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As the Coalition stalls on emissions reduction, moneyed climate activists are turning to direct investment, led by tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes. By Mike Seccombe.

Cannon-Brookes and the new climate guard

Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes.
Credit: Matthew Abbott

You don’t often see people smiling when they talk about climate change.

But Mike Cannon-Brookes couldn’t help it as he quoted the responses of certain small-vision politicians to the plan he cooked up two years ago with fellow tech billionaire Elon Musk to help fix South Australia’s electricity crisis.

One of them, he recalled, derided the idea of installing the world’s biggest battery to store renewable energy and stabilise the state’s power grid as akin to building “the Big Banana of energy”. Another scoffed that it was the “Kim Kardashian of the energy world”.

“Oh, it got a whole bunch of rude names,” Cannon-Brookes told former United States vice-president and renewable energy campaigner Al Gore, and an audience of 700 or so figures from the worlds of business and civil society, gathered in a cavernous hall at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre last week.

He did not name the sources of those comments. He didn’t need to. The first quote is attributable to Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the second to the country’s then energy minister, Matt Canavan.

Cannon-Brookes was smiling because, as he said, everything the doubters claimed – that it wouldn’t happen, wouldn’t work if it did happen, couldn’t be built in time, would never make money – has been proved “totally false”. The whole scheme has worked out “spectacularly well” and spectacularly quickly.

The basic story is widely known: in response to a challenge Cannon-Brookes posted to social media, Musk promised that his company, Tesla, would get a 100-megawatt system installed and operating within 100 days of signing a contract, “or it is free”.

With Cannon-Brookes urging it on, the South Australian Labor government took up the offer. The 100-megawatt, $90 million battery was delivered on time, has proved to be very profitable, and has saved South Australia $33 million to date in stabilisation costs and by adding competition to the market. But the greatest value of the big battery, Cannon-Brookes said, was as a “lighthouse project”.

“Because once it’s done, everyone goes, ‘Oh, it’s possible and it’s profitable.’  Then you get a whole rush of projects behind it, doing similar things.”

The “takeaway message” he wanted to impart to those 700 in the hall was that both the science and the economics of renewables are essentially resolved, and a clean energy future is now a matter of will and vision. However, given the lack of either from Australia’s government, he said, “We’re going to have to do it with corporations and … with people.”

That’s why Gore had him up on stage: to invite people to join him and others like him, who are not waiting for government. These are people applying technology and large quantities of money to addressing the world’s most urgent problem.

Simple logic, says Cannon-Brookes, suggests that Australia, with its small population, huge landmass, vast resources of solar and wind energy, and an approximate market of billions in Asia, could – indeed, should – be a “global energy superpower of the 21st century”.

His vision of a sustainable future encompasses transnational power grids that take wind and solar power generated in Australia to the world. He sees exports of clean hydrogen fuel, for which we already have the port infrastructure; electric vehicles; “controlled environment” agriculture; plant-based and cell-based meat replacements; and the cultivation of seaweed as a means of reducing carbon pollution. Big ideas, some of which sound like science fiction, until you have them explained.

But the first thing, he says, is to get lots more renewables into the system.

“The mission a few of us have is to get Australia 200 per cent renewable,” he says. “Two hundred per cent is actually easier than 100.”

That’s because it creates an export industry, and with it jobs and income, to replace Australia’s dirty exports of coal and gas.

Other lighthouse projects are already coming into view.

 

The Gore presentation, and his accompanying slide show, is powerful, to say the least. His presentation in Brisbane was the 41st of his Climate Reality Project’s “leadership training” course. For more than two hours, he pours forth statistics and anecdotes of a global crisis. Let’s take but a few examples from his litany:

The main cause of climate change is the burning of fuel, yet 80 per cent of the world’s energy needs still comes from those fuels. At current levels, those greenhouse gases trap as much heat energy as 500,000 Hiroshima bombs every day.

As a result, days of extreme heat now are 150 times more common than they were just 30 years ago; 18 of the 19 hottest years ever were in the past 19 years, and the hottest five were the past five. Last year, 224 cities around the world set new heat records.

No part of the planet is unaffected. Sweden had eight fires above the Arctic Circle last summer. The Arctic permafrost is melting, posing the threat of a “feedback loop” through the release of trapped methane, another powerful greenhouse gas. In parts of Pakistan, they have begun digging anticipatory mass graves ahead of every killing summer. Last year saw the highest minimum temperature ever recorded on Earth – 42.6ºC – in Oman. On January 24, 2019, 91 of the hottest 100 places on Earth were in Australia.

In a hotter world, evaporation sucks more moisture from the soil, leading to more frequent drought, but conversely, because warmer air can hold more water vapour – 7 per cent more for each additional degree – when rain falls, it teems. More floods, more powerful storms.

Nor is it just a matter of weather. Particulate pollution from fossil fuels kills some nine million people each year, including 3000 in Australia. A baby born in Warsaw will inhale the equivalent of 1000 cigarettes in its first year. Women of child-bearing age now are warned against eating certain fish, because of mercury contamination. The oceans are 30 per cent more acidic.

Then there are the geopolitical consequences of climate change. An example: unprecedented heat, fires and drought in Russia in 2010 not only led to the deaths of more than 55,000 Russians, they also devastated the country’s grain harvest. The government responded by halting wheat exports. Global grain prices shot up. There were food riots in 60 countries, including in Tunisia, where a food vendor set himself on fire, after first lamenting, “How am I supposed to live?” Climate change may not have been the only cause of the Arab Spring, but it was a factor.

Gore cites a 2018 projection from the world’s oldest and most prestigious medical journal, The Lancet. It said this century will see the movement of one billion climate migrants, or refugees, as droughts, floods, sea level rise or unliveable heat leave them no alternative.

We’re seeing it already: a million people fleeing across the Mediterranean into Europe. Caravans of climate refugees leaving Central America and travelling north in the desperate, vain hope of finding a new home in the United States. The gravest effects of climate change, as Pope Francis has noted, are suffered by the poorest. In this, Australia is something of an exception, as the developed nation most at risk from climate effects.

The ripple effects are felt in other advanced democracies, too; from Trump to Brexit to the European far right to Peter Dutton, the political right has stoked xenophobic fears for political ends.

As Gore tells The Saturday Paper: “We’re now entering a period where the climate crisis and the democracy crisis are twinned, interwoven.”

Yet he remains an optimist, in part because the alternative is despair, which, he says, “is just another form of denial in actuality. We don’t have time for it.”

There are signs of hope. Not all governments are as resistant to action as those of Australia and the US. Some 80 of the 165 nations that signed up to the Paris climate agreement are now on track to meet their commitments.

“About 60 have already announced they will increase their ambition in this first five-year review process, and I think others are likely to do it as well,” he says.

(Subsequent to our conversation, the British government announced it would legislate mandatory “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.)

“I think the technological trends and market forces make it much easier for countries to increase their ambition,” says Gore.

The same is true for corporates. More than 100 global companies have committed to going 100 per cent renewable. Apple, on whose board Gore sits, is already there. Cannon-Brookes’ Atlassian has promised to be there by 2025.

The world now invests more in renewables than in new fossil fuel generation. Half of China’s new capacity is renewable, as is 88 per cent of Europe’s and 65 per cent of India’s.

 

In Australia, Cannon-Brookes says, we are on the cusp of being a renewables superpower. The first exports of electricity are imminent, he says.

“There’s a firm called Sun Cable,” he says. “It’s, like, a $20 billion project.”

The plan is to generate three gigawatts of energy from a 15,000-hectare array of solar panels, and transmit it via 3800 kilometres of high-voltage DC cable to Singapore.

Even bigger, in Western Australia’s Pilbara, a consortium of renewable energy companies, banks and research institutions, collectively the Asian Renewable Energy Hub, has plans to build 3.5 gigawatts of solar generation and 7.5 gigawatts of wind generation, and to export it via DC cable to Asia.

It’s a little way off yet, but it is forecast to create 3000 direct jobs over the 10-year construction period and 400-plus jobs during the forecast 50-year life of the project.

As Cannon-Brookes told Gore: “My guess is if we do one or two, just like the battery, we’ll have 10. We’ll have cables all over the place.”

Other projects are more advanced. Just last month, British billionaire Sanjeev Gupta received approval for a 280-megawatt solar farm near his steelworks in Whyalla, South Australia. The $350 million development is one part of a $1.3 billion plan, including solar and pumped hydro projects to power the town’s heavy industry.

Readers might recall former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s claim, back in 2012, that climate action would “wipe out” the steel town. Instead, it is set to be its saviour.

As renewable energy projects proliferate, Cannon-Brookes says, so do jobs. Some 5000 in Queensland alone at latest count, up from 3500 the previous year. Potentially, there could be hundreds of thousands.   

And yet, at the last election, political attention focused on one old energy economy proposal, the Adani Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin, which, even if the claims of its proponents are believed, will create fewer than 1500 jobs.

The Adani project, incidentally, received its final approvals on Thursday from the Queensland government. Neither Cannon-Brookes nor Gore is yet convinced it will go ahead.

Nor does the Australian tech entrepreneur believe Australia will ever see another coal-fired power plant. On stage in Brisbane last week, he offered to wager at 10-1 odds that we will never build another coal-fired power plant in this country “without massive government subsidies”.

He offered a special bet for the minister for energy and emissions reduction: “I’ll give you 100-1 if your name is Angus Taylor.”

Cannon-Brookes has staked much more than that on a clean energy future. He was cagey about telling The Saturday Paper exactly how much, beyond that it was “well into nine figures and heading upwards rapidly”.

“Annie [his wife] and I do a lot of investing in things that might not have a financial return, but may be a lighthouse or something. It’s important to show what’s possible, so it’s sort of on the border of investing and philanthropy. It gets a bit blurry.”

Where’s the money going? To all parts of what he calls “the emissions wheel”.

“In my world, that comes down to electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and ridesharing. I have a giant investment there. I’m on the board of [self-driving technology development company] Zoox, trying to solve that [source of emissions].”

Then there are his investments in food production, particularly controlled-environment agriculture. How do you feed seven or eight billion people in a world where climate change is threatening crop yields?

“We have a big investment in a firm started by an Australian called Sustenir up in Singapore. Just opened a big farm in Hong Kong. They make strawberries, tomatoes, kale, arugula.”

Not only does this high-tech, indoor farming process produce much more food from a given space, he says, it uses 95 per cent less water to do so.

“And you’re removing all the CO2 from transportation,” he says.

“The kale otherwise would come from Tasmania. Think of the cost of putting it on a ship, refrigerating that ship and then having that ship travel all the way to Singapore.”

As he notes, 25 per cent of greenhouse gases come from agriculture, particularly meat production, much of it from the burps and farts of cattle. This is another problem technology could solve.

The CSIRO, he says, has done “great work” in developing a seaweed-based livestock feed supplement named FutureFeed, which significantly reduces methane emissions from livestock and has potential to increase livestock productivity.

They estimate that if just 10 per cent of global ruminant producers adopted FutureFeed as an additive to feed their livestock, it would have the same impact for our climate as removing 50 million cars from the world’s roads, and the potential increases in livestock productivity could create enough food to feed an additional 23 million people.

Cannon-Brookes is looking even beyond that, and has invested in research into “both plant-based and cell-based meat replacements”.

Only a decade ago, scientists funded by Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, first cultured beef in the laboratory. The first cultured burgers will hit the US market next year.

Cannon-Brookes has another vision, of farming seaweed on the Australian continental shelf to act as a carbon sink. Suffice to say, dealing with the planetary climate crisis involves a lot of very creative and lateral thinking.

“It’s all possible,” he says. “We’re going to have to solve it.”

It won’t be easy. It won’t be cheap. And, most likely, it won’t be done by government, or at least not by government alone.

But the signposts to a future free of fossil fuel pollution are to be found in unexpected places. Two years ago, notes Al Gore, the Kentucky Coal Museum installed solar panels on its roof.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 15, 2019 as "Cannon-Brookes and the new climate guard". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.