John Thwaites: “Local government is particularly important because they are a great way to get messages thorough to the community and to change behavior.”

by Tina Perinotto

John Thwaites is the sort of man you instantly want on your side. Charming, practiced eyeball-to-eyeball networker, he cuts a swathe through any room.

At one of the more difficult technical sessions at the Green Cities Conference in Brisbane this year, Thwaites looked every bit as if this was the most fascinating engagement he’s had.

For Thwaites, former Victorian deputy premier,  planning, environment and climate change minister and barrister, there’s no faking it.

Thwaites was frustrated in the shackles of his roles as a politician and his current commitments reveals this.

Squeezing in an interview with TFE before rushing off to meet with climate scientists, Thwaites now holds as many action-driven climate change roles as he can handle.

He is Professorial Fellow at Monash University and Chair of the Monash Sustainability Institute as well as of the The Climate Group in Australia and a member of the board of the Green Building Council of Australia.

Recently he joined the local councils’ own legal eagles, Maddocks, which represents 72 of Victoria’s 78 local councils, in its sustainability and climate change team.

He has already drafted a submission to the federal Department of Climate Change on the impact of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme on metropolitan councils’ waste facilities and waste policies.

And on his bailiwick he is also advising a number of Victorian Local councils on the likely impact of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme.

For light relief (maybe) he chairs the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

Does the workload testify to some unmet ambitions as a politician?

Partly, yes,  he agrees, and it relates to achieving concrete results – especially at local council level.

According to Thwaites, the biggest challenge for Australia on climate change is to move from talk to action.

“We’ve now gone beyond the stage of questioning climate change science but we haven’t really started taking the action that’s necessary.

“All levels of government, federal, state and local, as well as business and the community will have to make fundamental changes to the way they do business.

For Thwaites local government is front and centre of practical change.

Thwaites:“We need council leadership and CEOs and staff that believe sustainability is important”

“Local government is particularly important, not just because they are close to the community but also because they are a great way to get messages thorough to the community and to change behavior.

“We’re seeing this is climate change action groups and seeing it in practical water programs that councils are running now. But they also have an important policy role in setting local planning schemes in place that can have huge impact on sustainability and climate change.”

Thwaites says this is clear if you see that buildings are responsible for nearly a quarter of all emissions, and that it is local government that can try to control those emissions and make buildings in their control greener.

“But just as important is the way subdivisions and whole areas are planned. If new developments are a long way from transport or from shops and employment then that means more miles travelled and more emissions.”

Developments also need to be planned to be sustainable in terms of water and waste in the future.

“Some councils see great opportunities in storm water harvesting for re-use in parklands or ovals.”

In his work at Maddocks Thwaites’ ambition is to help clients achieve these goals.

So how does he find the response?

“Very mixed,” he says.

Some, such as Manningham in Melbourne’s north east, linking to the Yarra Valley and inner city Port Phillip, are in the forefront of water sustainability and design, but others are “less knowledgeable and are less motivated,” is Thwaites tactful answer.

“Increasingly all communities will expect their councils to understand sustainability and to promote better use of water, planning and emissions.”

The problem with the slow adopters, he says, is not so much the councils as a whole but with individual councillors.

And this does not come along any party-political divide; it’s “across the board,” he adds.

“We need council leadership and CEOs and staff that believe sustainability is important.”

At Monash University, much of the work he is involved in is around water research.

“It’s really action based research, looking at how storm water can be harvested and what the impact on climate change will be on rainfall and the economics of water harvesting.”

Some of the more innovative developments are starting to use interesting techniques spawned by such research, such as using wetlands to treat water for use in toilets, he says.

The attitude about water catchment has changed, he says, from something that occurs in the bush to viewing the whole city, its hard surfaces, its roofs and drains, as potential catchment zones.

What’s the downside risk?

How does Thwaites see the downside of not making the changes needed for sustainability?

“It’s a world issue and everyone has to play a part in what is the most challenging global issue.

“People expect their country to play a part. The community is demanding practical solutions – to be more sustainable, to reduce their climate footprint, so politically, it’s in the interest of the councils to do so.

And if they don’t, what’s the risk to councils?

“In the longer term there is risk for councils that if they don’t plan for this, that may include litigation.”

From the national political perspective Thwaites is cautionary about the perception that the Rudd government has gone soft on climate change.

“The public made it clear at the last election that they wanted action on climate change and it’s one of the two or three main factors that led to the election of the Rudd government.

“It’s interesting that the Global Financial Crisis has overwhelmed policy making around the world. That’s understandable in the short term, but climate change is going to be around for a lot longer and governments have to acknowledge that we can suffer catastrophic consequences.”

On Rudd’s recent announcement of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, Thwaites is pragmatic.

“The delay in the introduction of the CPRS is not delaying the legislation, the legislation will go through and that will send a signal that it is going to happen.”

Businesses planning for “the next five or 10 or 20 years” will respond to this as a clear message, he says.

“It’s not putting the legislation up which would have been a disaster because some businesses would just sit back and do nothing.”

Internationally too he sees progress in the moves from the Americans with a trading scheme of emissions reductions target and the meetings in Copenhagen.

A big difficulty of of the Australian CPRS is the huge compensation to heavy emitters.

“I personally think the level of compensation to emissions intensive industries is so great now that it will be difficult to impose tough targets and that is going to be a major challenge.

“It’s important that there is a fade out period for that compensation. The worry is that at the end of this period they will expect the same level of compensation.”

Climate change not a matter of passion

As for Thwaites’ personal epiphany or passion for climate change challenge, he dismisses the notion.

There is nothing emotional about climate change, he says.

“You are irrational if you look at the evidence and think we should delay.

“It’s not an emotional or passionate issue for me, it’s straight out of evidence based positions.

“You’re mad if you ignore all the evidence.

“What frustrated me (as a politician) was when I saw clear evidence being ignored.

“Even worse was when the twist on science by relatively few [climate sceptics] that created misleading information was given greater weight than it should have been.

Among Thwaites’ particular goals in his various roles is to see that the building sector achieves the emissions reductions that are possible, of “20-30 or 40 per cent over the next five to 10 years as a result of buildings being smarter.”

For the sustainable property sector, this is a welcome player on the team.