another company for turbines that will not be used to power its operations?

6. What does it say to analysts who accuse it of rent-seeking and double standards?