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