Tim O'Leary

Telstra chief sustainability officer Tim O’Leary has an interesting background: NAB and “big oil”, as he puts it. The oil company turns out to be Exxon Mobil. That’s an unusual career path. But speaking days before his appearance at the mega sustainability conference in Melbourne under the umbrella of Sustainability in Business on 15 and 16 October, O’Leary is tapping that background for some valuable nuggets to share with his audience.

O’Leary’s key opening point during a phone conversation with The Fifth Estate is surprisingly acute.

“The challenge we have is of low carbon growth, whether ours or Exxon Mobil, it’s a real one and one we have to face.

“Working at Telstra, what excited me is the opportunity of telecommunications to do this.”

In the three years since O’Leary joined the giant telco he’s developed an understandable respect for the power of technology to shave energy consumption, create efficiencies and reduce stress on our natural resources.

Understandable because experts in the energy efficiency and sustainability fields get this.

Telstra got it maybe earlier than others, O’Leary suggests.

“Back in 2007 Telstra did something quite interesting. It commissioned a report, Towards a High Bandwidth Low Carbon Future, and it was a report that was somewhat ahead of its time,” O’Leary says.

“It identified the role [information and communication technology] could play in delivering a low carbon economy, essentially enabling a reduction in carbon related costs. And it identified a half dozen initiatives that it thought were of national significance.

The foreword in the report quotes a 2007 Lowy Institute poll that found tackling climate change “is as important to Australians as improving standards in education – and more so than improving the delivery of health care, ensuring economic growth and fighting international terrorism”.

The seven opportunities it found were:

  • Networked demand-side management to increase renewable energy use
  • Integrated personalised public transport
  • “In-person” high-definition videoconferencing to improve business productivity
  • Presence-detecting services that turn off devices that are “on” but not being used
  • Real-time freight allocation systems to fill empty freight vehicles
  • Remote power management for appliances not in use or on “stand-by”
  • Teleworking

These opportunities could also generate up to $6.6 billion in annual financial savings for Australian households and businesses, the report found.

When the telco decided to update the report earlier this year it found savings could now be $8.1 billion a year in energy and travel costs, while the cut in national carbon emissions could be a massive 4.7 per cent.

The second report also identified a further three more opportunities – around a “clean cloud: smart cities and infrastructure and mobile carbon guides”.

The latter involves apps.

“You can download an app to your phone. If you travel at a steady pace the carbon reduction is likely to be minimised,” O’Leary says.

Digital inclusion

O’Leary likes to use the language, as he puts it, of “digital inclusion”, which refers to the notion that the more connected we are the more options we have. And therefore greater access to sustainable practices.

“There’s now a direct intersection between access to the internet and social and economic wellbeing.

“In terms of access to the internet the real revolution – what we’re looking to do – is to ensure everyone is able to enjoy the benefits of communication technology irrespective of age or location or income.”

That’s at both the customer level and the broader community level, he says.

“And what we have to be careful of is the digital divide. How do we ensure there is a real sense of social equity in terms of access?”

The company is “heavily involved” in supporting that digital inclusion and in particular through a program O’Leary says is very exciting.

This includes a program to “equip” 1500 public libraries in Australia “to be smart, safe and responsible”.

Today’s modern library is really a community digital hub and if it’s going to operate that way – perhaps plug the gaps in people’s personal access to the Internet – then libraries need to educate the community how to use digital communications safely and wisely, O’Leary says. For instance how to effectively shop on line, or avoid scams and privacy settings.

The “eSmart program” is in partnership with the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, a leading not for profit learning framework for libraries.

Disabilities

As part of digital inclusion there are also some very exciting and empowering technologies on the way that will assist people with disabilities, O’Leary says. Just one is a Google Glass application that may be able to read labels to identify objects for people who are vision impaired, for instance.

Environmental leadership

On environmental leadership Telstra is working to become “more pro-active and strategic in our approach”, O’Leary says.

“Last year we pulled together the first enterprise integrated environment strategy which has three core elements. First is our own operational performance, addressing material risk, second is our supply chain – we spend around $6 billion a year on suppliers – and how we work with them and, as a sign of our program of investment in our operational efficiency, we’ve invested $30 million in improving carbon efficiency.”

This has resulted in carbon intensity, measured on the basis of tonnes of carbon produced per terabyte of data, brought down from 1.24 tonnes in 2012 to 0.58 in 2014 – a 50 per cent improvement.

And the aim is to improve on that again by 2017.

But what about total carbon production given that data production seems to grow exponentially?

That too has improved.

“Total carbon emissions are flat over that same period,” O’Leary says.

“Those investments we’re making in improving energy and carbon are important”, he says referring to the $30 million investment.

“One of the areas that we’ll be focusing on this year is the efficiency associated with the cloud technology being able to provide us with the confidence to set carbon reduction target of 55 per cent per cent in the next three years.”

O’Leary says the cloud itself offers far greater efficiencies because of its capacity to utilise large scale more efficient data centres that use less electricity.

A third element of the strategy is “building on those technologies to build a richer environmental proposition for our customers”.

By this O’Leary means that part of the mission for Telstra is working with customers, in particular large corporate and government customers, to use technologies to reduce their own energy and therefore carbon production.

“We’re working very closely with large corporate and government customers using those technologies to help customers to reduce energy consumption,” he says.

“That’s why the ICT industry is so well positioned for sustainability.”

This can range from high definition video conferencing that can reduce travel to “working with large trucking companies to assist with real time management and ensuring people are supported to work from home”.

Internals

But what about the internals at Telstra? How does this company that employs 30,000 people manage its own sustainability obligations and aspirations?

The mechanics are simple, he says.

The sustainability team is 20 strong, but though small for the size of the company the thinking is that “we have to breathe with both lungs”, by which O’Leary means there is a recognised need to embed sustainability in the entire company.

Certainly it’s supported by the executive. “Governance is provided by the Telstra Sustainability Council chaired by the chief executive officer and the executive leadership team. It meets three to four times a year.”

But O’Leary reports to the group executive corporate affairs, which some critics in the sustainability profession would say is not ideal; that sustainability is better suited to a strategic role or even operational.

O’Leary says the Telstra solution is not so unusual in corporations where sustainability is part of corporate social responsibility, which can sit within corporate affairs.

In the end, the chain of command is irrelevant, just like motivation. What counts in the results. And if Telstra, with its massive ability to influence communication and the shape and direction of ICT, can do its share of the corporate sector’s sustainability “lifting” in Australia, there are few companies better placed to have an impact.