Mike Cannon-Brookes
Mike Cannon-Brookes in conversation with Rae Johnston at 100 Climate Conversations hosted at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney

At an event at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum on Friday renewable energy rockstar investor Mike Cannon-Brookes said something that made the built environment feel a bit like Cinderella.

Last October, Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes and his wife Annie pledged an eye-watering sum of $1.5 billion of their personal wealth (estimated at more than $20 billion) to financial and philanthropic investments aimed at mitigating climate change.

That is on top of an estimated $1 billion of existing investments in green energy, and separate from the recent AGL investment of $461 million to gain an 11.3 per cent stake in the energy giant.

Questioned in Sydney on Friday – amid a serious media pack from the mainstream newspapers intent on gaining all possible minutiae and insights around his bid for gas company AGL (to stop its demerger proposal) as to whether his $1.5 billion investment and philanthropy fund will extend to start-ups in the built environment space, Mr Cannon-Brookes, told The Fifth Estate that was not an option. We got a big sorry “no”. 

Instead, he, said, he wants to focus on investments such as Goterra’s “maggot-filled robot” to tackle food waste. 

While food waste is an important issue to take action on, the built environment contributes around 40 per cent (the figure varies) of annual global emissions – 85 per cent of which will be made up of embodied carbon (emissions generated during manufacture, construction, maintenance and demolition of buildings) by 2050.

Food waste only produces eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

It seems that green investors might have shiny object syndrome. 

Mr Cannon-Brookes, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of collaboration software firm Atlassian, has been stepping up investments in renewable energy in recent times.

He is a key backer of Sun Cable, a solar farm in the Northern Territory that will supply electricity to Darwin by 2026 and to Singapore by 2027. 

He is also responsible for the Twitter bet that saw Elon Musk deliver South Australia’s 129-megawatt-hour “Big Battery” that Mr Cannon-Brookes shelled out $50 million for.

At the start of May he invested $461 million to acquire an 11.3 per cent stake in AGL Energy, becoming the Australian utility’s biggest shareholder.

The acquisition will enable Mr Cannon-Brookes to vote against AGL’s plan to demerge its electricity retailing business from its power generation assets. Shareholders will vote on the demerger at a meeting next month.

On Friday he also mentioned the possibility of reviving his failed takeover bid of the energy provider, highlighting that ownership would make it easier for him to force a renewables transition.

The Cannon-Brooke family office, Grok Ventures, also backs Brighte, which recently surpassed $1 billion in loan applications for its product which lends to households wishing to install solar panels and batteries.

So while it’s thrilling to see such commitment to the renewable energy sector and while we know that his company Atlassian is building a super green environmental timber building at Sydney’s Central Station, it’s disappointing that he doesn’t get excited by the potential of the built environment to steer a faster path to net zero, as we do.

Are such investors forgetting the enormous contribution to emissions that the built environment sector is responsible for?

Atlassian has already achieved its goal of running its operation entirely using renewables, and has committed to science-based targets to net-zero by 2050.

But when The Fifth Estate asked if he had any ambition within the built environment space, he only had that timber tower to speak of. 

He has “no current plans” to transform the built environment space the way he is attempting to transform the renewable energy space.

It’s a huge shame. 

Billionaires such as Mr Cannon-Brookes could leverage their substantial rock star status (not to mention wealth) to make a dent in that roughly 40 per cent emissions figure we just mentioned.

Other big investors are certainly paying attention.

For example, the quest for “green” cement is drawing big name investors to the $US417,420 million industry.

The cement and concrete industry accounts for about 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, or about 6 per cent of global emissions. That’s more emissions than Russia and Japan. 

In the race to produce low-carbon concrete, startups in the US are attracting big tech names including Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, and venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins. More than $US100 million in venture funding went to cement startups in the US in 2020-2021. 

So why is the interest in sustainability of the built environment not attracting the same attention in Australia?

“I’m very big on trying to make buildings as sustainable as possible. It’s a huge challenge, there’s no doubt about it,” Cannon-Brookes says. But other than the Atlassian HQ it seems that’s where the commitment and the challenge begins and ends.

Maybe the built environment leaders and bright sparks can amalgamate forces over the coming months to persuade this billionaire to change his mind! 

Based on his Twitter bet, he likes a challenge.

We’ll keep you posted.

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  1. Cannon-Brookes may have an admirable, professed eco-ambition and outlook; nevertheless!
    * owning 10 or so very large properties, all with electricity [and perhaps gas]
    connections, when one can reside in only the one, is counter to the sought
    reputation and self-image
    * add to that, all the travel to-and-fro, and between those ‘domiciles’, the
    enormous, one-person or one-small-family travel is vulgar in extremis
    * add to those, maintenance costs for one person’s or one-small-family’s
    properties, and the Q has to be asked: “Where are the ‘consideration and
    care’ for the environment?!
    * building a giant wooden – hopefully fireproof/fire-resistant – monument to
    one’s business or self may be admirable, when it’s definitely justified; but
    it’s in a ‘moment’ wherein all employees are encouraged and free to work
    from home. Furthermore, the resources taken up in construction within the
    dirtiest, most-congested metro-city in Australia consume and emit massive,
    unrecoverable amounts of everything apposite to the person’s platform

    As some of my primary school teachers, who observed my propensity to espouse and talk more than necessary, bluntly stated in my year reports:
    “Can do better”

  2. Curious about how you calculate emissions from food waste. Do you include everything it takes to produce & distribute it or simply the emissions of it rotting. And Mike is investing in multiple fronts, let someone else step up for built environment. Surely, plenty of people in that space that can

    1. Agreed. It’s our parliamentarians that we need to be focussing on. Otherwise we get the syndrome of billionaire saviours who think that their money gives them a stronger, wiser voice than communities. Clive Palmer is one of the more egregious examples.

  3. By tackling the stationary energy grid, he is helping make a huge dent in building emissions. 28% of global emissions, or 2/3rds of the 39% of emissions from buildings the author refers to, are from the energy used to power buildings. Green the grid and the largest portion of building related emissions goes away.