4 September 2012 – It’s a cold winter’s day but that doesn’t deter the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Monica Richter from wanting to go outdoors for our interview. She’s been holed up in the office waiting for a chance for some fresh air, so we order Japanese takeaway and cross the road to Sydney’s Hyde Park – food, laptop and recording device perched on a park bench.
We’ve met to continue a conversation about the loss of political momentum on the climate change and sustainability agenda, and how the ACF is looking to respond in a new strategic plan it’s shaping up.
More than any other green campaigner, Richter understands the property world. She sits on the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council. She is a veteran of several joint policy campaigns with the Property Council of Australia, and she actively engages in a sustainable cities agenda, talking with both sides of politics to strike common chords, and some engagement.
Most recently, for instance, she has been canvassing the thoughts of Liberal MP, John Alexander, who holds former Prime Minister John Howard’s old seat of Bennelong.
No-one has to explain to Richter what a blow it was for the sustainable property industry to lose the promised $1 billion tax breaks for green buildings program in the last federal budget.
From her point of view it was a symptom of the same chill winds that we’re feeling right now, and which will eventually drive us back indoors.
Apt metaphor? Probably.. But then so is the way Richter chose to go into it in the first place. Head on, for as long as practicable.
So what’s her green lobbyist’s view of the mood in policy-land right now?
Not good. The tax breaks loss looks like another piece of collateral damage from the onslaught of the climate deniers, who, wrote Robert Manne in The Monthly recently, have won the climate war [for now.]
“Yes we’ve lost some momentum,” Richter says. “People have become deeply cynical about the politics.
“Our market analysis shows they’ve become confused and don’t know who to trust.”
There have been plenty of successes in protecting the environment in the 46 years since the ACF started, but right now, “the environmental indicators are still going in the wrong direction,” she says.
“We’re still not living within our environmental means, we’re still polluting the air, the water and using too much energy.
“Without wanting to talk about us being in crisis mode, it’s really important to step back and reflect on whether there are things we can do better to be more influential in the debate, and to look at what we could do differently if the opportunities arose.”
Could ACF take a more activist approach, perhaps? Satisfy the people who applaud Greenpeace and GreenUps for instance?
The thing that people may not know is that the ACF was born and bred “inside the tent”. Its founders were a group of people, officers led by Francis Ratcliffe who had been inspired by a memo from the Duke of Edinburgh. At its outset, it included Australia’s scientific, public service, business and political decision makers.
Today ACF draws just over $8 million a year in donations, according to its 2010 and 2011 annual reports, but, combined with Greenpeace,the World Wildlife Fund and the Total Environment Centre, there’s a collective pool of funds of about $60 million a year, and between 120,000 and 150,000 members.
The consultative “inside the tent” approach is not one that pleases everybody. ACF lost members when it shied away from backing a 40 per cent cut in emissions target by 2020.
But Richter points to plenty of lobbying wins that prove the strategy is well-founded.
“Collaboration is a very important value set for ACF and it always has been and always will probably be,” she says.
“We work across different sectors and different levels.”
Working with the Liberals
In recent months, Richter and her team have met with John Alexander, and found someone who has been “actively engaged in helping the Coalition produce a sustainable cities policy”.
Alexander, Richter says, is “very interesting”, because he thinks he needs to take people out of the cities and into the regions, building a very fast train to link the cities and the regions, and helping build economies in the regions.
The question will be whether Abbott gets the cities agenda or not.
“I still think there is a long way to go, I’m not convinced that Abbott is on board on the cities agenda,” Richter says.
And this will be a bigger question if the Coalition wins the next federal election.
Far more receptive in the Liberal camp, says Richter, are Greg Hunt, Jane Prentice and Andrew Robb.
Working in the property tent
Richter has been talking to the Property Council to work out how, collectively, to get “more bang for our buck”, capitalising on the PCA’s resources at the big end of the town and the ACF’s “expertise in engagement”, as Richter puts it.
“We’re exploring ways of building on our strength, allowing a conversation on our cities to emerge.”
Richter points out that ACF’s engagement with the property industry goes back a decade, when she joined the group after working in government, the corporate sector and a stint with Greenpeace working on proving a business case for carbon reduction.
Back then it was ACF’s buildings campaigner, Kate Noble, who was working on how to encourage the creation of more green buildings using the model of the group’s headquarters, 60L, in Carlton, Melbourne.
says The property industry “has come a long way since then,” Richter says. “We’ve got the Green Building Council, we’ve got a whole professional class of people in the built environment.
“So imagine what’s going to happen in the next 10 years.
“We’ve got the Green Star Communities tool and that’s the direction that this conversation is going to head.”
The cities agenda
Richter is also encouraged by the engagement to emerge at the federal level about the productivity and sustainability of cities.
“We now have a conversation about targets and how to measure how we are succeeding as a nation, in ways other than just the GDP,” she says.
Putting a price on pollution was an important step. As was the 20 per cent renewable energy target and “whole areas of institutional reform on the environment.”
So what are the big issues?
Density is one. “We are going to have to deal with an increase in population, whether we like it or not, and we are going to have to find ways to fit in more people, mainly in our capital cities,” Richter says.
ACF still supports a stabilised population for Australia, but it needs to be “appropriate development”, and “smart growth not dumb growth”. So, “appropriate density, parks and open spaces, and that we don’t end up in urban ghettos.”
But Richter is still worried about how Australia’s fragile landscape and fragile soils that make it challenging enough to feed our population will fare with pressures to export food and feed more people.
This is where it gets “really exciting”, Richter says: decentralised energy systems in zero carbon precincts.
“Where we capture the water and capture the energy and look after ourselves.”
Richter has been lately engaged in a project she finds very exciting.
“I’m in the very early stages of pulling together a bunch of people who care about natural capital and who think we need to be exploring ways in which Australia can decouple our economic growth from continual erosion of our environmental services,” she says.
Richter is looking for people from finance, consulting, engineering services, manufacturing, IT and mining.
After all, “mining will continue to be here,” she says.
“I came across the one planet thinking earlier this year and I really like that it’s a simple concept to get through to people.”
Richter says it’s an “elevator concept” that people can quickly visualise because they can relate the planetary budget to a household budget. If we borrow, we have to repay.
“So One Planet can be a new way to frame our relationship to the planet. Because I think it is positive.”
A form of “natural capital,” she says.
In recent months, Richter has talked with former GPT executive and now director of The Footprint Company, Caroline Noller, who is developing a One Planet methodology to rate buildings.
“I really like that it’s positive, it can be really positive for businesses and cities,” Richter says. And it can be moved up to one planet cities, or one planet nations, she says.
What all this gets to is the potential to decouple economic growth from environmental consumption.
Richter likes the cities frame because it enables people to work at a local level and it’s where the majority of people live and do their business.
Do we have time for that kind of mass movement approach?
Well, it’s a “Ju-Jitsu approach”, she says. “You need to be an alchemist working at the top to set leadership, and have a vision with people at the ground roots level.”
It’s happened before with Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, who drove an economic reform agenda in the 80s, and it can happen again, she says.
Missing in action
But Richter admits that missing in action right now is the Business Council of Australia, even though its global cousins envisaged a future where nine billion could live well without trashing the planet.
The days when Al Gore galvanised large swathes of the establishment with his Inconvenient Truth – David Morgan of Westpac, BHP, IAG, Swiss Re and Visy – to speak up for climate change, seem to be gone.
So what does reignite that kind of leadership from business and action from the community?
“Stickability and visibility,” Richter says.
And it can happen again: with a big campaign that captures the imagination and gains momentum, she says.
Not many people realise, Richter says, that the ACF and the National Farmers Federation came together and created Landcare. There are now 4000 Landcare groups operating around Australia.
It will be this kind of thinking, the large scale national approach, that will capture people’s imaginations.
“That’s why I like One Planet as a political meme. If we can create a meme around that … it’s a very easy vision.”
By contrast Richter says sustainability is difficult to imagine, and this could be one of the reasons it’s losing its cache. She falls into the growing camp that’s looking for a new word to replace it.
“I am an optimist in our ability as humans to change; when we make a decision to move, it can take along time, it can be slow, but there is also change that can happen very quickly.”
Another area that Richter is excited about is the potential to influence policy from the ground up.
“As our president [Ian Lowe, emeritus professor at Griffith University] said, ‘when the people lead, our politicians will follow’.
If the consensus is that people care about social inclusion, public transport and education, then they are the areas to focus on.
“The environment may not be in the top three or five. But [the issues] are all interlinked. We need to find ways to engage people rather than people turning off things they don’t care about.”
The Sydney Alliance knows how
A great example of what she is talking about – a group that has managed to capitalise on “fabulous discussions” and to “cut through politically” – is the Sydney Alliance.
Made up of about 45 groups of women, ethnic groups, unions, churches and other interest groups, the alliance spent about three-and-a-half years in “one-on-one peer conversation”, Richter says.
“They got to know one another, they built trust, determined the things that really concerned them, and through that process identified a list of the top nine issues they wanted to address. And then decided to focus on three: health care, social inclusion and public transport.”
This group’s ability to get “serious commitment and outcomes from all sides of politics is pretty stunning, and they’re doing it in a very quiet and measured away and getting a huge amount of social capital out of this.”
Ideology is the lynchpin
One thing Richter has learnt in recent years is how ideological the debate is around the issue of how to constrain human behaviour.
We were talking about the drought and how quickly people accepted the imposition of tough water restrictions, and even embraced them with vigour,” she says. “The contrast is with the determination that other behaviour change, such as lowering energy use, for instance, needs to be market-driven and voluntary.
“That’s the ideology,” she says. “I didn’t realise just how ideological the issue is around how you constrain human behaviour. I think somewhere or other in this 10 or 15-year period the debate around climate change has been less about the science and more about the politics of what we are going to do about it.”
“Environment and climate change is not a left-right issue. It’s an issue about survival, but we have to deal with the politics of the ideology that is more about an individual’s right to decide and to determine their future, versus the need to take action and be more prescriptive about how we determine these things.
“So I think that the fear that the right of the Liberal Party in particular have around climate change is about the ideological belief that somehow the implications of dealing with climate change mean that we’re going to be living under a totalitarian regime that will constrain what we consume and how we consume.”
And the bogie of a green world government is out of the bag.
“It’s a tough world for campaigners out there right now,” she says.