The man at the heart of Australian climate decisions

If you wanted a symbol of Australia’s climate policy, you could do worse than look at the story of Grant King.

King is the chair of the Climate Change Authority, the independent government agency legislated to advise the government on climate policy.

He is simultaneously chair of Australia’s largest “environmental markets” investor and carbon project developer, GreenCollar.

King is also on the board of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, and was on the board when the foundation granted $1.6 million to GreenCollar last year, among other investments that benefit GreenCollar. (King was not involved in the funding decision, which was not made at board level.)

King, who is at the heart of Australian climate decision-making, was the managing director of Origin Energy for 16 years until 2016, where he oversaw the company’s push into the liquefied natural gas market.

He is also a former director of the main oil and gas lobby group, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, and a former president of the Australian Gas Association.

In 2018 he was president of the Business Council of Australia when the body labelled Labor’s 45 per cent emissions reduction plan as “economy-wrecking”.

The same year, he celebrated Australia’s fossil fuel expansion not just for the wealth it created but because “our coal and natural gas are some of the most carbon efficient in the world”.

In King’s final days as BCA president, Angus Taylor, then Energy and Emissions Reduction minister, tapped him to chair an “expert panel examining additional sources of low cost abatement”.

The King Review, which was handed to government in February 2020, recommended the funding remits of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation be expanded to allow investments in carbon capture and storage, to the delight of the gas lobby, as well as proposing an increase of methods used to generate carbon offsets, to the delight of the carbon markets lobby.

The review recommended closer consultation with industry on development of carbon offset methods, to the delight of both the gas and carbon market lobbies. The government accepted all its recommendations.

A few months after delivering this report, King joined the carbon project developer GreenCollar as chair.

Later in 2020 the Climate Change Authority acknowledged its debt to the King Review as it published its third review of the Emissions Reduction Fund. Its key recommendation was to ensure “greater confidence over the future market” of carbon credits.

The central role of these credits – providing emissions “abatement” instead of cuts – was assured in government policy. The gas industry could continue expanding.

In April 2021, Taylor appointed King to chair the Climate Change Authority. The authority continued to advise the federal government on the primacy of carbon offsets. The first recommendations of its October 2021 Insights Paper, “Paris Plus: From Cost to Competitive Advantage”, ensured emissions cuts were secondary to other abatement methods.

When, in March 2022, then minister Angus Taylor changed the regulations around carbon credits, giving carbon offset aggregators the option of stepping away from government contracts and selling them at a much higher price on the open market, GreenCollar was one of the few to welcome the announcement.

This year, the Albanese government reviewed Australia’s main climate policy, the safeguard mechanism, but preserved all key components of the Coalition’s original design, and some revisions touted in the King Review, locking in the primary role of carbon offsets in achieving “abatement”.

It is impossible to distil all of the criticisms of carbon offsets here, but in essence there’s not a single serious scientific organisation in the world that believes they are a substitute for genuine emissions cuts or that it should be the main weapon in addressing climate change.

Eminent and qualified critics of Australia’s carbon credit scheme believe up to 80 per cent of accredited offsets are junk, providing no real abatement and serving only to justify more emissions by big polluters.

As the biggest carbon offset developer in Australia, GreenCollar and its shareholders will of course benefit from the safeguard mechanism.

Beyond carbon offsets, GreenCollar also has an interest in biodiversity credits it calls NaturePlus credits, as well as in reef credits.

The company developed its reef credits in 2017, describing them as an “innovative market solution for improving water quality in catchments of the Great Barrier Reef”.

In March 2019, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, on whose board King has sat since 2018, granted $2 million to a pilot water-quality project generating reef credits, run by Greening Australia and with GreenCollar as a partner. The grant was delivered as part of a competitive tender and King was not involved in the decision-making.

In 2020, the Barrier Reef foundation gave another $400,000 to help establish a “fully independent governance structure” to administer the reef credit scheme.

Soon after, HSBC Australia became the first private buyer for reef credits. Grant King sits on the company board but was not involved in the decision.

In June last year the Great Barrier Reef Foundation granted $1.6 million for a reef credit scheme project for “quantified reductions in the amount of dissolved inorganic nitrogen” going into the reef waterways. The company running this project was GreenCollar. Again, King was not involved in the decision.

The reef credit scheme is now being run by Eco-Markets Australia. It lists GreenCollar as one of its foundation members and GreenCollar is listed as the developer of every project on its register.

The Australian government is committed to its safeguard mechanism until 2030. The legislation for the nature repair market has been drafted and intends to kick start a whole new market for biodiversity derivatives – possibly involving instruments such as NaturePlus.

There has been talk in environmental circles that this market will intersect with the carbon market. It will be interesting to see who will be the recipients of the next round of Great Barrier Reef funding grants.

Regardless, the potential for conflicts of interest is not going away any time soon.

In the meantime, Australia has found itself with a climate policy that enables the massive expansion of gas and a growing market for offsets for the foreseeable future – and at the centre of all it, advising the government, is Grant King.

Brad Archer, the chief executive at the Climate Change Authority, says the body has in place robust governance arrangements. He says appointments are made on the basis of knowledge and expertise. “It is therefore expected,” he says, “that members could have outside interests in those areas.”

King has never recused himself from a meeting at the authority. On one occasion he stood aside as chair and it was agreed he would not participate in discussions directly regarding issues that might impact the supply and demand of offsets.

“To date,” Archer says, “members have not determined it necessary for Mr King to be excluded.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2023 as "The grant king".

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