Maybe money does grow on trees. Businessman Andrew Grant is making plenty from forests to reduce CO2, but he’s not a typical greenie. He thinks Australia has stuffed up decarbonisation — and business has to fix it.
“The environmental sector really should hang its head in shame.”
“I don’t have any philosophical objection to coal-fired power.”
And this from a man who describes himself as a greenie (and a capitalist, mind you). Meet Andrew Grant, the plain-speaking businessman who has planted 37 million trees to tackle climate change. He thinks humanity should drastically reduce its emissions. But he thinks the way we’ve gone about it is all wrong.
Grant cracked our Power Index list because he’s one of the few businesspeople to make money from reducing CO2. He’s the managing director of CO2 Australia, which takes money from companies (including polluters like Woodside and Origin) to plant swathes of eucalypts on marginal farmland. The company has planted 26,000 hectares of forest; sales and the share price grew strongly last year, and profit jumped to $4.9 million in the year to September 2012.
Grant’s trees pay because they soak up and store CO2. Carbon biosequestration — storing atmospheric carbon in organic matter — is a controversial, immature, charlatan-prone market which could just prove critical to controlling CO2. Grant is one of the few making it work. And he’s certainly not handing out bouquets to everyone else.
“It’s been a pretty ham-fisted attempt,” he declared to The Power Index of the push on climate change. With around half Australia’s population unconvinced humans are affecting the climate, and the Coalition poised to kill the carbon price, Grant thinks it might take “a third or a fourth or a fifth go” to establish functional climate policy.
He reckons the environment movement is trapped in the 1980s and has failed to communicate on climate; it has been unwilling to change techniques, doesn’t speak to mainstream Australia and obsesses about remnant vegetation. Grant accuses environmentalists of trying to scare people, who react by losing confidence and feeling anxious. “Genteel” scientists have also failed to communicate.
“Everyone should learn to evolve and adapt,” he said. “If something’s not working, change it.”
He thinks capitalism holds the key to tackling climate change, a problem that, one could argue, it created in the first place. It’s not about environmentalism, he says, but presenting consumers with cleaner options that they don’t have to think about. Grant says his business is “hardcore capitalism with a dose of idealism and science and can-do”.
“We’ve got people on our board that couldn’t even spell environment, and we think that makes us much more powerful and effective as a business entity,” he said.
Grant may be sitting in his modern South Melbourne offices in a crisp business shirt, but there’s something of the bush pioneer about him. He’s sparky, thoughtful and fiercely independent. When he says “I’m nobody’s flunky”, you don’t doubt it.
He’s upfront, almost blunt. Perhaps because he’s his own boss, he’s outspoken in the media. That gets him noticed, but does it close off channels of political influence?
“We’ve got people on our board that couldn’t even spell environment, and we think that makes us much more powerful … as a business entity.”
While not a typical environmentalist — he thinks coal-fired power stations “have their role” — Grant is driven by a desire to do better by nature. He has a botany degree — he insisted the boardroom’s table be Eucalyptus obliqua — and his first job was as a ranger at Victoria’s Wilsons Promontory. He worked on the Cocos Islands and at Kakadu, headed up Arthur Anderson’s then Ernst and Young’s environmental divisions, and implemented the New South Wales GGAS emissions scheme.
In 2003 he joined CO2 Australia’s predecessor, a resources company getting into carbon. Grant became MD in 2005 (he’s also CEO of parent company CO2 Group, which is looking to farm prawns, and runs Vietnamese hydro operations and NZ tree plantings). CO2 Australia also does carbon accounting. Grant netted a cool $508,000 in salary and bonuses last year, plus another $521,000 in share-based performance rights.
Grant doesn’t just work the system; sometimes he writes it. He was influential in amending the Federal Tax Act to make carbon sinks deductible. The Carbon Farming Initiative allows for forest-based projects; CO2 Australia wrote those rules (which allow the company to trade into the carbon price from July).
Industry analyst Rob Fowler describes Grant as a “powerful force” who has weathered policy storms; “a lot of the players are still very small, he’s done really well in creating [CO2 Australia], it’s an entity with real financial capabilities”.
Climate lawyer Martijn Wilder says of CO2 Australia: “Those guys are one of the few players who have managed to make money, and they’re very scientifically rigorous.” He describes Grant as a down-to-earth, sharp, committed person; “he’s not going to pull any punches”.
So Grant is highly influential in land-based climate efforts — and he’ll stay influential if the Coalition wins federally, because its Direct Action climate policy is based on the land sector. So far so good.
Or not. Critics argue addressing climate change by storing carbon in plants gives false comfort, fails to address the fundamental problem and is easily rorted. They argue the problem is the burning of fossil fuels, by which carbon is shifted from the geological to the terrestrial spheres. Continuing to burn fossil fuels, and attempting to store emissions in trees, is risky. Trees are temporary; they store carbon until they rot or burn. They won’t sequester as much carbon in droughts. The rules for calculating carbon storage can be gamed. Is biosequestration just hot air?
Grant says some “ideologues and interest groups … want to have a beef against burning fossil fuels”. He says climate change is about a build-up of atmospheric carbon; anything that corrects that helps. Grant’s motto is that it’s as legitimate to sequester as to prevent emissions. And he points out biosequestration is the only way to remove atmospheric emissions — as emphasised by Ross Garnaut.
But Grant is concerned about the hot topic of soil carbon (creating charcoal and storing it in the soil, locking away CO2). It’s the backbone of Coalition climate policy. If anyone should be poised to capitalise, it’s Grant. But he’s cool on the idea and has no plans to bid into the soil fund. “As an activity it doesn’t interest me. It’s a bit of the unknown,” he said, claiming it costs too much to measure soil carbon and the potential may be much less than the Coalition thinks. Grant also thinks Direct Action will need more money.
Does he wish he was still a ranger? “Every single day,” he said. But he doesn’t regret his career path, even when he’s driving down the long, tree-lined road to the Prom on a rare getaway from the office.