Viva the en­ergy rev­o­lu­tion!

The sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian is qui­etly or­ches­trat­ing an en­ergy rev­o­lu­tion in the pri­vate sec­tor. LINDA MARSA re­ports.

Cosmos - - Front Page - ONCE A GOV­ER­MENT AD­VISER, Ross Garnaut now be­lieves the pri­vate sec­tor is the place to bat­tle cli­mate change.

LAST JULY, shortly be­fore his 70th birth­day, Garnaut took the reins of one of the most am­bi­tious re­new­able en­ergy ini­tia­tives in the world: a A$100 mil­lion (about US$75 mil­lion) so­lar en­ergy fund, part of a larger plan to sink $A1 bil­lion into so­lar in­fras­truc­ture in Aus­tralia by the end of this decade. The year be­fore, the Perth-born economist be­came chair­man of clean tech out­fit ZEN En­ergy, based in Ade­laide.

A decade ago, as an ad­viser to the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment, Garnaut au­thored a ground-break­ing re­port on the eco­nomic im­pact of cli­mate change that cat­a­pulted him to na­tional promi­nence. Now de­ter­mined to steer his coun­try to­wards a low-emis­sions fu­ture, the grand­fa­ther of seven be­lieves the pri­vate sec­tor is the best place to chan­nel his en­er­gies.

The stakes could not be higher: Aus­tralia has been whip­sawed by ex­treme weather through­out its his­tory, but global warm­ing is am­pli­fy­ing th­ese fluc­tu­a­tions. Wit­ness the in­creased in­ci­dence and in­ten­sity of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in­clud­ing floods, heat waves, and bush­fires of unimag­in­able fe­roc­ity. Warm­ing has also wors­ened co­ral bleach­ing on the Great Bar­rier Reef and threat­ens unique ter­res­trial species, from Western Aus­tralia’s banded hare wal­laby to Queens­land’s Lumholtz’s tree kan­ga­roo.

Yet de­spite the ob­vi­ous dan­gers, Aus­tralia re­mains heav­ily re­liant on coal: do­mes­tic con­sump­tion ac­counted for more than 61% of elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion in 2015, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port from the Aus­tralian De­part­ment of En­ergy and Science. Aus­tralia is the world’s largest ex­porter of this dirt­i­est of all fos­sil fu­els.

With such deeply en­trenched vested in­ter­ests, Garnaut has no il­lu­sions about the dif­fi­culty of turn­ing the tide. But he will spend the rest of his life try­ing.

“No other de­vel­oped coun­try is as vul­ner­a­ble to the ef­fects of cli­mate change as Aus­tralia,” he warns, “and the con­se­quences if hu­man­ity fails to deal with this is­sue are very se­vere.” TALL AND SLEN­DER with a corona of thin­ning gray hair and wire-frame glasses that give him the ap­pear­ance of a book­ish aca­demic, the mild­man­nered Garnaut has be­come one of the south­ern hemi­sphere’s most re­spected and sought-af­ter cli­mate ad­vo­cates, keynot­ing con­fer­ences where he is of­ten sur­rounded by a scrim of re­porters. Yet just a decade ago, en­vi­ron­men­tal rock star is some­thing he never thought would be on his re­sume.

Back then he was a trusted eco­nomic ad­vi­sor to a suc­ces­sion of prime min­is­ters. As a re­spected re­searcher and lec­turer at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity in Can­berra, Garnaut was in con­ve­nient prox­im­ity to the na­tion’s seat of power. He had served on the board of nearly a dozen dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies, or­gan­i­sa­tions and aca­demic jour­nals, and chaired four of those busi­nesses, in­clud­ing a gold min­ing out­fit head­quar­tered in Pa­pua New Guinea.

Hardly the pro­file of a san­dal-wear­ing tree hug­ger.

But in 2007, in the midst of a harsh, decade­long drought that turned the grass­lands of the agri­cul­tural heart­land into dust bowls and forced wa­ter ra­tioning in coastal cities, Kevin Rudd, the head of the Aus­tralian La­bor Party, and state and ter­ri­to­rial lead­ers asked Garnaut to put to­gether a re­port on the eco­nomic fall­out from a rapidly warm­ing planet. When Rudd be­came prime min­is­ter in De­cem­ber 2007, the re­port was sanc­tioned by the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment.

Garnaut was aware of cli­mate change, but he thought of it as merely one of thou­sands of press­ing is­sues jostling for at­ten­tion. In the course of re­search­ing the re­port, he had a life-al­ter­ing epiphany: if we failed to mend our car­bon-chug­ging ways, we were headed for “cat­a­strophic dis­rup­tion”, he re­mem­bers think­ing. “The fail­ure of our gen­er­a­tion on cli­mate change mit­i­ga­tion would lead to con­se­quences that would haunt hu­man­ity un­til the end of time.”

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