Bettercoal – founded by RWE, Eon, Vattenfall, Électricité de France, GDF Suez, ENEL, and Dong Energy in 2012 – is an initiative of several European energy companies which has set itself the supposed goal of a responsible global coal supply chain through guidelines for mining companies and accountability and auditing processes.
The organisational structure of Bettercoal already suggests that this is actually more about Public Relations than about environmental and workers’ protection, or the rights of local indigenous communities: at the top sits Frank Plümacher from Uniper SE, and the Board of Directors consists exclusively of representatives of the energy sector. The Technical & Advisory Committee advises Bettercoal’s highest body and makes recommendations. But here, too, it becomes clear that decisions will be biased towards industry: of the currently 15 members, two are permanently reserved for Bettercoal representatives, in addition to seven representatives from participating companies (like Vattenfall or RWE) and the coal suppliers. This means that nine members are already part of Bettercoal. The remaining six places are meant to be filled by experts on issues like environmental protection and human rights and representatives of the affected regions. However, nominations have to be accepted by Bettercoal’s board – so overly critical voices may not be chosen. A balanced advisory committee would look very different. But that is, apparently, not the intention. The organisations Urgewald and FIAN write in their joint publication “Bitter Coal” (2013): “’Bettercoal’ is merely an attempt by the industry to fend off demands for genuine transparency and accountability” – greenwashing for the companies, in other words. This conclusion is supported by the vague wording of the “Bettercoal Code”, which states, for example, that “Companies shall adopt and implement appropriate policies, systems, procedures, and controls, including ensuring organisational capacity and competency”, “Companies shall integrate practices that protect and support Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services impacted by their operations”, and “Companies shall implement practices that promote the Sustainable and efficient use of Natural Resources in their Operations”.
In January 2019, Bettercoal published the first (!) summary of its evaluations of mining companies since its inception in 2012, examining three of the companies, Cerrejón Coal Company (Colombia), Prodeco Group (also Colombia), and Siberian Business Union Coal (SDS) from Russia. As early as 2013, NGOs had demanded that Bettercoal finally make the assessment processes, results, and consequences public. A statement by several NGOs criticises, among other things, the fact that compliance with the standards is not independently verified, that certain problems (e.g. a planned river diversion) are not mentioned, and that the companies need not fear sanctions or redress even if the guidelines are violated. The NGOs also conclude that the reports are intended solely to protect the image of the mining companies.
Corporate greenwashing and “sustainable coal”
To brand their image as ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’, coal companies employ public relations firms to promote their business and distract from their environmental impacts. Local resistance is one of the biggest risks that the industry faces, and companies rely on a ‘social license to operate’ to continue operations in the face of local destruction and climate crisis.
Divestment – out of coal financing
The investors that finance coal companies – and thus the mining, transport, and use of hard coal – through shares, bonds, and loans, benefit massively from the destructive coal business. They have managed to remain in the background for a long time. However, more and more organisations and groups are ensuring that this is changing – by campaigning for divestment. The aim of these campaigns is to use pressure from civil society to persuade capital providers to withdraw their capital and profit-making interests from the coal markets. The power of divestment campaigns has its limits, as section 10.3 shows. It is questionable whether the demand for divestment is fast and radical enough in view of the climate catastrophe. Effects usually come about only very slowly. However, divestment campaigning may contribute to making the dirty business of coal a bit more difficult.