In this Critical Resource Q&A, Greenpeace International Executive Director Bunny McDiarmid warns that extractive companies’ business model may not be viable anymore and urges leaders in the industry to rethink their approach to sustainability.
Bunny McDiarmid has been Executive Director of Greenpeace International since 2016. She first joined Greenpeace as a crew member on the original Rainbow Warrior in 1984 and has worked with the organisation in various roles since then, including as the leader of its international nuclear and deep-sea bottom trawling campaigns and as Executive Director of Greenpeace New Zealand.
Please note that as with all our interviews, the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect Critical Resource’s opinion.
Even the leaders in the oil and gas sector need to think again
“Most major oil and gas companies would argue that good environmental stewardship lies at the heart of their business. However, the industry remains overwhelmingly driven by economic rather than ethical, environmental or social concerns. These companies are in almost every corner of the world and they touch on all our lives, but this comes at great cost, whether it is air pollution, oil spills, melting ice caps, climate change, the abuse of indigenous rights, and so on.
For example, Equinor, while considered a star operator in the oil sector, is now the only company actively exploring in a remote and fragile part of the Arctic. You cannot drill for oil in the Arctic – a region that is warming at twice the rate as anywhere else – and simultaneously be serious about tackling climate change. If you look at the science and the commitment that has been made in the Paris Agreement, it is clear that we have to move away from fossil fuels at a rapid rate. We simply cannot dig up any more oil and gas.”
We must question whether more resource extraction is needed
“As for mining, we are actually wasting tonnes of precious minerals – think of the millions of mobile phones that are thrown away every single year. Yet we are told that the world needs them and therefore we have to go and dig up more. In the Amazon, Greenpeace has worked with indigenous communities whose land and human rights have been completely dismissed in order to get these resources that the rest of the world apparently depends on.
We must question whether more is needed or whether we are using what we have well enough. This is not to say that all mining is bad; what is questionable is how we are doing it and the places in which we are doing it. For example, with seabed mining we have started going to places that we know very little about – we may be disrupting ecosystems that are extraordinarily valuable to the health and wellbeing of the entire ocean.”
If done right, corporate social responsibility is important work
“Overall, the extractive industries are nowhere close to being sustainable if we understand sustainability in terms of ensuring the survival of our planet as we know it. They depend on an extraordinarily wasteful development model, built on the assumption that resources are infinite, and on our tendency to think that happiness comes from ‘having more’. However, we are coming up against very clear planetary limits, and we need a radical shift in the way we approach development.
Companies’ corporate social responsibility can sometimes be a bit of a greenwash, but if done right it is important work. It is crucial that companies think about sustainability not just in terms of their own profit but also in terms of what it means for ecological boundaries. This is the case for oil and gas and mining companies, but also for renewable energy ones. Just because it is renewable, that does not mean it gets a free pass or that it can go everywhere and anywhere with no sense of sustainability. In New Zealand, for example, there have been some strong battles against putting wind turbines in ecologically sensitive areas. There are some places that should be completely off limits – be it for a coal mine or a wind turbine.”
Extractive companies’ business model may not be viable anymore
“Fossil-fuel companies are also increasingly under pressure from investors to be transparent regarding the material risks of climate change. We have also started seeing lawsuits and legal cases brought against companies for their climate impacts by a wide array of actors, from youth groups in Norway and Portugal to the New York City government. I think this poses a big risk to fossil fuel companies.
Investment has started shifting away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Think of HSBC’s recent decision to stop investing in tar sands, for example. Governments are also under mounting pressure to step up their efforts to honour the commitments of the Paris Agreement – for which reducing fossil-fuel subsidies is key – as well as to act on health risks, such as air pollution, created by fossil-fuel use. All these developments are threatening the very survival of many fossil-fuel companies, whose business model may not be viable in a rapidly changing world from climate change.”
We need to mitigate the negative societal effects of the energy transition
“A key issue requiring more attention in relation to climate change is ‘just transition’ – how do we move away from fossil-fuel industries without causing massive disruptions to both the workforce and the communities that depend on them? This has been a huge issue for many trade unions globally, which have raised it in a lot of the climate discussions.
We as Greenpeace are supportive of the transition away from the fossil-fuel sector, but also aware that it needs to happen in a way that ensures a sustainable future for the communities that used to depend on it. It is quite a hard balance to strike, and will mean different things in different areas – it will not be as easy as walking out of one factory or one industry and straight into another. But it is a very important conversation to be having right now in the fossil-fuel industry as well as a lot of others.”
We are not saying all companies are bad and all NGOs are good
“People are getting much more involved in what is happening in their daily lives and how companies perform on sustainability issues. This change in attitudes has brought stronger government action, such as New Zealand’s recent decision to stop handing out offshore oil and gas permits, or the increasing number of cities phasing out diesel cars and creating car-free zones. Companies need to step up their game – for this, joint action with governments as well as NGOs will be crucial.
Greenpeace has done a lot of constructive things with business over the years, and will continue to do so in the future. We have of course also campaigned very hard against some company practices where we thought they were not in the interests of any of us – and we will continue to do that too. Crucially, we are not saying that all companies are bad and all NGOs are good – it is not as simple as that. Greenpeace is not an anti-business organisation. But we need to become better at capitalising on the small acts of people – in business, NGOs and government – that can make the difference. We have to do better than we are doing now, otherwise we will not have much to pass onto the next generation.”