Back in January, many thought 2020 would be defined by the bushfires. What long-term consequences did they have?

The fires personalised the issue for a lot of people. We noticed a surge of inquiries – people saying, ‘Oh, my goodness, it’s time to act, what must we do?’ And that didn’t go away during the year.

Then, of course, came the pandemic. What effect did you think COVID would have on climate action – and what effect did it actually have?

At the beginning of the pandemic, we were very worried that it might slow climate action. Yet we’ve now seen economies such as China, Japan, Korea, the EU, the UK and now the Biden administration making pledges to reduce their emissions to net zero by the middle of the century.

It’s massive – absolutely massive! – and it’s simply not where we were at in January. In fact, the response to the pandemic has created a platform for nations to make those commitments. COVID-19 showed the world that rapid change can happen, something the climate community has said for a long time.  

What would you consider the top three developments in climate action in 2020?

I’ve already mentioned the national economy commitments to net zero from countries in Asia to the US.

I’d also include private sector commitments, where the trend is shifting rapidly. We’ve seen significant statements from Australian banks and super funds, and also from international companies. Some of the biggest global banks like HSBC and JP Morgan have made major pledges while the resources sector has strengthened its commitments. Fortescue in Australia, BHP and other mining companies have committed to net zero emissions – at least for their operations, and in some cases for their supply chains.

Then there’s a category I’d describe as ‘sleepers’ – important developments that don’t make a single big splash. One example is the rate of technological progress, with renewables and batteries improving at a pace that astounds even the experts. I have heard energy executives – people who wouldn’t normally gush to me – use phrases such as ‘eye watering’ to describe the pace.

Finally, there are the green recovery announcements, both internationally and locally. Our team working with ASEAN is seeing progress to embed green recovery approaches to COVID in the region. In Australia, a number of state governments have made major announcements in the last months, very aligned with the green recovery recommendations that we and others had been making in respect of energy efficiency, renewable electricity transmission, infrastructure, electric vehicle charging preparedness and so on.

What were you expecting when COVID-19 closed down the Climateworks office, and how did the organisation cope?

It was a bit hard to expect anything, actually, because none of us knew what was ahead. But I’m blessed with a young and talented, tech savvy team – and I never doubted their abilities.

Working on climate requires flexibility and adaptability, maintaining optimism in the face of the rollercoaster of the last decade. As a result, even before COVID, we prioritised looking after each other, with a healthy approach to maintaining work/life balance.

That being said, it’s been amazing how well the team has adapted, connecting digitally and working remotely to run amazing, collaborative events with important stakeholders internationally and locally. It’s been impressive to watch!

What were Climateworks’ biggest achievements in 2020?

For a start, there was the work of adapting to the pandemic itself, learning new digital tools in the long, long, difficult winter that was Melbourne’s lockdown. We developed, for instance, an ability to do excellent webinar series, most recently partnering with the British High Commission. 

But our existing programs didn’t miss a beat. We published Decarbonisation Futures at the start of pandemic – two years in the making, and we managed to adapt it to a pandemic-focused audience, drawing on it throughout the year.

We launched the Industry Energy Transitions Initiative in July, working with what was originally a dozen participants and is now expanded with three more major ASX-listed companies. No other organisation has brought together these sorts of supply chains in Australia with a defined goal of identifying net zero emissions supply chains for heavy industry sectors that are hard to abate, including LNG, iron and steel, chemicals, metals and mining.

In the land sector program, we’ve continued to convene diverse stakeholders to craft a future vision for a sustainable land sector.

On the Australian Sustainable Finance Initiative steering committee and working group we contributed to the ambitious roadmap that was published last month for making the finance system more sustainable including alignment with net zero emissions by 2050.

We had received funding through the New Zealand Foreign Affairs Department to help Tonga craft a decarbonisation pathway for the Paris process – and then COVID-19 meant we couldn’t fly there. So, the team has adapted by hiring local conveners and facilitators from Australia, partnering with an indigenous consultancy in Queensland to train the Tonga-based staff.

On top of all our scheduled work, we actually added to our program because of the pandemic, starting three new green recovery-related programs: ASEAN work with the World Economic Forum; the report Reduce and Recover, providing advice for state governments; and a new collaboration called the Climate and Recovery Initiative.

How would you compare Climateworks at the start of 2020 to Climateworks at the end of the year?

That’s a great question, because our goal at the beginning of 2020 was to begin a brand new five-year strategy focused on system transformation.

The race is on this decade to halve worldwide emissions. So we wanted to step up and meet the UN call for a five-fold increase in action, aiming for system-level action in all of the work that we do. That meant a new organisational model, and a major recruitment drive. We’re part way through that growth – we now have around 60 staff – with all of it being organised virtually. 

In all of this, I’ve been proud that we’re aiming even higher in the way we think. It’s exciting! We’ve set a huge goal for ourselves and I’ve seen enough progress that I’m confident we can achieve it.