Railway to hell: Siemens under fire for mega coal project

As Siemens’ shareholders gather in Munich for their annual general meeting, the company is under pressure for its involvement in a controversial coal project.

Campaigners are protesting against Siemens for supplying the signalling system for the railway connecting the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, Australia, and a terminal to ship coal abroad. Owned by the Indian giant Adani Group, the Carmichael mine is due to become one of the largest in the world, with six opencast pits and five underground mines, and it is set to operate for 50 to 60 years.

A contentious plan unveiled at a time when the environmental and climate crises are pushing countries and institutions away from fossil fuels, and the Australian government faces public criticism for the country’s dependence on coal and the political sway the sector enjoys.

The burning of coal has an enormous impact on the climate, which makes phasing it out the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Agreement. This is particularly relevant in light of the record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought that have fuelled massive bushfires across Australia, claiming lives, destroying homes as well as ecosystems, and pushing several species to the brink of extinction. 

The mine is also contested because of its potentially devastating impact on the Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage biodiversity site which is already heavily threatened by climate change.

Today, Siemens’ employees joined the protest and asked for the company to pull-out of the Adani deal.

Back in January, in response to the outbreak of complaints from Europe to Australia, Siemens President and CEO Joe Kaeser declared: “While I do have a lot of empathy for environmental matters, I do need to balance the different interests of different stakeholders, as long as they have lawful legitimation for what they do.” This approach is rejected by environmental groups.

Riccardo Nigro, Campaign Coordinator for Coal Combustion and Mines at the European Environmental Bureau, told META:

“Climate breakdown doesn’t mind the interests of different stakeholders, nor their lawful legitimation. The most important stakeholders to defend are people and nature, who are already facing the impacts of the climate crisis all over the world.”

“It is just shameful for Siemens to support a climate-wrecking project based on a dirty and obsolete technology. How does this match their pledge to go carbon neutral by 2030?”

Money to burn

Campaigners have also called on the world’s largest asset manager and Siemens’ majority shareholder BlackRock to stop financing coal projects and ask Siemens to abandon the Adani contract.

“Unless BlackRock wants to be remembered as the coal that stoked the bushfire crisis, it must lead by example and fix its own portfolio, and demand Siemens Energy withdraw from infrastructure support for not only the catastrophic Adani coal mine, but all fossil fuels completely,” said David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

In January 2019, BlacRock’s CEO Larry Fink announced a shift to put sustainability at the core of the firm’s investment strategy, and to stop financing companies presenting a “high sustainability-related risk”. Concretely, BlackRock is removing from its investment portfolios those “companies that generate more than 25% of their revenues from thermal coal production”.

BlackRock’s pledge is part of a broader trend, as more and more banks, investors and insurers have been announcing divestments from coal and other fossil fuels due to immense popular pressure to up their game on climate. Back in November, the French group AXA promised to totally phase out its insurance and investment exposure to coal by 2030 in the EU and OECD countries, and by 2040 everywhere else

However, the scope of Blackrock’s new investment policy is still far too limited to bring real change, highlight campaigners. Notably, by only applying to companies that sell thermal coal and not those that actually burn it, it does not cover huge CO₂ emitters such as the German giant RWE, which burns over 80 million tons of coal from its own mines in its own power stations every year.

“The biggest flaw in BlackRock’s policy is that it doesn’t address the part of the industry that is the number one source of CO2 emissions: coal plant operators. As long as coal-based utilities like RWE, PGE or Adani stay in the portfolio, BlackRock hasn’t finished its sustainability homework,” says Katrin Ganswindt, Climate and Energy Campaigner at Urgewald. Urgewald, Greenpeace and the European Environmental Bureau are members of the international campaign Europe Beyond Coal.

“Excluding investments in coal plant and coal mine developers should be a no-brainer, but BlackRock’s new policy fails to address this issue,” she concludes.