Green Capital will announce a new local stakeholder-centric pilot project – a micro model for accelerating a new, cleaner mini-economy in an inner-city business precinct at its next forum event. Murray Hogarth explains why.

It’s always unsettling when you find the simple answer to a dire dilemma sitting right in front of you. Imagine my surprise when I found the pathway for a sustainable transformation to a low-carbon, clean-energy economy by 2050 was in my suburb.

Don’t worry, it’s not that my locale’s got the solution and you’ve been left out. It’s in your suburb too. It’s in every suburb, in every local precinct, in every city, campuses, schools, faith communities and more.

It’s even in Canberra, thanks to the ACT Government’s Solar Capital vision, but just not in the current Australian Government – which, appallingly, is determined to be the first in the world to kill off an effective, functioning national scheme to put a price on carbon pollution.

Everyone knows the old wisdom that all politics is local. Well it’s fast becoming true for sustainable economic transformation as well. In recent years, even veteran eco-intellectual warrior David Suzuki has been amending the old catch cry of, Think Global Act Local to Think Local and Act Local!

What should we mean by “local” here? Well it can be many things. But one thing it’s not is a creature of remote bureaucratic decision-makers. It’s not the preserve of those seeking the regulatory nirvana of a one-size-fits-all solution, so loved by economic rationalists, so logical and sensible, yet apparently so unachievable on the ground.

The key to local is relentless aggregation of effort, just as the answer to the old riddle of “How do you eat an elephant?” is one bite at a time (and it helps to have lots of eaters).

This insight has been embraced by Green Capital, Australia’s longest-running independent business sustainability program, which is shifting its focus from set-piece macro policy to “let a thousand flowers bloom” local-level action.

Details of Green Capital’s innovative local stakeholder-centric pilot project – a micro model for accelerating a new, cleaner mini-economy in an inner-city business precinct – will be announced at Green Capital’s next Forum event: Sydney Frontiers: The Rising Power of Local Sustainability.

This strategic pivot to local comes as nearly two decades of blood, sweat and tears national-level environmental reform efforts are being reversed in Australia, with:

  • The abolition of the two-year-old carbon pricing scheme (aka the dreaded carbon tax)
  • The 20 per cent by 2020 Renewable Energy Target under assault
  • A long-awaited National Energy Efficiency Target still in the policy never-never zone, and
  • A growing crisis for environmental law and policy more broadly, including Australia’s participation in the key United Nations climate treaty negotiations in 2015, World Heritage battles, and the devolution of Commonwealth regulatory powers to the states

The widening national policy vacuum comes at a time when many state-based programs also have been abandoned around Australia, and coincides with a new wave of privatisations, collapsing public trust in energy utilities, and declining investor confidence in the fossil fuel sector.

The old order in many ways is becoming destabilised, and ripe for even more technological disruption and Joseph Schumpeter-style, capitalistic “creative destruction” – which is Darwinian and means there are losers as well as winners, not just Pollyannaish “win-wins” and “win-win-wins”.

In business, as in politics and sport, momentum is often critical. And right now all of the momentum in Australia is running away from national leadership and towards more bite-sized chunks of change:

  • Municipal-level strategies – standouts are the City of Sydney’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 Plan and the Australian Capital Territory government’s 90 per cent Renewable Energy Target for Canberra, but there are myriad less prominent local authority initiatives
  • Community energy – the first Community Energy Congress, held in Canberra in June, brought together over 300 delegates from around Australia reflecting a groundswell for grassroots clean energy action, and on July 14 there’s a launch event in Sydney for the faith community and not-for-profit sector focused National Energy Efficiency Network (NEEN)
  • Precinct solutions – integrated energy, water, waste and other resource efficiency models for enterprises and institutions from major urban redevelopment sites, to airports, higher education campuses and industrial estates
  • Sharing economy – leveraging information and communications technologies, social media and collaborative consumption inspired business models, often with a powerful local element to the sharing exchange of goods and services
  • Commercial adaptations – the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s community ownership model for branches was an early example, and it is no coincidence that Bendigo is leading the banking sector in refusing to fund thermal coal and coal seam gas projects. Now we’re seeing game-changing new commercial models, like investor-financed $0 upfront solar PV rollouts using power purchase agreements (PPAs) with homeowners and businesses
  • Clean and close-the-loop technologies – from solar PV to battery storage to 3D printing to zero waste manufacturing and easily replicated smaller-scale and decentralised solutions are tipping the balance against the big centralised economies of scale approach that dominated the 20th century.

Local is looking good for deeply pragmatic reasons, just as national action is being torn apart for ideological ones, the latter aided and abetted by still influential vested interests seeking to prolong their old economy cash cows in the “fossil fueldom”.

At the most basic level, local works because you can get the key stakeholders cum decision-makers together in the one room, thrash out a plan, and then go make it happen. As this can be happening everywhere, simultaneously, the aggregation of effort and the continuous innovation it drives is profound and powerful.

Murray Hogarth is Green Capital’s senior adviser and a long-time sustainability strategist and commentator. Green Capital’s next Forum is SYDNEY FRONTIERS: The Rising Power of Local Sustainability, July 24th 2014 6-9pm at the UTS Aerial Function Centre. Details here