Emma Herd

On Emma Herd, Murray Hogarth, Michael Heenan, and Abbott holers

19 September 2013 [UPDATED] So sustainability people are positive? Optimistic maybe?

Well after the events of the last few years and what’s on the horizon you just have to be, argued Emma Herd, executive director of emissions and environment at Westpac speaking at the resurrected Green Drinks gig in Sydney, now owned by Geoff Gourley.

Herd was responsible for producing Westpac’s first seven sustainability reports and for developing Westpac’s environmental strategy, and from 2007 she moved to the institutional division to develop the Bank’s commercial response to climate change and environmental challenges.

She told the crowd of more than 200 people that to be in the business of sustainability you need first to be an optimist. But even more important, you need to be a “pragmatic optimist”.

Be prepared for loads of hard, sometimes dull work, going over the same old ground with countless people, Herd said.

“It’s really hard and sometimes dull.”

Yes, but we bet it will make the most resilient and creative class ever thrown up in the business world.

Herd also reminded guests to spread the love. Make sure you are not doing the work on your own, she said. If you’re not getting loads of help from many people who could equally do your job, you’re not doing the job properly, she said.

It wasn’t long before the question on everyone’s lips erupted from the audience: How is the corporate world reacting to the new federal guv’nors and the promised axing of carbon tax?

“In terms of where we are now I don’t think anyone is happy,” Herd said.

If people hoped we’d get certainty we’ve now got uncertainty for another 12-18 months but in the meantime people have regulatory obligations and they have to get on with meeting these.

Herd said the emerging megatrend the bank is well aware of is how to manage “increasing resource constraints”.

Today, more than 50 per cent of Westpac’s infrastructure and lending goes to hydro and renewable energy generation, which suggests the bank “gets” it.

Herd seemed to give voice to what a lot of people were thinking. She also opened a small chink into what possibly goes one behind closed doors at one of the big banking institutions.

The banks might move at glacial pace – and that’s kind of good, at times – but Westpac earlier this year stunned the market by launching a new strategy that will plough $8 billion into sustainability investments

See our article: Westpac: We’re back! …with an $8 billion commitment to sustainability

What’s interesting though were some of the comments she made after the talk.

There’s a lot of understanding in the capital markets about the reality of climate and resource scarcity, she said, but much of it is kept close to the chest with not many clues to give away the thinking nor the plans of actions that people are working on. It’s the nature of the beast to be quiet until ready to roar.

It’s reassuring. These sectors typically attract the smartest, the most pragmatic and let’s face it, the most powerful forces in society. So if they “get it” then pretty soon the rest of us will. Never mind what’s going on among the world’s fossilised industries.

In the property world

In the sustainable property world the election and the first days of the new regime weren’t quite a collective yawn, but more akin to an irritation. A bit like annoying mosquitoes with Ross River Fever; they can’t kill you but they can give you chronic fatigue.

The industry response split in two. The sustainable property world knows there is a logic and reason to energy efficiency, lower carbon, sustainable materials, resource efficiency and less toxic rubbish in our air.

And that whatever the New Feds do to stop it won’t work in the long run because there’s money to be made from pursing all these things. It’s a bit like Luddites trying to stop the advent of machines. They can slow it down but it won’t work.

Peter Newton from Swinburne University and Peter Newman from Curtin University think the built environment gets it and will do what has to be done.

In Wednesday’s The Conversation the pair said, “We believe the urban fabric will shape the transition to low carbon futures in both transport fuel and renewable energy.”

Click on the links for this article and on this paper that backs it up, The Geography of Solar Photovoltaics (PV) and a New Low Carbon Urban Transition Theory.

There’s also the delicious thinking from the wily ones that having such shocking anti climate dudes in
power will galvanise opposition big time.

The mainstream – old property (can we say that yet?) – were delighted to have the rightful masters back in place. Of course.

According to recruitment consultant Rita Avdiev the conservatives will be good for business.

“Mainstream property is delighted that the chaos is over and there is some stability to make decisions without being afraid of what’s going to happen next,” Avdiev told us on Wednesday.

“The [changes to the fringe benefits tax changes by the Rudd Government] had every employer in Australia put up their hands in horror.”

As for any movement in activity or sentiment since the election, Avdiev pointed out that property depends on renting space.

“That’s the bottom line, their cash flow in property is from renting space deriving, so hopefully under the new government there will be more confidence and stability in the world that uses property, that puts bums on seats. That’s where the mainstream property is at.

However any change in the jobs market will take some time to come through.

At the moment people are being replaced, that’s all; there is no growth in numbers and those with a job are “working harder than they’ve ever done before”.

One new area that could turn up some interesting growth is in the retirement property sector, says Aviev, and she’s been asked to do some work on remuneration in this emerging sector.

See our article on architect Michael Heenan for some insight into that agenda.

Planning planning

Heenan, chief executive of Allen Jack + Cottier, also had some interesting insight into the NSW Planning reforms.

The planning white paper is now stalled with promises to amend some of the key sticking points, after a community backlash furious with the downgrade of environmental standards and community input at the individual property stage. More than 5000 submissions were received; perhaps the kind of public participation the government prefers not to have.

But there’s a good side, according to Heenan. He’s been working on the draft urban activation precincts that have trialled how some of the random selection panels could work.

Some consultation sessions he’s been involved have flushed out people quite new to the regular objectors, he says.

One thing he’s noticed in the influx of far more broadminded people who are selected randomly to participate in the forums.

“You get a much broader view from a broader section of the community.”

Typically community engagement has come from people engaged in precinct committees, sometimes for years, and yes there is sometimes annoyance at the “randoms” who are joining the groups and expressing more progressive ideas.

But uninformed “progressives” who know little about planning and are selected randomly might do just as much damage as habitual precinct committee members who tend towards opposition to development, we say.

Heenan says the process is as much about education as other matters.

In one exercise he gives groups of Lego blocks to participants to use the “floor space” and they’re asked to configure height and open space. Then he says, “What if we give you two more blocks but if you use them you would have to leave two more blocks of open space.”

It’s a simple exercise but works magic in helping people’s understanding of some town planning fundamentals, he says.

“We certainly need something to free up the choked planning system,” Heenan says.

Down the Abbott hole

Down the rabbit/Abbott hole we go, folks, where you can drink from the bottles that make you feel really big, or really small. Or root around in all that nice smelly gas and black gold.

So on the dizzy first days of the new regime we have:

  • Orders to shut down the Climate Commission and dismantle the carbon tax
  • Orders to shut down the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (Legal opinion obtained by the Australian Conservation Foundation says that’s not legal; see below)
  • The mining industry told to dig deep and fast
  • The Queensland Gov (bless their dirty cotton socks) telling the New Feds to “get out of the way” of mining and the big dredge that will wreck the Great Barrier.
  • The sacking of the three “mandarins”, as a warning to those working towards climate change or other Labor associated agendas
  • A cabinet of men, bar one woman
  • The Daily Telegraph launching a war against bicycles in Sydney– well the election is over; time to look for another lampooning target or the readers will get bored

Murray Hogarth of The 3rd Degree has summed up the scenario in an excellent contribution to Spinifex this issue.

Hogarth, calls on some of the views that emerged from the Green Capital forum last week, which he facilitated, to say there is no doubt that the Abbott Government will do what it promised to wind back climate change action.

It means this government is “heading in the opposite direction to where the international scene is heading”, says Hogarth.

“Damage to renewable energy is definitely an issue in terms of investment certainty.”

What we don’t know is what the Maverick Senate will do.

Will it force the Coalition to do the kind of deals that have made NSW permit shooting in national parks?

Or worse?

Maverick is one word to describe the new senators who find themselves unexpectedly holding the balance of power.

And it’s kind.

Clean Energy Finance Corporation

But it may not be so easy for Abbott.

Legal advice obtained by the Australian Conservation Foundation and The Environment Defenders Office Victoria says that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation must continue to do its job.

According to Stephen Keim QC: “Administrative law principles clearly dictate that, to be lawful, any exercise of discretion by the responsible ministers should be exercised in good faith for the purposes of the CEFC Act, and not designed to frustrate or prevent the achievement of the purposes of the CEFC Act.

“A direction to cease activities or cease investments, or to cease payments, would frustrate the legislative purpose of the CEFC Act, would be inconsistent with the CEFC Act and would not be authorised by s 64(1) of the CEFC Act.

“The CEFC’s activities cannot be terminated by executive action.

“If given some unlawful direction by the responsible ministers (or anyone else) to cease operations or some aspect of its operations, the board would be obliged to ignore that direction.”