Climate change and the urgency of action 


Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m delighted to be here today and do hope you find this talk of interest. I’m going to take you on a journey around climate change which at times might feel a bit bleak and bereft of hope. However, I will also show you some of the footsteps on a path that that we all need to take in order begin to clear up some of the mess we have made. 

Quite a few years ago I gave the Hawke Lecture – entitled A Sustainable Planet a Future for Australia. In it I talked about Hope – the benefits but also the pitfalls!  

Hope, action and ingenuity saw us develop large cities and big tracts of land, and hope, action and ingenuity gave rise to wealth for those in the present.   

But hope by itself means we stick to the same old ways and hold fast to the same old laws as long as the results are good in the present.     

Hope is what we have when we don’t like the look of the clouds on the horizon – we hope the forecast is wrong – we hope there is a silver lining.  

Hope is what makes us strive for opportunity, but hope is also our excuse for inaction.   

This is not a time for simply hoping. This is a time for action.  

I said that 17 years ago and it is still true today! Procrastination is the thief of time – and as a world and as a Nation we have procrastinated to the point that we may not be able to remain below a 2.0 degree rise in global average temperature by 2100 let alone achieve the1.5 degrees pathway set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.  

The drumbeat 

The growing sense of urgency has been marked by a drumbeat that grows ever louder and is increasing in cadence.  

Just one year ago, on May 18th, the International Energy Agency published their report – Net Zero by 2050-A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector it came as a shock to the energy world! For the first time the IEA published how the energy sector could get to net zero and in it said that no new coal, oil and gas fields should be developed if we are to hit that target. All previous reports were much more in the vein of; what they observed was happening, rather than how to change.   

On August the 9th last year, Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the IPCC (basically the scientists) published their report on, The Physical Science of Climate Change. Their assessment was that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years.  

Climate change and its impacts are accelerating and more impacts on the way. Every fraction of a degree matters.   

The most important thing is reducing emissions by as much and as fast as possible. Rapid decarbonisation. 

In November last year the UNFCCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) had their conference, COP26, in Glasgow you would have read about it – some of you may have been there. It has become known as the “Business COP”.  

In February the IPCC, WG2 reported on the – Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability from climate change.   

And then last month on April 4th WG3 published on the Mitigation of Climate Change.  

And it is on this date that perhaps we hear the most damning drumbeat of all delivered by the UN secretary general António Guterres. He said:  

The jury has reached a verdict. And it is damning. This report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a litany of broken climate promises. It is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world. 

We are on a fast track to climate disaster. Major cities underwater. Unprecedented heat waves. Terrifying storms. Widespread water shortages. The extinction of a million species of plants and animals. This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies. 

We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5 degrees C limit agreed in Paris. Some Government and business leaders are saying one thing but doing another. Simply put they’re lying, and the results will be catastrophic. This is a climate emergency. 

Powerful words. We will hear more I am sure from the UN secretary-general, when the final Synthesis report comes out in September this year. Another drumbeat.  

In Australia we have witnessed some of the climate related disasters. Droughts, bushfires, and floods. From afar we have seen similar events in Canada, USA and Europe and elsewhere. All these events have a deeply embedded climate-change signature within them.   

Looking ahead; the science is telling us that: 

Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.” (AR6 WG1 B1) 

One could take a pessimistic view that it is all too late. Or we could take an optimistic view that technological silver bullets will come along.   

But perhaps we should take a realistic stance and recognise that, we have, within our power, the ability to slow the rate of change and maybe just maybe avoid the worst of the scenarios even though we will have to adapt significantly.   

The Conversation is Moving 

So having taken you halfway along in the journey and left you feeling a bit bleak it’s now time for a bit of levity and indeed levitation as I try to bring you back up.   

Some of you will have read to your children, Pamela Allen’s book “Who Sank the Boat”.   

“Beside the sea, there lived a cow, a donkey, a sheep, a pig, and a tiny little mouse. One sunny day, they decided to go for a row in the bay. Guess who sank the boat?” 

I cannot really do justice to the story, and it’s much better read with the illustrations in front of you, but basically each of the animals, one after the other, get into a rowing boat.   

It sinks further and further into the water until the last animal; the mouse gets in, and finally the boat sinks. It was the mouse that sank the boat – or was it? 

Clearly the weight of each of the animals contributed to the final sinking of the boat and this story can be used as a metaphor for emissions contributions. Was it China? Was it America? Was it Europe? Or was it little old Australia who sinks the boat?   

As a sailor myself I’m pretty sure that if you’re in a boat and it’s sinking you better be bailing with whatever strength you have and the bigger the bucket the better. But you’d better be bailing. We’re all in this together.  

But back in 2000, you could be forgiven for believing that it was only the energy sector that really needed to do anything about reducing emissions.   

In fact, in the Business Council of Australia meetings there were probably only 10% of the companies who were progressive, 10% of the companies completely regressive and 80% pretty much oblivious to the issue of global warming and climate change. At that time within the 80% were most banks, most manufacturers, the agriculture sector insofar as it was represented and certainly the retail sector.  

For nearly two decades the main conversation was around the fossil fuel producers and the Emission Intensive Trade Exposed industries such as aluminium, steel making, cement making etc. The main lobbying efforts were to ensure that little would get in the way of business as usual and certainly not around how to decarbonise faster.  

The penny was beginning to drop, that with national targets to reduce emissions; if some sectors were let off; others would have to pick up the slack. If some States went slow, others would have to go faster. Equitable burden sharing however has never been discussed.  

However, the conversation on decarbonising has changed, around the world, and for the better. Leadership is coming from businesses, many of which are pivoting their strategies. Leadership is also coming from some States and territories. The financial world is moving its money away from risky assets and investing in assets that will be valuable in the future. Stranded asset risk is ever rising.  

Misquoting Banjo Patterson “There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around……that resisting change was not a winning way!  As I said before, we are all in this together! And it about winning in the future that matters, socially, culturally, environmentally, and economically.  

Industry sector by industry sector, businesses are beginning to move, and I congratulate the Retail Sector for playing its part. 

So what about retail?  

It is great to see the ARA’s – NetZero Roadmap; and also, to see the ARA’s Climate Action Plan launched today. Credit to Paul Zahra for his leadership. And to Fleur Brown, and Jason Robertson, may I also pass on my congratulations to you and your team – I know how hard it is to produce such a plan!  

I also want to mention that, by building collaboratively and collegiately with the British Retail Consortium, the ARA and its members have demonstrated key behaviours we need to tackle climate change – collaboration and collegiality with a laser like focus on rapid decarbonisation.   

The Roadmap for Retail is very different from the roadmap for the energy sector in which I started work and have been involved with for a very long time.   

In the energy sector the first questions we had to ask 30 years ago was, how do we change our portfolio, in the face of what was becoming a strategic issue, indeed an existential threat. The question the fossil fuel industries are having to face today is; can they transform into being energy companies in the world of “the electrification of everything”? Some will make it many won’t.  

Retail does not face the same existential threat. It is much more diffuse has many different sectors and touches many, many more people as it services the world. It also has an intimate relationship with real people – its customers.  

However, some of the necessary steps on the roadmap to the future are common to all sectors of the economy as they transition to a decarbonised world.  

Within your Net Zero Roadmap, you have five pathways, and I will comment briefly on each before I finally conclude.   

The first pathway is Data Driven Decisions. As we strive to decarbonise, the most important starting point is knowing and gathering the pertinent data. Every business has a different a data set to measure but much is common to all, such as energy used in running the business. In the end knowing the marginal cost of abatement for each activity that might help in the decarbonisation pathway is critical to the business decision. Also knowing the social, cultural, and environmental; facilitators of change, or barriers to change can be important.  

The second pathway, moving to Low Emissions Operations, could be as simple as changing your energy provider to one who can source electricity from renewable resources. Or as complex as planning and executing the capital stock turnover of all plant and equipment used in the business. Inevitably it will be a combination of both ends of the spectrum.   

Low Carbon Logistics, is your third pathway and this immediately speaks to supply chains, their length and complexity. Knowing the emissions intensity of the goods and services you need to conduct your business and the emissions intensity of the delivery processes used to satisfy your customers’ needs is a necessary part of the process of understanding how to leverage emissions reductions associated with your particular business. This brings me back to the key behaviours we need to tackle climate change – collaboration and collegiality with a laser like focus on rapid decarbonisation.  

For years Responsible Sourcing; your fourth pathway; has been in the retail world’s portfolio of concerns. Some long running programmes are for example the Forest Stewardship Council set up in 1993 driven by the concern for global deforestation. The Marine Stewardship Council set up in 1997 following on from the collapse of cod fishing in Canada 1992.  And the Responsible Jewellery Council set up in 2005 in response to “blood diamonds” and gold mining, mercury poisoning and acid mine drainage into rivers.  

In each of these cases multiple parties in the supply chains together with NGOs had become frustrated with the lack of progress by governments and international bodies to tackle the issues.   

It was enlightened businesses and NGOs who led these initiatives, collaboratively and collegiately and changed the way of working.  

We have seen similar efforts tackling palm oil, textiles, plastics and packaging, and modern slavery.   

Responsible sourcing needs to become built into your DNA and knowing the “carbon” provenance of the goods you retail, is going to dramatically grow in importance.   

In your fifth and final pathway, Sustainable Consumption the ARA’s Net Zero roadmap powerfully advocates: “Embracing the circular economy, working with suppliers to do more with less, and helping consumers transition to low-carbon lifestyles”  

The IEA in their Net Zero roadmap put it like this:  

The transition to net zero is for and about people. A transition of the scale and speed described by the net zero pathway cannot be achieved without sustained support and participation from citizens. The changes will affect multiple aspects of people’s lives – from transport, heating and cooking to urban planning and jobs. We estimate that around 55% of the cumulative emissions reductions in the pathway are linked to consumer choices…

Provenance, Governance and Transparency 

Consumers can choose, and want to know more about what they are buying.   

Whether you date your start of consumer consciousness back to Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” in 1962; or the Earth Summit in 1992; or the Kyoto Protocol in 1997; or the Paris Agreement in 2015. Whenever your mind was opened to the importance of social, environmental, cultural and climate consciousness, one thing is certain – the world has become more transparent.  

MySpace came out in 2004, Google the same year. The first Wi-Fi devices also in 2004. The iPhone came out in 2007. Massive transparency erupted and continues to grow – testing businesses, governments, and also social and environmental NGOs. Anyone who wants to can see deeper into organisations and supply chains in a way, never-before imagined.  

There is nowhere to hide (for long) in a world of massive transparency and massive communication. This trend is expected to continue with the demands for transparency all along the supply chains. Channels of communication are opening up all the time; for good and for ill. But if someone, for whatever reason, wants to shine a light on what you do or what you sell; what they see – they can communicate.   

I, the consumer, am becoming more aware and increasingly I want to know what I am buying. I’m told very little, but I want to know more. I want to know the provenance of what I buy – but I need your help!  

What is the provenance of the fabric in the fashion I choose? Is it carbon intensive over its life cycle – is it durable, recyclable or just wasteful? What is the embodied carbon in the beer I’m buying from Europe – why not just buy from home – in my case the White Bay Brewery.  

Some would say that Retail is at the end of the supply chain and has few responsibilities.  

I think that you and I are saying, that we are at the beginning of the demand chain and have a purpose. A purpose which helps ensure that climate stewardship is done so well throughout the chain, that what you sell to your customer, carries a handshake which says: I care!  


Greg Bourne who is a Councillor with the Climate Council – an organisation at the leading edge of change and the shift in focus from the cost of climate change to the economic opportunity. As former World Wildlife Fund (WWF) CEO, Chair of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and Regional President, BP Australasia, Greg has worked with business and governments for decades on the Climate Change agenda.  


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