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On Perth’s global renewable energy event and what we can learn from it

News from the front desk 445: Sustainability business news is pouring through our inbox at a rate of knots. It’s hard to keep up.

What’s surprising is that it’s not only the worthy businesses in the choir who are directly tackling our urgent issues, it’s also the big end of town.

Coca-Cola for instance seems to have developed an addiction to sustainability announcements as powerful as its sugary drinks. The latest is about a bunch of grants to tackle the coolest sustainability challenge on the planet, marine pollution (if that term doesn’t make you feel somewhat seasick).

Kellogg’s Australia also said this week it had signed a power purchase agreement for its operations in NSW.

“Based on 2018 production data, the PPA would offset the amount of energy needed to produce an estimated 630 million boxes of Australian-made cereals for the duration of the PPA.” Shame it doesn’t take the sustainability thing a bit further and promise to improve some of their products that masquerade as some sort of healthy breakfast.

We’d be writing big splashy stories about these companies and so many more if the other sides of their businesses weren’t trafficking in the very things that are unsustainable.

It’s a quandary.

Peter Newman sustainability guru from Curtin University and a member of the International Panel on Climate Change among other notable areas of advocacy and erudition wryly notes these companies need to fly the green flag or they probably won’t find funding. The finance world, as we know, is highly sophisticated and it cares about just one thing: money. And the money, these days, is not in coal, it’s in renewables and sustainability, saving the planet and not in companies that resemble a pariah of the civilised world.

We’d called Newman as we do from time to time to get his bird’s eye view on sustainability and optimism.

He’d just arrived back from visiting family overseas and the plane stopped in Dubai. He stepped out of the airport. It was 51 degrees Celsius. He came straight back in.

Around the world is more murderous weather – in Europe and the US (including in the heartland of climate denialism); Indian cities running out of water….

Optimism is getting harder these days.

Newman totally gets denialism and the US presidential populist thing. It’s just too much for many people to handle, he says.

“They say, ‘these elites must be wrong, it’s just normal climate fluctuations because the future for my children and my grandchildren can’t possibly be like that’.”

But sadly it’s not the case and yet another learned article, this time in Nature magazine, confirms it: Mother Earth says, “nope, it’s not me, it’s you”.

Newman was the man who a few years ago gently chided us for feeling a tad deflated about the state of the climate agenda under the iron rule of Tony Abbott. There were good signs at the time, he said; the trends were moving our way. What does he think now after the federal election, when there’s quite a bit of despondency around?

There’s a choice, he says. You can either deny everything (and that can be tempting, sure) or you can despair because it looks so bleak. Both attitudes are unhelpful.

More helpful is to stop looking to the government for help and look to the community and business.

“I’m now running the transport side of the IPCC,” he says. “I’m totally involved in all that and I’m one of those who choose hope in that situation because to chose despair and see it as a strategy to get them to change because of it I don’t think will ever work. I think it’s led to the [US president] populist thing.

But optimism is getting harder, he confesses.

Labor’s expected win promised a bit of relaxing of the fight. But it’s now clear, “you can’t ever relax because it’s the community and business that brings change, because government moves reluctantly.

“I find that link and the overlap is increasingly the driving force in our world.”

Michael Bloomberg’s book, Climate of Hope, has a similar message. And there are exciting innovations and promises to try to reverse the carbon build up in the atmosphere. Blue Planet concrete in the US for instance – a technology that more-or-less turns carbon dioxide into concrete.

Similar to the natural process of forming ooids (grain-like sediments found in the Bahamas, and other places), it uses CO2 as a raw material to make carbonate rocks that can be used in place of natural limestone, the principal ingredient in concrete. And there’s another one we heard about that turns carbon into building materials (with you soon).

In general he says, “business is now making choice that are very significantly better.

“They are all trying to look like good corporate citizens.”

What about those with not-so-healthy, not-so-nice core activities and products? We struggle to know what to do when a company does good with one hand and quite something else with the other, we confess.

“They are probably harder to shift in this because they are more about branding and branding isn’t changing the world,” Newman thinks. It’s the financial world forcing the change. The good behaviour isn’t so much about selling more product, but about maintaining finance because if they look like a pariah they won’t get finance, he says.

Ah, the power of money, again.

Woodside is a good example of changing community perceptions stimulating change. It initially fought the EPA in WA about lowering emissions in its operations but has since reined back that hardline stance because quite frankly it’s not working.

Newman says it should have seen that lowering emission is an opportunity – to do more with hydrogen, for instance.

“I think it’s a typical example of how community values and business could start to change things without having a regulatory approach from government saying, ‘you must do this or must do that’.

“The Paris agreement was amazing but it was only adopted when the trends were already under way.”

In South Australia strong government policies drove renewable energy investment but in WA there’s been a similar outcome from business and community acting in concert.

In WA power prices were so “out of control” that rooftop solar was installed by 30 per cent of households. The state now has the biggest power station on household roofs: 1000 megawatts.

And it’s done it with small to medium size businesses working with communities – at about half the price Americans are able to do it for.

It was a huge show of efficiency by private enterprise. “Government basically got out of the way.”

The thinking was, you basically need to let things happen and not try to stop it.

(Poor Victoria right now with its big solar program is finding that the well intentioned solar rebates are creating a bottleneck on work and the industry is laying off staff because everyone who wants solar is waiting for subsidies. Energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio and Solar Victoria chief executive Stan Krpan, both said monthly subsidy allocations were considered the best way to manage demand following consultation with industry bodies including the Clean Energy Council and Smart Energy Council, the AFR reported on Thursday.)

But in the west, says Newman, Western Power had so much electricity going into the grid it’s now planning to put in a network of batteries to stabilise the system.

This could result in 70 per cent of households with rooftop solar by 2025.

If we suddenly had a government policy to phase out coal and close it down you would have a huge populist reaction with coal workers, unions and markets all reacting badly, Newman says.

“But quietly enabling business to solve it, along with supportive community values, means there’s a solution, and it’s globally significant.”

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