Henry O'Clery is a member of the team that started the Greenfleet program back in1997 and was a Director through to 2006. So we thought we'd ask Henry to take a look back at how it all started.
(extended interview - Autumn 2012 newsletter)
What was your inspiration and how did it all start?
A couple of us were driving to Gippsland from Melbourne one day in 1996 and weheard an interview on the radio with Dr Leo Dobes, then Research Manager for the Australian Bureau of Transport Economics. He had just completed a study onwhat you could do about reducing impact of CO2 emissions from the road vehicle fleet. He had a throwaway line at the end: "Really the best thing youcould do is plant millions of trees."
We all thought that was a fascinating idea and wondered what that would look likeif we could restore the original mixture of trees around the country.
At that time I was working for a not-for-profit organisation called the FosterFoundation. We were working on transport, as well as teaching kids to plantnative trees. We saw there an opportunity to expand what the Foundation was doing.
So I got in touch with CSIRO and the former Centre for Forestry Tree Technology,and we started to work out a model. There were an awful lot of arguments about how much CO2 trees sequester,how long they sequester it over, and what happens when forests reach a steadystate - which is one of the key issues. They grow a lot but then there is a point at which they will go past thepeak, they will steady out, and the regrowth replaces the old growth. There was also the question of carbon storagein the ground, how to account for some natural losses, etc. So we finally calculated that 17 trees overtheir lifetime could hold a steady state of 4.3 tonnes (the average annual emissionsof a passenger car).
Greenfleet was then established in 1997, becoming the first biological offset programoffered to motorists anywhere in the world - a combination of the right peopleand the right idea at the right time. We even found out later that theInternational Transport Forum based in Europe took a look at the program oncewe had it up and running.
What was the greatest reward?
Probably the most exciting moment I remember was when QFleet (Queensland Government'sfleet) signed up in 2002. It was the first state government to sign its fleetand this resulted in 214,000 trees being planted. That was huge.
What was the biggest challenge?
Supporters at the beginning were dribbling in. I can remember the excitement when we saw a Greenfleet sticker on the back of a car, we'd take a photo, we'd want to stop them and send them a personal message or something.
The market research we conducted at the beginning showed that people said theywouldn't mind to pay a little extra to plant native trees. Of course inpractice, less than one tenth of one percent actually picked it up. It was tricky.
The idea was so different, out-of-the-box, that everybody was telling us that wewere insane. That was really an interesting thing - the number of people who said "it'll never work" and the contrast with the number of people whocame up to me 6 or 7 years later when the program was successful who said to me "we're going to put you out of business". They had no idea.
As you know some people blatantly did copy our model. They actually took it down from the website. I suppose that's a form of flattery as well as a form of competition.
Jeff Kennett launched the program and was the first supporter - how did this come about?
Dr Brian Robinson, former chairman of the EPA (and early Chair of Greenfleet), wasan absolutely wonderful man. I happenedto meet him at a couple of events, and I think the fact that I tended to thinka little bit outside the box probably helped, because Brian was always verymuch outside the box. He got veryenthusiastic about the idea and when we were starting out we got him involvedhim on the planning side. Brianpersuaded Victoria's Environment Minister to come in as a major sponsor. Then as we approached the launch we gotracing driver Peter Brock to drive Premier Kennett onto the stage.
When Greenfleet began, was it more about low emission transport technologies orplanting trees?
Greenfleet was about tree planting. That was thecore of the business - biodiverse forests to offset motorists' emissions.
The transport/technology aspect was a passion of mine, but it was very much a by-product. I think the two go hand in hand, and we definitely need to find ways to reduce emissions at source, but the core of Greenfleet was always about creating biodiverse forests and restoring the original habitat.
15 years on and we're still having the debate and the arguments about Climate Change, does that surprise you?
I suppose it disappoints me, because I would have thought that by now we were sophisticated enough to get beyond that. But it does not surprise me at all - there are so many people who violently oppose the concept; whether they believe what they're saying, or they're paid to say what they're say, or they've got vested interests or they simply do not accept the science. The fact that we listen to all those so-called experts dismays me and it's disappointing that we haven't got beyond that.
And then when we in Australia take a little step, we brag that we're leading the world. I mean, you've only got to look at what they're doing in Europe or Japan to see how far behind we are in Australia.
As a not-for-profit organisation our goal is to see people reduce their emissions as much as possible and then offset. We even joke that eventually we will make ourselves redundant. Do you see that ever happening?
I would hope that would happen by 2050. Iwould hope. I think what Greenfleet is providing is supporting that transition to sustainable living.
That'sthe way we have to go. The deniers arenot going to stop that happening. It isgoing to happen. The question is onlywhen.
Iguess the sort of thing that you do is aimed at making that happen quicker, andreducing the impact of the in-between. My belief is that it has to. Andby 2050 we'd have to effectively be zero emissions to balance, especially withthe way climate change predictions are looking now, because we're on track forsomewhere between 5 and 6 degrees. That's far beyond the 2 degrees everybody is talking about - I mean the2 degrees is already locked in.
Areyou proud of the achievement of setting up Greenfleet?
I'mvery pleased it's still there. It's niceto look back on things and it has been a success and is robust. I think it wasa good model and in lots of ways we were very lucky. We just hit the rightthing at the right time and persevered with it.
Asof the end of 2011, Greenfleet had planted 7.5 million trees. That's fantastic!That's 7.5 million trees that wouldn't otherwise be there.
Ithink that is the fabulous thing - there's now around 7,500 hectares of nativeforest and habitat out there that would not be there if we hadn't tuned intoLeo Dobes 15 years ago!