News from the Front Desk, Issue 498: John Hewson former Liberal leader is starting to change his tune on climate change: he’s becoming more optimistic. Christiana Figueres, the global climate powerhouse of negotiation, agrees. And so does business.

South Pole, a global company that offsets carbon for corporates and consults on sustainability and climate to the big end of town is hiring up to four new people in Australia. Globally it’s hiring 50.

Last week we ran a story on how the big accounting firms are putting their hands up for climate action – EY, PwC, Deloitte; but KPMG not so much.

Wesfarmers on Thursday said it was ramping up its commitment to climate action with a net zero emissions target of 2030 for its Bunnings, Kmart Group and Officeworks businesses and by 250 for other parts of the business.

Managing director Rob Scott said: “Wesfarmers has, for many years, managed its businesses with deep carbon awareness, and we take responsibility for improving the energy efficiency of our operations, transitioning to renewable power, investing in new technologies and working with our suppliers and customers to help them do the same.”

Good strong messages for the Sunday Bunnings crowd, not to mention the rest of consumer land that makes up Scott’s customers.

According to Jay van Rijn, South Pole’s head of climate strategy, Oceania, in sustainability it’s all systems go.

There are many people in his stakeholder network who can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

What’s happening, he says, is a resumption of the momentum that occurred before the fires, intensified after them, and was put on sudden hold from the pandemic.

Yes, there’s a bit of caution, but not as much in the sustainability and climate action space as in other sectors.

“We’ve gone back to hiring. We are all super busy.”

The company was currently 20-strong in Australia and 400 world wide. For now.

There’s been a hiatus with Covid but anyone could tell “from all the massive activism” last year that 2020 would be huge, “especially supported as it was by all the all the moving pieces in the broader financial and corporate markets”.

Even the PM was observed to be shifting the narrative, he says.

Then Covid hit. But thing is, it hasn’t made concerns about climate change go away, van Rijn says, it’s just made people more nervous: they can see there is a “fundamental linkage” between planetary, societal and economic health.

“The whole climate change and pandemic is all related.”

The result is a growing number of public commitments from the corporates and the big consultancies.

“So, we are just seeing the return of that ambition and action in the market.”

Are people spending money again? Yep.

Maybe not to the extent at the end of the year when sustainability managers could pretty well name their price.

But essentially “that U shaped or V shaped recovery? In sustainability, it’s here.”

John Hewson is looking at a shifting world

Former Liberal leader John Hewson has been a tireless campaigner for climate action from the conservative side of the fence for 30 years and has seen many hopes for progress dashed – or pummelled – along political lines.

On Thursday, he told The Fifth Estate he was “particularly frustrated” at the backwards steps this country has been taking, especially now with dirty gas.”

“Right now, I’m concerned the world doesn’t understand we have to halve emissions by 2030 and then again by 2040 if we are to get to net zero by 2050,” he said.

But even with this glass half empty way of thinking, Hewson agrees with van Rijn and so many others that things are changing.

“I think the mood is changing. A lot of the big business groups are on it, the farmers are on it – across the board, they’re all saying we have to make substantial progress.”

The government might “have a tin ear” in supporting gas, and ignoring powerful political signals such as the 19 per cent swing to pro climate action supporter Kerryn Phelps in the Wentworth by-election, but Hewson thinks things will change.

Especially if Joe Biden wins the next US election in November, as Hewson thinks he will, with his promise of net zero emissions for the US by 2050 and 100 per cent renewables by 2035.

And especially with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week telling the United Nations that it would “hit its emissions peak before 2030, before reaching “climate neutrality” by 2060”.

UPDATE 25 September 2020: China’s “monumental” announcement points irretrievable to a “downward track for coal demand in the country” and a “peaking in the use of oil there as early as 2025” said The AFR citing Bernstein Research.

“The predictions are part of a radical transformation that analysts expect in the world’s largest consumer of energy and biggest carbon emitter to meet the surprise goal announced this week by President Xi Jinping, which Bernstein said is about 40 years ahead of expected.”

Adding to the pressure is UK PM Boris Johnson also looking to making a dramatic commitment to climate change with full electrification of the country. Morrison could soon be facing a much-changed landscape.

“Suddenly everyone is on the other side. There’s a bit of competition between the US, China and the UK and it might result in a significantly different world in a short space of time.”

Big companies are writing down their assets in thermal coal.

In the communities there are big shifts underway in thinking with projects in the regions to work out how to productively use waste.

“The circular economy is getting a lot of attention now.”

At some point the pressure will be too much. It will shift the local balance.

According to Christiana Figueres, you don’t need everyone on your side to win.

Figueres is the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and is credited with turning the global debate around after the failed COP15  in Copenhagen in 2009 to the successful Paris Agreement, just six years later.

On ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program on Wednesday night Figueres said the marches last year, on so many Fridays, with so many young people, have had a huge impact.

You don’t need 100 per cent of people to drive change, she said. “You only need 3.5 per cent of the population in the streets to tip the system.”

And now, the 2020s, is a perfect time, she said.

“Ten or 20 years ago we didn’t have the technology, the cheap and accessible solar, we didn’t know the policies that would work and didn’t have the capital shifts we have now.”

Now we can do it, she says, because we have what we need to do it.

We have 10 years, no more.

“Henceforth we will live in a permanently changed world, but we have the chance to keep that change manageable if we can keep to 50 per cent of our emissions by 2030.”

But after 2030 it will be too late, she cautions, because there are so many ecosystems at the tipping point: the arctic circle, the Amazon Forest.

Optimism isn’t celebration, she says, it’s a decision, “an intentional choice” that we enter with “our deepest convictions that addressing climate change is the right thing to do and we can do it.”

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