Image from Fortescue Metals

Andrew Forrest featured heavily in the broadsheet fourth estate this week, having pocketed some $2.4 billion in dividends on the back of an iron ore price boom, before calling on the government to set clearer emissions targets. 

Forrest has publicly committed to making his company, Fortescue Metals carbon neutral by 2030, and is even directing 10 per cent of net profits towards establishing a global green hydrogen and renewable energy portfolio.

It’s worth remembering that Forrest isn’t unique in pursuing decarbonisation. He’s not even unique in the mining industry, with fellow big boys BHP and Rio Tinto also doggedly researching hydrogen and electric power to switch out the diesel from their operations. One of the main reasons being it will be cheaper.

To be fair Fortescue’s goal of net zero operational emissions by 2030 is impressive and ahead of his competitors. But as Forrest himself is quick to point out in others — words are cheap. 

Dan Gocher of the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, told Fairfax this week, “while Fortescue’s ambition is encouraging, we do remain sceptical of its plans, given its operational emissions have increased 32 per cent since 2018, while production increased just seven per cent over the same period.” 

BHP was actually ahead of FMG when in 2019 the company said it would factor Scope 3 emissions into its own profile, including the manufacturing of steel in Chinese mills, which account for around 15 per cent of that country’s mammoth emissions profile. 

Forrest was less than gracious, telling Fairfax, “we will not join the queues of the vapid, the meaningless, and those who are green-rinsing their careers or green-washing their customers through announcing Scope 3 emissions [goals] when they have no idea whatsoever how to get their customers to go green.”

Being a media darling has its benefits, when you can appear in the AFR slagging off the competition for being unclear on emissions reductions and repeatedly tout your own vague plans and future commitments.

Fortescue is poised to announce a strategy for reducing the emissions of its customers later this month, and with Forrest dismissing efforts by the competition to do the same, it better be good.

But as close as Forrest is with his Chinese buyers, we think it’s unlikely the Australian’s efforts will be the real deciding factor in their decarbonisation. 

More likely the impetus will come from Beijing as it looks to achieve carbon neutrality for the entire country by 2060. With moves already underway by some producers following local directives to “cut carbon emissions or cut production.”

China’s largest steel producer and one of Fortescue’s oldest customers Baowu Steel Group announced earlier this year it had committed to carbon neutrality by 2050.

Unless Forrest knows something about decarbonising the steel industry that the Chinese government doesn’t know (the Chinese Government knows all) his claims of tackling Scope 3 emissions appear to be credit grabbing. 

If it weren’t for the reliably unrestrained Joe Aston, we might start to think the AFR was giving its old mate Twiggy a free ride. 

Aston: “How is Australia’s richest man consistently allowed to burnish his green saviour complex while skimming over the plain fact his entire fortune is the product of massive pollution?”

Get em’ Joe! You might want to ask your editors though. 

For instance, when an iron ore company is allowed to declare “we are not an iron ore company” with barely a sense of the absurdity other than to further exalt the man’s business prowess. 

More accurately, Forrest is an iron ore magnate when it suits him, and an environmentalist when that does, as long as his pockets are lined.

The man is after all a fierce competitor and capitalist, who has done a great job establishing himself as the lovable Australian billionaire, rather than the despised tycoon who made a personal fortune of the country’s natural resources.

Some words of wisdom once imparted to us went something like “the character flaws of powerful people are magnified for all to see.” 

It follows that the good deeds of those same powerful people are also magnified, despite hardly matching up to the tireless efforts of others not getting rich off terrestrial exploitation. 

Aston says for Forrest to turn the billions he plundered from the earth into a green revolution, from which he will make even more money, may well be the greenwash of the century.

Our instinct here is to take a step back and acknowledge that at least Forrest is trying. That his public acceptance of the climate crisis and his industry’s role in it is laudable and something we shouldn’t look too far in the mouth lest we appear ungrateful. 

But considering Forrest’s vocal negative opinions on the sustainability efforts of others, we might just leave it at that.

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