Just a year after kicking off with much hope, burning ambition and a lot of passion, the Materials and Embodied Carbon Leaders’ Alliance has managed to rack up more than 120 members. 

At an event last Monday partly to celebrate this, an impressive panel featuring leaders from the development, government and material suppliers’ side joined forces in a show of strength and commitment – and even more ambition to take MECLA to a broader national audience, fast.

The panel list is worth reproducing:

  • Kerryn Coker, co-chair, Australasia Region, ARUP 
  • Dale Connor, chief executive, Lendlease Australia 
  • Mitchell Futcher, National Director, Built 
  • Ainsley Simpson, chief executive, Infrastructure Sustainability Council 
  • Davina Rooney, chief executive, Green Building Council of Australia 
  • Dr Sarah Hill, chief executive, Western Sydney Parkland Authority 
  • George Agriogiannis, chief executive, Holcim  
  • Ben Heraghty, group strategy, M&A, transformation, ventures and sustainability officer, Boral
  • Michael Kemp, chief executive, Wagners Earth Friendly Concrete
  • John Nowlan,chief executive, Australian Steel Products, Bluescope
  • Steve Porter, head of sustainability, innovation and trade, Infrabuild 
  • Rachael Armistead, general manager strategy & business improvement, Hyne and XLAM
  • Veena Sahajwalla, scientia professor, UNSW Sustainable Materials Research & Technology Centre 

The message from this diverse crowd was as one: the job of decarbonising or at least radically reducing carbon in materials was both difficult and urgent. 

The urgency was evident even before the election of a new climate friendly government, backed by a tidal wave of Green and teal cross benches, signalled the climate wars were over, the concrete boots were off, and now the main thing remaining was the incredibly challenging job of “how” we get to our new goals.

As a quick summary of “how” might be: the power of demand, finance, determination, plus a huge dose of creative solutions. These were all on offer on MECLA’s special day.

Monica Richter, Business Development Manager for WWF-Australia

Monica Richter, senior manager low carbon futures at World Wildlife Fund and MECLA director, founded the idea alongside Hudson Worley and Ben Waters of Presync when the trio produced a deep dive report on the sector and how to galvanise action.

Worley, now chair of the group, was MC and moderator for the day. With his inside knowledge, he teased out more than a few interesting insights.

Collaboration was clearly key as competitors took to the stage to discuss how they were pushing forward on lower carbon materials. In a fiercely competitive industry, today doubly challenged by rising prices, how was this collaboration achieved?

Richter took The Fifth Estate on a quick behind the scenes tour.

First was the not insubstantial need to avoid crossing swords with the ACCC (The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission)

That meant no mention of price during workshops and discussions, eliminating the possibility of collusion, Richter says.

An early agreement also precluded the possibility of revealing the “secret sauce” or formulas for particular materials to stop potential leakage of business intelligence.

For instance, Boral’s formula to dramatically lower the carbon in its cement product, known as “liquid zep” (“So called because the guy who invented it about eight to 10 years ago was listening to Led Zeppelin at the time, the company’s head of group strategy Ben Heraghty told the audience.)

“The governance structure was sorted out fairly early on. We had a project leadership group – our decision making body – and we invited people from MECLA to join that.” 

Legal advice was also brought on board early to make sure agreements were in writing and in order.

Boral was an early supporter plus Corrs, which supported the legal element, especially in chats with the ACCC to help with the disclosure elements of the program.

“They work on the model rather than the detail” is how Richter explains it.

The same goes for erstwhile competitors InfraBuild and Bluescope with steel.

“The industry is collectively building the knowledge.”

Price was another no-go zone.

“We can’t talk price. No collusions allowed,” Richter said.

“We had a conversation with them very early in the piece.”

Richter says it’s probably “the first time that a range of competitors in the concrete and steel companies have come together in the same space to talk about their products and how they would change them.”

MECLA launched just over a year ago in April 2021 – in corporate time, a mere blink of an eye.

The report by Worley, Waters and Richter focused on the challenges the industry was facing in addressing zero carbon in the system.

It also addressed the intervention points that might be needed including “the need for demand side signals” Richter recalls, so procurement was key – and this was echoed in several mentions on stage last week.

In particular the powerful role government procurement agencies could play, given the scale of their buying power. (Long term industry players will recall that it was government mandates for minimum Green Star buildings that kicked off the green building movement in Australia.)

Alongside that was the need to identify the regulatory frameworks that either enable or “get in the way” of change.

The finance sector was also seen as critical in helping investment capex (capital expenditure) to support the manufacturing sector to decarbonise.

To capture the opportunities the trio leaned on the work already undertaken in the renewable energy sector with power purchase agreements creating the certainty to enable the capital investment needed for transition.

There was very much a need for understanding of how intervention needed to work, Richter said. 

Next and still a big topic of conversation – among the most heated, noted Worsely during the proceedings on Monday – was the issue of standards and measurement around carbon in materials. 

This is because the locations of materials manufacturing could significantly alter carbon content depending on a range of factors, some as basic as what kind of electricity was used in that region – brown coal or hydro for instance.

Another key issue is prescriptive versus an outcomes based approach to standards. 

MECLA’s range of working groups is where these hoary issues are thrashed out and debated. 

Currently there are eight such groups.

One of the key members of MECLA is Transport for NSW, which makes sense given the huge number of transport projects on the go (the department several months ago made a call out for “hundreds” of new staff with training offers as part of the package).

A godsend for the new outfit was by way of a “government navigator” Alberto Jiminez who is able to bring in different part of government, infrastructure, transport, public works and policy makers – a clever idea given the complexity of bureaucracy and the need for effective cross collaboration.

Also important in the network are architects, life cycle assessment experts and sustainability experts. 

Richter says the sharing of information at an industry level is important for head contractors and what they want to know – else they may well consider going off shore to procure what they need.

“There are unintended consequences if organisations go off shore and start sourcing their materials from different markets.

“What we’re also trying to do is provide the conditions for Australia to remanufacture, to bring back on shore manufacturing opportunities, for instance with secondary aluminium.” 

Capral for instance is the Australia’s largest manufacturer making window frames, but a lot of its work was sent offshore thanks to cheaper available labour.

G James, another aluminium company, and Capral import a significant amount of aluminium though Russia. LendLease Australia chief executive Dale Connor noted that another source in Russia is now unavailable, for obvious reasons.

At bottom, says Richter, is that we need science based targets for all that we do. 

“If we have any chance of achieving 1.5 degrees, we need to be working across the supply chain and we know there are many barriers,” Richter says.

The trick is to integrate sustainable procurement into all these ecosystems of the industry and to understand the needs of each, for instance with local councils – what do they need to change?

Whatever MECLA’s own “secret sauce” or liquid zep is, it seems to be working. 

Perhaps it’s having a non-government organisation such as WWF behind it.

“Perhaps they trust that impartial voice; it has no commercial interest in this.”

Now it’s time to spread its wings. The NSW government has been “the peak enabler” says Richter. But to carry things forward the program is looking for investment from the private sector and has asked for investors. And to move to other states.

It needs new government support and new industry support.

The range of commitment is emblematic of its inclusionary framing – from $10,000 right down to $500 for small operators.

But speed is the key, says Richter. This outfit doesn’t want to be around forever. “The next two years is long enough.”

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