On 7 November 2013, The Fifth Estate, with the help of our sponsors, hosted the Sustainability Salon for Perth and Western Australia.

Our objective was to better understand how Perth and WA could transform the benefits of one of the most extraordinary resources booms in Australia’s history into something truly valuable and enduring – in other words, sustainable.

It’s clear the west has a golden opportunity to achieve whatever it wants.

The state still contains a store of natural resources that is the envy of the world and will contribute to the nation for years to come.

The opportunity is for Perth to become a vibrant global hub. One that could transpose the wealth coming from resources into more complex economic and social fabric. The potential is to carve a great future for its people, including the huge numbers still arriving at the rate of 1000 people a week, bringing with them demands for housing, services and a hunger for social and economic rewards.

The challenges, though, are significant.

Perth sits in one of the most fragile environmental areas in Australia. Long-term drying patterns have already forced the city to rely on desalinated water and threaten the rich agricultural lands in the south-west, which also happen to be one of the world’s most valuable biodiversity hot spots.

Regional areas have vast distances between them, with temperatures that in some areas already reach 50 degrees, and may become uninhabitable in the future.

The global backdrop is an increasingly resource-constrained world.

And yet the state government has slashed climate change and sustainability programs and its messaging on these issues is relentlessly negative.

In many ways the west has set the economic and climate agenda for the entire nation.

The political fracas that pits mining, especially for coal, against the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, is identical in a number of political forums.

Yet so much of business doesn’t buy this message.

Leading corporates – the property sector in particular – are fast-tracking their sustainability strategies because it’s the rational way to do business for long term survival and prosperity. Increasingly it’s an imperative of capital allocation – in line with the need to minimise risk and maximise rewards.

Even the mining sector gets it. Leading miners espouse sustainability in their business strategies and operations; they insist on 6 Star Green Star headquarters and they invest in renewable energy for remote locations. Their shareholders and all their stakeholder demand nothing less.

At the same time miners will pay an army of lobbyists to convince governments to advance their short-term interests, and ignore climate change.

Nowhere is the conflict and tension between these two great opposing forces driving our nation – mining and the urgent need to curb our emissions – more apparent than in Perth.

This is the centre of the mining boom. It’s the place that’s been credited with allowing the nation to sail through the GFC, with barely a hiccup. It’s where the Reserve Bank has looked to set its interest rate levers, saying we must “make room for the boom” while the east coast has been urged to tighten its belt.

But what’s the plan? What are the barriers and how can these be overcome?

If the west can carve out a sustainable future for itself, so can the rest of us.

So who came to dinner?

We needed a group of people who would be highly influential in setting the agenda for the west. Who understood the dynamics and had some way of influencing opinion in business and politics.

LandCorp’s chief operating officer Nicholas Wolff got the ball rolling early in 2013 during a visit to Green Cities 2013. He suggested The Fifth Estate might like to pay closer attention to a very interesting transformation he could see under way in Perth.

LandCorp, the state’s land development agency, with a huge portfolio of projects in its pipeline, which also tries to influence the market with its sustainably-minded design guidelines, was a good start to the salon.

Next we needed some strong private sector developers who already wield financial clout and at the same time could demonstrate commitment to sustainability transformation. Who better than managing director of Leighton Properties Mark Gray and chief executive of Mirvac Group Brett Draffen?

The pair already had big projects in Perth – Leightons with the $1 billion King Square project and Mirvac with the Old Treasury Place office tower in the city plus residential development. In mid-December that commitment deepened when WA Planning Minister John Day announced the two would be 50:50 partners on a big chunk of development within the $5.2 billion Perth City Link that he said would draw “billions” of further investment into Perth.

With Tony Arnel we added change agent to the table. As global director of sustainability for Norman Disney & Young and former chair of both the Green Building Council of Australia and the World Green Building Council, Arnel is a passionate advocate for green buildings and has helped transform the industry with his persistence and determination. Through his role with NDY and through his colleague and Perth director Darrel Williams, Arnel also brought insights into the changing appetite for sustainability in Perth.

Next we needed a strong representatives from state government, someone who could unlock some of the machinations that go on the corridors of power.

Eric Lumsden, who that very week switched jobs from Director General of Planning to the even more powerful position as chairman of the WA Planning Commission, was perfect. His vision? A more strategic and connected planning regime that was also sustainable.

We also needed some local government leaders.

The City of Perth’s Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi was essential. How does Perth deal with its continuing influx of arrivals, still numbering about 1000 a week, down from a high of 1500 a week. Scaffidi’s brought passion and ambition for her city to the conversation. Plus warmth, humour and a friendly invitation for the two extreme coasts of this nation to work more closely as a whole. Nice idea.

In Fremantle another mayor, Dr Brad Pettitt has created a small revolution that is reverberating far beyond his patch. This port town has already achieved fame for its charming village life, historic buildings and unique character. But Pettitt has lifted that profile to another level as one of the greenest mayors in this country.

On national politics Senator Scott Ludlam was essential. His work on a cities agenda, higher density development, housing and the national broadband is highly regarded in business, the property industry in particular. Ludlam is a leader to watch.

Damien Moran, a co-founder of HFM Asset Management, brought a reality check to the table of how to deal with existing buildings. His company’s work with the City of Perth on an audit of all of its commercial buildings made his contribution invaluable.

Finally we needed someone bringing the “generational change” that so many people say will fast track the sustainability transformation.

Jemma Green fits the bill perfectly: young, smart, with an impressive track record as an investment banker with JP Morgan based in London, a string of academic qualifications, and fast becoming a leading media commentator on sustainability, contributing to The ConversationThe Age, radio and television while working on her PhD at Curtin University.

Invited but unavoidably detained were Josh Byrne, environmental scientist, ABC Garden Australia presenter and research fellow at Curtin University and Joe Lenzo, Property Council of Australia WA executive director. Both were missed greatly but contributed nevertheless to pre-salon briefings and our understanding of the lie of the land in the wonderful west.

And so to our salon, which forms Part 1 of our two-part ebook, Greening the West.

Read the ebook here

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