Zoe Whitton’s certainly has her work cut out for her. Pollination, the company that kicked off in 2019 and that she joined at the start of 2021 is now at more than 300 staff. She’s lost count of the numbers but the hiring rate runs at about two a week at present.
“Every time I walk through that office there are new people sitting at desks,” says Whitton, managing director, head of impact.
It’s no surprise. The company founded by Martijn Wilder is on a tear, just like its progenitor.
Wilder is the kind of quintessential can’t-sit-still man. In an interview with him a while back (he’s also presented at one of our events) The Fifth Estate needed to compete for his attention with a few other conversations. There is no time.
Looking at the state of the climate right now – bushfires, evacuation orders, schools shut down in early spring, on top of the horror of the northern summer – we see his point and wish everyone working in the climate and sustainability space was just like Wilder.
Whitton by contrast is the poised, super intelligent creative that (you suspect without peering into the inner working of the place), makes a great corollary to Wilder’s non-stop energy.
We bumped into her at an energy conference at UTS recently and noted a conga line of people waiting to speak to her during the break.
Finally, we managed to prise some time from her schedule for a short but highly intense chat.
Key among the intel we wanted to pick up was what was driving the work that the company is doing, its growth, the dynamics it observes and what the big challenges are.
First nugget to fall from the conversation was a glimpse into the scale of what’s going on with this “transition we have to have” (our term).
It’s nothing short of immense and growing exponentially, Whitton says.
The company’s growth is an indicator. It’s now got offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and New Zealand close to home. But also “a really big office in London” with nearly 70 people and others in Singapore, Washington DC and Chicago.
There’s a financial boost that goes with the growth: a $75 million minority equity investment from ANZ, giving the bank early access to green investment opportunities and joint venture with another banker, HSBC on its Climate Assessment Management program.
So what’s the work entail, exactly?
Whitton’s quick explanation is that the company does two big things.
“One of those is that we help our clients who tend to be large corporates, large financial institutions, and large governments create, envisage and then implement their transition plans. And that’s a transition to both net zero, but also to nature positive, increasingly.”
The problem facing the world right now is that the time for convincing everyone that climate change is real is over – it’s now time for action.
As a result, there is almighty competition for everything that will drive the transition.
The big competition
“Everyone wants to have the same talent, everyone wants to buy the same wind turbines. Everyone wants to approach the same financial institutions to help them do innovative new things,” Whitton says.
But above all the biggest need is for skilled people who know how to deliver the solutions.
In a recent podcast NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe said the reason her state is failing to approve big solar farms is because of the lack of planners on hand to do the necessary work of approvals.
Whitton says: “The rate at which we are trying to mint new activity to get transition going, whether it is large scale, electricity generation and transmission activity…whatever it happens to be, we’re trying to build new industries at such an extraordinary rate, that we often just don’t have the people and the expertise to go and actually make the thing happen.”
The company’s purpose is to fill that gap in delivery.
This can range from “a fund that will invest in natural capital and give me an impact outcome on that natural capital and return.
“I might need a platform that is going to intermediate between me and my suppliers, as we all try and decarbonise together. And as they try to access finance and solutions to help them move the supply chain…that solution might be some really high quality blue carbon credits.”
The company builds, design and co-invest in those solutions, often with clients, and sometimes with strategic partners.
The HSBC joint venture is for funds that help financial institutions access investments that can include decarbonisation programs.
Decarbonisation instead of carbon credits
Whitton says there’s growing discomfort with notion of carbon credits that have proved to be of poor quality.
What’s needed is “contribution to decarbonisation…investing in nature”.
The company works across five areas – the built environment, infrastructure, food, fibre and agriculture, energy and transport.
There’s also environmental markets, and financial institutions and financial markets.
According to a Reuters publication in April the HSBC JV raised $650 million with Apple pledging an additional $200 million to finance of sustainable forestry and regenerative agriculture.
There’s another $150 million investment fund“focused on high-potential climate and nature ventures is also in the pipeline” and a mangrove restoration project in Pakistan – a “blue carbon” credit project.
But even with the looming growth in demand for environmental projects we want to know why there’s such a big presence for the office in London. Don’t cities such as London have their own experts?
Again, the size. “The transition is so huge…it’s so extraordinary and so massive, and it’s affecting so many sectors that we’re seeing this extraordinary lack of capacity across the system.
“If you’re in Europe, you’ve got policy, every which way. You [might be] 15 years into a big industrial transition, you’ve got major companies left, right and centre making major capital decisions about their future.
“And you also have a huge reporting compliance – oversight which makes the reporting compliance that Australian firms face look like they’re not trying.”
So what is Australia’s capacity to deal with implementation?
According to Whitton, “there’s a huge air gap” between the willingness and what people can execute on.
Pollination was brought together because of so many conversations with people who said they would love to transition but couldn’t find the solutions.
But opportunities in this space have not gone down, they’ve gone up, Whitton says.
“I think the urgency has gone up as well. And so that gap still exists.”
Among the specific skills shortages she notes, are planners, engineers and “the humans to build the systems we need” so STEM skills.
Widespread climate literacy through business is crucial
But at the very top of the pile of need is a general “climate literacy” that’s needed in our commercial capability.
“Because we have got to get to a point where it’s all of the bankers who can identify an opportunity, build a support system, work with a company.
“It’s all of the executives who can go, ‘yes, I know what climate change means and how the transition is going to play out. And I know how that relates to my company. And so I can make decisions about that and have instincts about that without needing the sustainability departments to say what to do.”
“That’s boring in some senses. But it’s actually almost like a fundamental skill set, or just a fundamental piece of literacy that we’ve gone from not needing to needing everyone to have. Quite quickly.”
And it needs to be affordable and not “require you give Cambridge [University] 50,000 pounds to do the course.”
Opportunities lying on the street, waiting to be picked up
Whitton says in order to understand the “air gap” in Australia we need to pause and remember how hard it is to take a country that’s developed or developing from a position where there was not a
“particularly rigorous climate change system” five years ago to one that needs to transition its entire energy system in less than 10 years.
The impediments run all the way from approvals for new assets, through to the amount of time it takes to build a really significant strategy and then go through the procurement decisions you have to make to make that real.
The flipside is that all this need and urgent demand that wants to be met presents a “bunch of opportunities” and business models “lying on the street” waiting to be picked up.
If it’s important – it will be political
Whitton cites a wise person she knows who, as she bemoaned the delays in getting policies approved in more politically focused roles from her past, reminded her that anything important becomes political.
“In fact, I think as this transition becomes more significant and it changes more of people’s lives, that we’re going to have an experience of it being highly political and staying highly political.
“It inevitably becomes a question of politics, and how do you manage the increasingly visceral needs of different stakeholders who are being affected by that process?
“A lot of that seems regressive, but I also think it’s an inevitable outcome of people being affected by the world moving around them.”
And it helps to remember that Australia is a resource exporting nation. The Labor government, she reminds, has been in power for a very short period of time.
“If you’ve come into power as a progressive government who said they’re going to do something about climate change, there’s always going to be a bunch of really extremely uncomfortable trade offs that you have to navigate.”
There’s rising competition to say Australia should match the actions of Europe or the US.
The expectations are that we go from a country that “didn’t have much in the box to the box needs to be full in the space of one term”.
“That’s an extraordinarily challenging thing for government to do. So at the moment. You know, I see a government that is certainly from the perspective industry, I think, minting policy, in some senses as fast as it can.”