Rob Stokes at a public event on planning issues. Image: The Fifth Estate

NSW Environment Minister Rob Stokes outlined a powerful sustainability agenda for NSW at an address he gave on Monday to the  Sustainable Business Australia audience at KPMG’s Sydney offices.

NSW was open for business, he said. Green business.

Green business made sense. It was a job creator, innovator and attractor of investment. Sustainable businesses were more resilient and made exciting places to work. Environmental protection was not something you tacked onto the end of your business after it was doing well. It was a prerequisite, “foundational”.

On this his colleagues in cabinet agreed.

Fresh from his “California, not dreaming” ambitions that he unveiled last week for NSW to be the national leader on energy efficiency clean energy and sustainability, Mr Stokes, also Assistant Planning Minister, underscored and elaborated on that vision for a group of business leaders who would have been forgiven for wondering if they were hearing right, given it’s not been the kind of talk issuing from the mouths of conservative politicos these days.

But there it was.

An early morning wake-up call for sustainable business

Stokes made no apologies for the California speech. Sure it had attracted the rude ire of Maurice Newman, the 76-year-old who sits on the right hand of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s posse of climate denying bounty hunters (our comment). But that had only been published in The Australian (ditto).

“Maurice is an esteemed banker and financier and he took issue with my comment on energy efficiency,” Mr Stokes said, referring to Newman’s claims on California’s unemployment and economic issues.

But an interesting statistic was that California’s energy use has remained consistent since the 1970s and yet its economy had grown 20 times in that period, Mr Stokes said.

“If we can do half of that we’d be doing very well.”

Newman had suggested that NSW would be better served by going down the Texas road, which had attracted energy intensive industries to within its borders.

“Maurice suggested we should model ourselves more on Texas [which had attracted energy intensive industries]. But Texas has a very aggressive program of subsidising wind turbines, and I’m unsure what Maurice is wanting to say about that; I’m not sure that’s the direction he wants to us to go.”

But then there were quite a few differences between the two. One was opinion and certainly Newman was entitled to his. The other was generational, he said.

Rob Stokes, sustainable change is not win-win. There will be losers

You can assume the brouhaha will only deepen as the fossil fuel lobby realises the direction NSW is leaning towards.

The minister knows this. The notion that sustainability could come from a “win-win” scenario was wrong. There would be losers, he said.

Environmental protection is not an “optional extra” when businesses are doing well, “it has to be a precondition”, “foundational”.

And this would cause conflict.

The point, said the minister is that “we see sustainability is as economic opportunity not as some block – quite the opposite.

“We want growth, we want innovation, we want new jobs and new investment but want to make sure the direction of that investment is helping create a healthy, safer, more progressive, more sustainable community.

“We don’t want development to create a legacy of disasters for other generations to clean up.”

“And that’s going to create a measure of conflict.

“It’s up to political leaders like myself that the conflict of ideas is conducted as rationally and respectfully and reasonably as possible.”

“But it’s a conflict worth having.

“Because it’s up to all of us to ensure we have clean air, good soils and a healthy environment because without those things the whole basis of our society is undermined.

“Please note the NSW government has a clear vision. We want to shape the path of economic development but we’re not wanting to have it at the cost of the environment.”

Stokes ticked all the right boxes: intelligence, pragmatism, rational economic thinking that understands that a healthy environment is a precondition to prosperity.

The notion of frugality and thrift emerged time and again.

His favourite writer on conservation was Benjamin Franklin, who said the path to wealth and prosperity was shaped by two things, industry and thrift. This was highly relevant to the use of resources so you could use them again. It all made sense.

“We should not have to argue the point because it should be common sense. It should not be argued on.

“Sustainable economic growth and conservation rather than being opposed to each other are intrinsic.

“And that’s the approach the NSW government is taking to environmental protection more broadly.

“It’s making it easier for businesses to work sustainably. We’re working hard to make sure there are no barriers to making decisions that make environmental, economic and social sense.

“Society is not there to serve the economy it should be the other way around.”

Not just grand statements

The minister didn’t stop at grand statements.

The resource efficiency program he announced last week was rooted in practical common sense economics.

The state currently spent $500 million year in energy, water and waste, “so there are clear benefits from looking at this spending and finding ways to reduce energy use,” he said.

The program is to invest $290 million over 10 years, targeting savings of $55 million a year, with only projects considered that would return a minimum internal rate of return of 12 per cent.

This is pretty well what the Victorian government was working on with its Greener Government Buildings program that was slated to save the taxpayer more than $2 billion in energy savings by retrofitting the power consumption of massive facilities such as the Melbourne Cricket Ground, hospitals and universities.

(There is some hope the program can be continued but it will be in a much reduced state.)

In NSW the government recognised it had transformational power through its multiple roofs for solar, a huge energy use profile, a huge procurement budget and ownership of 400,0000 square kilometres of land. Enough to shift a market, not just by example but by the sheer weight of numbers.

Saving energy was a prime example of thrift.

“Between 61 and 86 per cent of all the electricity generated is never used,” Mr Stokes said.

In the residential sector 13 per cent of all power in was wasted on standby power.

“So this is a huge waste and a tax on everyone.”

The government also recently introduced a number of changes to strengthen the back end of Energy Savings Scheme and it also instituted a review of the scheme to encompass the potential for gas savings.

For Mr Stokes, energy efficiency is a “no brainer”.

Gas costs in particular were about to soar.

“There will be a rising market for gas efficiency,” he said.

Sustainability advantage

Sustainable businesses were also more resilient, he said. They can manage change, they can compete strategically and they can attract and retain quality staff.

“They maintain a loyal customer base. Having a sustainability focus creates a real advantage.

“Sustainability creates excitement and loyalty among staff. People get compelled and excited to achieve sustainability together.”

Sustainable businesses also are also those that also drives investment.

NSW could be a solar behemoth

NSW had the potential to shoot ahead of the competition on solar. The Moree Solar Farm project that had recently reached financial close and a $101.7 million investment from The Australian Renewable Energy Agency, would have 56 megawatts of photovoltaic panels covering 350 hectare of land.

This would add to the capacity of the Nyngan Solar Plant with 102 megawatts and another 54 at Broken Hill.

In Western Australia the Greenough River solar farm was only 10 megawatts.

“We’re going to become Australia’s solar behmoth.”

Level playing field

But all forms of energy production had negative environmental consequences so it was important to treat each on the same level playing field.

Where wind farms had caused angst in rural communities perhaps a shared benefit model could work so that the entire community could benefit rather than just the farmer on whose land the windmill was placed.

“There’s heightened conflict around environmental projects. We need to ensure society is linked in; that it understands he benefits from more investments in sustainable energy.

“This will be will be critical for acceptance of resource models.”

People have different views, he said.

“Some don’t like coal mines or wind power or hydro – it doesn’t matter how you generate electricity, all have some environmental consequences, unless we treat them all the same and are aware of the costs and benefits of each we won’t have the full picture.”

The minister said the same could be said for coal seam gas, pragmatically noting that fossil fuels were still part of the mix.


Another promise from the minister was that the government would focus on “restoring” the Environmental Protection Authority and making it far more effective in stopping polluting activities.

“The EPA is going to get tougher; it will have more power to ensure the EPA has the power to do its job effectively.”

Penalties had already been made more powerful by a factor of 10, he said, and were now “the toughest in the nation”.

The EPA would be “big but fair” he said, and businesses could no longer count on using penalties and fines as a “cost of doing business”.

Another big area slated for change would be the biodiversity laws that would be rationalised for less “red tape”.


Answering a question on the floor on the topic of silos, Mr Stokes said it touched on his personal ambition.

“This is my grand plan,” he said. “I think an environment minister is not a good thing. I hope to do myself out of a job.”

It was a NSW Liberal government that in 1971 had its first environment minister when Jack Beale refused the more senior role of Minister for Public Works and opted instead for the minister for conservation but changing the name to Environment Protection.

“Ultimately being an environment minister is you argue and everyone else argues against you.”

Instead all ministers should be environment ministers, he said.

“Economic development is all about eco-protection.

“Environment just means surroundings; there’s nothing novel about the term.”

More on this topic to follow

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  1. And yet at the same time they are greatly loosening the laws regarding clearing of Native vegetation and reducing the financial penalties by a factor of ten – a point that the Coalface mining magazine is clearly very happy about.