2014 Climate Alliance National Conference - Summary


Summaries from each of the speakers are available on this page. Click on the link below to go to your chosen speaker's summary.

Geoff Cousins

Mr Cousins provided a very entertaining and insightful summary of his activities regarding the Gunns Woodchip Mill and the Woodside Gas Hub in the Kimberleys.

Soon after embarking on his campaign against Gunns, Mr Cousins decided that it was unlikely he would get a sympathetic hearing with the Tasmanian Government. Both the Federal Labor Government and the Opposition were also disinterested taking action against Gunns. Mr Cousins observed that the three-year terms for politicians means that long term issues do not get the attention they deserve.

Instead, Mr Cousins focused on the whole supply chain of Gunns. He targeted the financiers, customers, shareholders and suppliers of Gunns. He was careful to make the distinction that he was not opposed to a chip mill per se, but was opposed to the type of mill being proposed by Gunns.

The ANZ Bank was a financier of Gunns for the previous 20 years. In particular, Mr Cousins’ group targeted 20,000 ANZ Bank customers and explained the issues associated with the pulp mill. Mr Cousins also approached the Board of the ANZ and highlighted how much effort the bank had put into developing its reputation and by continuing to finance Gunns, its reputation could potentially be damaged by being associated with Gunns. The Board of the ANZ, to its credit, decided to withdraw its support for Gunns. Importantly, Mr Cousins insisted that each participating party in the campaign should publicly praise good decisions taken by their adversaries.

The future customers of Gunns were also approached and they were convinced that they should insist that product sold from the mill should have Forest Stewardship Council - a certification Gunns did not have.

The final outcome is that the head office of Gunns has been bulldozed to the ground and there is no record of it having existed. Mr Cousins said that companies must not ignore the needs of the community and put forward good proposals. Mr Cousins observed that even though the company had acquired all the requisite government approvals, it did not have the social licence to operate.

Mr Cousins also tackled the prospect of Woodside building the world’s largest gas hub in the Kimberleys. Woodside is a well-funded company and it was partnering with some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies on the project. Mr Cousins observed that Woodside itself had not chosen the site, but that it was the preferred site of the WA Government.

Shell had a new technology that would allow the gas to be processed 200KM offshore and was keen to use it. The outcome of the initiative headed by Mr Cousins is that Woodside has decided to go ahead with the offshore platform. This is a better environmental outcome and will result in higher profits to the Woodside shareholders.

Mr Cousins is confident that politicians will be driven by public opinion to take action on climate change - but he was concerned that it would not be done in a timely manner.  As severe weather events impact the lives of people, voters will start to pressure politicians. Business is already acting - for example insurance companies are increasing their premiums for certain locations susceptible to impacts. He believes the power of the people will always win over the politicians and he has a positive outlook for the future.

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Tony Kelly, MD Yarra Valley Water

Mr Kelly reviewed the metrics used to assess the condition of the planet and highlighted the seriousness of the situation. Mr Kelly said the real issue was not about the environment at all, but the continued existence of the human race on this planet. The planet has undergone many massive changes, but humans require a finely balanced environment to survive.

Mr Kelly felt that too often, business leaders simply take a compliance stand. The advantage of regulations are that polluters do not get a competitive advantage - but they are bad because they lag and often reflect the lowest common denominator and do not account for the latest technologies. Business leaders have a fiduciary duty to address the risk of discontinuities that could occur. They have to address the externalities generated by businesses - as someone always pay for them in the end. Businesses need to be cognisant of the needs of employees, customers and suppliers. Business has the potential to make a contribution as it has the experience and tools needed to address the issues.

YVW has developed a comprehensive strategy to manage the environmental impact its business causes. It has leveraged life cycle assessment as the basic tool to measure the contribution of each impact.

YVW measured the impact of taking water from the environment, discharging nutrients into the environment and the emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. YVW is working on a project in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne to localise the supply and treatment of water in order to avoid pumping it across Melbourne. This has saved a considerable amount of energy and reduced emissions. Through aggressive conservation programs, YVW cut water consumption by 40% and this resulted in its current customers using less water per capita than in the mid 70’s.

Mr Kelly believes that careful and prudent business management can make a difference and through its actions, YVW has clearly benefited from initiatives that were above and beyond the requirements of regulations.

Mark Joiner, Chairman JB Were

Our brains are not properly wired to deal with the nature of the problem. The lack of a progressive attitude in Australia generally is a concern and Mr Joiner thinks that it is going backwards. Some may say Australia’s position does not matter, but Mr Joiner said that as an advanced economy, Australia should do its part and lead by example.

Mr Joiner quoted Larry Page, CEO of Google who recently said that the main reason large companies fail is because they do not accurately anticipate the future. Thinking in large companies tends to be straight-line and they are often surprised by events and trends that overtake them (Kodak, Fairfax, Holden etc).

Australian businesses need to demand that Government develop policies that address many of the climate change issues. There is a dearth of forums in Australia that promote progressive thinking and there are not enough Australian business leaders who think about these issues.

Mr Joiner feels that the way the issues are presented generally are too complex and diffused and he suggested they could be reduced to four key issues:

  • Temperature rise (everywhere). The locked in rise temperature will make it almost impossible for humans to survive.
  • Decreasing biodiversity (decreases robustness of the system). 50% of the planet’s biodiversity loss has occurred in Australia.
  • Sustainability of the food supply and increasing vulnerability. Concerns regarding the continuing global supply of the 4P’s - Potassium, potash, phosphorous and phosphates.
  • Inequality of society. Impact of climate change is asymmetric and affects three levels - societal, between nations and intergenerational.

Boards need to think longer term than the CEO. They need to understand the risks facing the company and to tell the politicians what is needed for the future.

Both Tony Kelly and Mark Joiner mentioned the importance of the work of Aldersgate in the UK.

Alison Verhoeven

The key message of Ms Verhoeven’s talk was “do no harm”. Climate change is impacting the health of many and people relate more directly to their personal health. Climate change increases the risk from climate sensitive diseases, increased mortality rates and aggravation of pre existing diseases.

“Ms Verhoeven mentioned the spread of dengue fever due to warming climate. The Australian Government has announced it wants to reduce the money it spends on medical care, but Ms Verhoeven observed that countries such as Australia have the option to change behaviour and buy other products. There are many societies that cannot change their location or buying patterns if impacted by climate change.

Ms Verhoeven said that the Australian Government was very relaxed about this issue and their horizon is the duration of an election cycle. Many health strategies require a much longer time horizon.  MS Verhoeven said the industry was focused on harm prevention; aim to prevent disease from happening after exposure and then to reduce the suffering caused. But the impact of climate change is not linear. Understanding the potential impact of climate change on populations is a major challenge for the industry.

She highlighted that the industry has the opportunity to more effectively manage health risks by using big data.

Rob Jamieson, Partner, Ashurst

Businesses are trying to gauge the regulatory impact on their operations and Ashurst is assisting in developing strategies to mitigate he impact of the regulations - in Australia and overseas. Ashurst also has done a lot of work assisting the emergency services to be able to respond more effectively in the event of disasters. The ASX has published the ”ASX Corporate Governance Principles and recommendations – 3rd edition 2014” and for the first time they specifically mention sustainability. This will create new challenges for fossil fuel companies.

Heinrich Eder, MD Munich Re

Munich Re turn risk into value and it focuses on the international distribution of risk. Munich Re has been factoring in climate change into their products since 1973.  Mr Eder mentioned the World Economic Forum identified that there are four key risks associated with climate change. The number of major weather related events has more than tripled since 1980.

Mr Eder raised one example how business can help societies adapt to climate change. Munich Re was a member of a group that helped Governments to prepare for major disasters. Governments were spending substantially more money post disasters rather than preparing for them. Munich Re estimates that or every dollar spent now on disaster prevention will save two dollars afterwards. Munich is keen to have Government spend money more wisely

Importantly, he said that before the fall in value of the Australian dollar, the Gold Coast was the second most risky area in its global portfolio - after the East coast of the US.  
Munich Re has commissioned a project to identify all the research being carried out in this area and is planning to build a virtual model of a resilient community. Munich Re is committed to help Australian communities increase their resilience to the impacts of climate change.