A different kind of protest

AYCC-LendLease-GBR-AbbotTraditionally, the stereotype of social justice action portrays angry placard holders shouting slogans of condemnation at institutions. However, an Australian environmental youth organisation has taken a different approach and it has proven successful.

Walk past an Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) campaign and you are likely to find Nemo costumes, flowers being handed out on Valentine’s Day or a summer beach party.

These were the tactics used by around 40 Sydney campaigners and many more across Australia in AYCC’s latest four-month campaign calling on Lend Lease, Australia’s biggest listed property developer, to withdraw funding from the controversial Abbot Point X (AP-X) Terminal expansion on the Great Barrier Reef.

On January 31, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved a proposal to dredge three million cubic metres of spoil from the Abbot Point coal terminal in the marine park. The port’s expansion is to make way for the transportation of millions of tonnes of coal from Queensland’s Galilee Basin via rail.

There have been several debates over the environmental impact this project will have. The GBRMPA has pointed to “47 stringent conditions” placed on the project to protect the reef but many environmentalists still fear the dredged sediment of sand, silt and clay will drift and smother corals, hindering coral regeneration.

Underlying AYCC’s fun snap actions was a serious message about protecting the Great Barrier Reef for future generations. Throughout the campaign, AYCC representatives attended Lend Lease’s shareholder meetings and together with petition website, SumOfUs, AYCC collected almost 170,000 signatures from individuals and 36 community groups who expressed concern for the reef’s future.

It worked. On February 26, Lend Lease announced it would withdraw its funding from the AP-X coal port project.

The journey

When AYCC first heard in October last year that Lend Lease agreed to participate in a joint bid with transport provider Aurizon Holdings to fund the AP-X terminal, they were “shocked” because it seemed to contradict Lend Lease’s reputation for sustainability, said Ella Weisbrot, AYCC NSW Co-Coordinator.

Lend Lease’s core principle was stated by Founder, Dick Dusseldorp, in 1973: “Companies must start justifying their worth to society, with greater emphasis placed on environmental and social impact rather than straight economics” (published on Lend Lease’s website).

Considering Lend Lease’s “really good reputation for sustainability”, AYCC decided to give them the benefit of the doubt, targeting shareholders at the Lend Lease AGM with a positive message.

“It’s giving people the opportunity to do the right thing rather than assuming that they’ve already done the wrong thing,” Weisbrot said. “Instead of just getting angry and waving a placard in their face, we had all these positive messages we could take to them and I don’t think it’s surprising that people respond better to positive messaging than to telling them that they’re awful human beings.”

Economic interests

However, not all companies interested in the AP-X coal port are also interested in environmental sustainability. For many, including Lend Lease, commercial interests are highly influential in decision-making.

In a call with analysts, Lend Lease CEO, Stephen McCann, said the withdrawal was partly due to “commercial drivers”. He also pointed to environmental considerations among “other aspects”.

With Rio Tinto pulling out of the AP-X project in 2012 and BHP Billiton pulling out in 2013, the recent withdrawal of Lend Lease has left campaigners optimistic that other companies will consider the project’s lack of economic viability. “There is starting to be this sort of domino effect where companies are looking at the global coal market and looking at the kind of money that would need to be put in to tap this coal in Queensland and saying ‘it’s just not economically viable’,” Weisbrot said.

Though coal prices are dropping, there are further concerns that this will push companies to compensate by extracting higher volumes, according to AYCC’s other NSW Co-Coordinator, Millie Anthony. “It’s like they can see the end point so they’re just going hell for leather in the last 10, 15 years of the industry just trying to make as much money as possible with completely no regard to the impact that’s going to have,” Anthony said.

AYCC looks to the future

The latest success with Lend Lease has boosted AYCC’s enthusiasm to fight for a safe climate future. “Sometimes a situation seems so vast. We’re campaigning against organisations full of power and money,” Weisbrot said. “But when things like this happen, it just shows you that we really do have power as young people and as a movement.”

The AYCC’s newest campaign, Safe Climate Roadmap, has just been launched to call on the government to not go backwards on climate change. Its three government policy goals are: moving away from coal and gas; moving to 100 per cent renewable energy within ten years; and reducing carbon pollution by 40 per cent by 2020.

“That’s what science has told us needs to happen for a safe climate future. There’s no point aiming for anything less because if what we’re trying to do is avoid catastrophic climate change, those are the things we need to do,” Weisbrot said.

For more information, go to: http://www.roadmap.org.au.

Published in the South Sydney Herald, April Issue 2014.

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