Australian CEOs must rupture the political stagnation to lead the charge on climate action | Sam Mostyn | Opinion


The unprecedented, devastating bushfires that engulfed Australia – from even before our summer began – have forever disrupted our usually laconic and relaxed memories of Christmas and New Year.

Those memories are instead marked by anguish, anxiety, grief and consternation about our future.

We turned to fire and emergency chiefs, tireless local volunteers, our national broadcaster and the spirit of community to find leadership in this crisis. And very late, but at last, we turned to scientists; fire, flood and climate experts; and vitally, Indigenous knowledge, to start to rebuild a sense of a path forward for our nation.

Consistent with the rapidly changing expectations of global investors, we’ve also turned to business for leadership.

It’s no coincidence the Edelman trust barometer data for 2020 reveals that around the world, trust in government leaders has continued to collapse, while our highest trust is reserved for scientists and people in our local community.

Significant increases have been observed in our expectations of CEOs: 77% of people agree that the CEO of the company where they work should speak out on climate change and 74% believe that CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for the government to impose it.

As a company director returning to work in preparation for the half-year results period, the change in sentiment about action on climate change among many colleagues and employees has been palpable.

This is both at a personal level, but also after the increasing calls from corporate regulators in relation to additional fiduciary duties of directors and executives regarding the complex and interrelated climate risks now faced by our organisations.

Pleasingly, a considerable number of Australian CEOs have announced commitments to net zero carbon by 2050, and we’ve seen global organisations such as Microsoft pushing harder to account for their carbon impact in the past.

I am cautiously optimistic about the impact of good businesses stepping up on climate change action. But it is tinged with the frustration of knowing that Australia could have been a global leader in decarbonising the economy had we supported business leaders calling for a legal and policy framework for reducing our carbon emissions, while protecting our economy and its most significant industries.

Fifteen years ago a group of Australian business leaders from insurance, banking and energy made the case for early climate action supported by science, economics and stewardship for our country.

The Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change released The Business Case For Early Action in 2006 showing significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved at an affordable cost to the Australian economy.

Many of us have continued the advocacy since. Particularly the insurance and finance sectors which are at the front line of exposure, as departing governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, continues to point out.

Australia has always been a resource nation. We pay tribute to those key vital industries that have in the past shaped us as a country. But at our core, we are a resourceful nation. We have the know-how, the science and the business acumen to thrive in a low-carbon economy – and as Professor Ross Garnaut points out, be a superpower at that.

It’s time to realise this vision. If we delay further we cede that opportunity to other nations.

This is why the climate change bill being introduced by independent MP Zali Steggall and the crossbench comes at a crucial time. It provides an internationally proven framework that will ensure certainty so we can manage risk, as well as actively pursue new areas of opportunity in a low-carbon economy. This model has been proven and enacted in the United Kingdom, Germany, France and New Zealand.

It was introduced in the UK in 2008 and adopted under a conservative government. It is sensible. It is pragmatic. It is responsible. The 2020 bill proposes:

1. An independent climate change commission to oversee the transition.
2. An economy-wide net-zero target by 2050.
3. Economy-wide emissions budgets and national plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
4. A national climate risk assessment and plans for adapting to changing climate.
5. Transparent monitoring, reporting on progress and plans.

This is our moment in history to come together and demonstrate to Canberra that as a nation, we need an end to the partisan politics. We need a goal we can all work towards together.

When business first called for action almost 20 years ago, time was somewhat on our side. We now have no time to waste. Beyond politics and ideology, and in collaboration with others, business leaders have the opportunity to show strong stewardship and care for a dynamic, sustainable future for our country.

As business leaders – whether CEOs or nonexecutive directors – supporting a non-partisan, sensible piece of legislation is not only what our community, employees and stakeholders expect, it’s also good for business. Let’s stand up and help parliament take the next step we need for a prosperous economy to 2050.

Sam Mostyn is a non-executive director on a number of ASX-listed boards, is a sustainability adviser and has long engagement working with civil society on climate, gender and Indigenous issues.



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