Climate change: who’s to blame?

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies. 

The impacts of climate change are bleak and grim, and as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states, its effects are irreversible, with one issue being the root cause: human influence. 

The everyday individual aims to take it upon themselves to shoulder the burden of ensuring global warming is steadied at a low rate- whether it is through shopping plastic-free, going vegan or even using paper straws. However,  there is one actor who plays a significant part in giving rise to the world’s temperature and subsequent wildfires, floods, and destruction of ecosystems: corporations. To ensure these large multinational companies do not go unchecked, it is critical for ASEAN and Australian policymakers to introduce targeted measures and legislation to oversee these corporations.This can ensure that  future generations in the region are able to live in a world free of catastrophic environmental conditions.

According to scholars, the  crux of climate change is corporations, noting that, ‘climate change is not just an environmental issue…, it is a corporate governance issue’. In 2019, The Climate Accountability Institute revealed that there were only 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions in the world. BHP Billiton is a prime example, emitting 1,863 megatons of carbon emissions since 2004 in Australia. The blatant irresponsibility of corporations is also a key issue with companies more likely to stress environmental mitigation in the developed world, rather than the developing world– where most corporations perform damaging resource extraction.

A case in point made by a tone-deaf Twitter poll by Royal Dutch Shell in late 2020 asking individual consumers what they would be willing to change in order to help reduce emissions. Polling options included: offsetting emissions, stop flying, buy electric vehicles and renewable energy. Amongst these options,  there was no mention to the blatant destructive activities of the poll-maker themselves. The shifting of responsibility to consumers is obvious and reprehensible with the company accounting for a whopping 1.67% of global industrial greenhouse gases between 1988 and 2015.

Beyond shifting blame, corporations have very tangible and pernicious effects on communities– especially so for Indigenous peoples. Only last year did mining giant Rio Tinto, blast an Aboriginal sacred site in Australia for an iron ore mine. Further, in the Philippines, the Tampakan Mine in Mindanao displaced the Blaan peoples whilst also causing severe environmental degradation to local rivers and farmlands. This is also owned by giant Glencore PLC, who contributes to 0.38% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

It is evident major corporations are placing dire strain on the environment and the lives of those who live in site areas are often disenfranchised. The impact of this is so catastrophic that the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report recently noted the Paris Agreement’s goals will not be attainable; and pushing to reduce temperature change to less than 2,considered to be unlikely. 

So, what can be done to mitigate these issues? 

Current measures in place in Australia are limited. For any illegal activities that corporations engage in, listed in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act, the legislation places fines for corporations that are generally ten times higher than those for individuals. Further, a new amendment to the legislation- the ‘Climate Trigger Bill’– is being reviewed by the Australian Senate. The Bill aims to penalise corporations for undertaking actions which involve any ‘emissions-intensive actions’ if the action has, or is likely to have, a significant impact on the environment.The passing of this Bill would be significant in Australian environmental legislation as it firmly impedes the actions of corporations that would exacerbate increasing global temperatures. Similar criminal sanctions are found in Indonesian legislation and Filipino provincial environmental codes banning open-pit mining, but more change is yet to be seen for many other countries in the ASEAN region, including Cambodia, Brunei, and Malaysia.

Of course, corporations contribute largely to the economic wellbeing of nations, but there are ways for this to be done more sustainably. By approaching natural resource extraction in a holistic, rather than depletory way, resources can be sustainably used, minimising emissions and effluents. With the individual State continuing to be the most powerful actor in the international realm with the authority to create political imperatives, corporations will be forced to yield- therefore amending and creating legislative change is imperative to halting these entities.

As much as the average individual is aiming to alleviate climate change on their own, the real issue lies with corporations and the lack of regulation surrounding it. It’s time for policymakers to push global warming prevention to the top of the agenda for the longevity and wellbeing of their citizens and the ecosystem of their nations. Put away the metal straws and instead regulate big corporations.

This article was written by Sharanya Murthy , edited by Stephanie Plumb, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

More to explore