(Originally published - Summer 2009 newsletter)
Ian Porter is CEO of the Alternative Technology Association, a not-for-profit organisation promoting sustainable technology and practice. He has also worked for the Nous Group and Victorian Government on climate change issues.
Ian is a leading thinker and policy maker in the climate change and environmental policy arena. He has been a Greenfleet Board member since 2008.
We asked Ian to share with us some of his insight into alternative technologies as well as the differences of working for not-for-profit, government and private sectors.
You were instrumental in establishing the Victorian Government's Greenhouse Unit and setting the policy direction for Victoria's response to the threat of climate change - what was the biggest challenge you faced?
We faced two key challenges: one was a policy challenge, the other a capacity challenge. The policy challenge was a common one: how does a Government deal with the conflicting macro objectives of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address the major sustainability challenge of our generation, maintaining a secure and cheap energy supply for industry and households, and exploiting what some see as a massive and easily available resource - the brown coal reserves of the Latrobe Valley.
The capacity challenge was equally common: for many parts of government, for many disciplines, for many people, climate change was not a major question in 2000.It was an issue, sure, but someone else's issue. I'm pleased to say that now most decision makers see climate change as part of the future they have to deal with and operate in. Needless to say, we don't all agree on the outcomes yet,but at least the debate is on.
Do you think that some technologies that are currently considered 'alternative' will become mainstream technologies in Australia?
Absolutely. It's reassuring that many technologies which ATA members have been active in pursuing in their own lives - for example efficient housing design and solar hot water - are now clearly mainstream, while others - grey water systems, say,or photovoltaic panels - are fast heading that way. I think the terms 'alternative' and 'mainstream' are now losing their meaning, perhaps we need to simply look at the penetration of technologies across the population.
How would you compare your experiences in an environmental role across not-for-profit, government and private sectors?
It's interesting to reflect that I've now worked in all three sectors. In each of them you find great and ethical people pursuing and sharing the same truths,searching for the same solutions. The 'authorising environment' is different in each case, though. What makes good public policy is not the same as what makes a good and profitable innovation or private sector offering. And the not for profit sector is different again, with a necessarily stronger connection to people's lives through its advocacy role.
What I've enjoyed is that in each sector I've been able to tell people the truth.Sometimes your voice is loud and carries a long way - I find that very much in my ATA role, where I can work with the media directly to get our messages out -and sometimes you speak in the privacy of a Boardroom or a briefing for a Minister.
Working in government requires a particular kind of patience, the commitment to the long haul. Returns in the private sector (positive or negative) come much more quickly!
What are the biggest barriers preventing the uptake of cleaner technologies?
The biggest barriers tend to be cost - many new technologies cost more initially,before volume lowers the price - and the lack of an immediate financial return for the environmental benefits they bring. The Australian Government is starting to address this through the CPRS and the Renewable Energy Target, but I would argue that these approaches to putting a price on carbon are starting way too slowly, and also aren't designed to recognise the action people take at a voluntary level.
There are many other barriers: lack of information about the benefits of sustainable technologies; the split incentive between landlords and tenants when it comes to rental housing (particularly low income); and a general inertia and resistance to change, particularly from some older industries.
What would be the biggest benefits for Australian individuals and businesses for adopting alternative technologies?
There are so many benefits. Australia, as a country, is very much threatened by climate change. Whether we talk about damage to life and property from bushfires, floods and hailstorms, or threats to our beautiful and iconic natural places such as the Great Barrier Reef or Kakadu, we have much to lose.
Adopting sustainable technologies helps us play a part in dealing with this global emergency. But alternative and sustainable technologies can also give us a financial return - making a building more efficient - or make us more resilient to change - for example distributed electricity generation.
What would be your number one advice for individuals and businesses in regards to implementing sustainable technologies and practices?
Think long term, and (for businesses in particular) engage with your staff and customers - they know where we need to head.
What environmental commitments have you taken on personally?
The small things that matter. I rent a little flat, so in some ways I start ahead in terms of my footprint! I recycle much more than I landfill, reduce electricity by doing simple things like turning lights off, take public transport rather than drive (my Astra is not a gas-guzzler anyway!).
But I guess my major contribution has been my job - my twenty years in the workforce have been dedicated to sustainability, and to bringing younger people in the workforce along the sustainability journey. As will my next twenty.