Five minutes with Dr John Hewson, Bioenergy Australia Chair

Dr John Hewson bioenergy
Dr John Hewson

Dr John Hewson, former Leader of the Liberal Party and Leader of the Opposition (1990-1994), has recently taken up the role of Chair of Bioenergy Australia. Energy Source & Distribution editor Nichola Davies speaks with the experienced economist, director and renewable energy advocate about his vision for the company and the state of the nation.

How did you make the transition from politics to renewable energy?

I’m an economist by training and I’ve worked at the treasury and the reserve bank, the United Nations, a range of places, as well as being an academic at several universities. I went into parliament with an interest in becoming treasurer – I thought it would be a novel idea for an economist to be treasurer. I never imagined I’d be leader.

In politics we had a broad-based policy strategy in ’93, the Fightback! package, which had new innovative policies in just about every area of public policy including the environment. In the environmental policy we had a commitment to build on our Kyoto success, which was to move to a 20 per cent reduction in emissions by the year 2000, off a 1990 base. There seemed to be overwhelming evidence to support the scientific advice that more extreme weather events would occur with greater frequency and intensity and the way to deal with that was to start reducing emissions.

That was where I first got interested in the subject and I got quite frustrated in the 90s because there wasn’t much of an interest in it in politics. And, as you know, in the last couple of decades we’ve just had this almost endless, stupid game of point scoring and blame shifting between the major parties, which leaves us with no energy policy, no climate actions strategy, no emissions reduction strategy, and I find it hard to believe.

I took a number of opportunities to raise the profile of the issue – I was chairman of the National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development; I talked to the business community about opportunities in response to climate change. I also started a series of businesses myself or in conjunction with others in household garbage recycling, efficient light bulbs, biofuels, green data centres, solar thermal and storage and so on.

We also brought Al Gore to Australia in 2003 to try and raise the profile of the issue, I chaired the Asset Owners Disclosure Program for 10 years up until recently where we surveyed, rated and ranked the top investors of the world in their management of climate risk, I’ve been a patron of the Solar Council, now Smart Energy Council, chairman of the Business Council for Sustainable Development and now Bioenergy Australia.

I speak a lot on the subject to try and make the key points that we should have done more and it’s getting a bit late, but by not doing it we are just increasing the cost, taking up time and kicking the problem down to the next generation and the one after that, which is just ridiculous and irresponsible.

Given the current political climate, do you think Australia is heading in the right direction?

No, no we are way behind. I do think the electorate has moved way ahead of the government in terms of commercial and community renewables projects. 70 or 80 per cent of the electorate want decisive action on climate change and they want to transition to renewables. When I was in politics if I had 50 per cent saying it was a good idea I’d certainly grab it, so it’s hard to believe they ignore 80 per cent. So that’s a frustrating experience.

That said, they are doing some things, they did make the Paris commitment, which by the way is not just electricity despite the debate seeming to focus on electricity. We’re way behind the world in transport for example. So yes, we got a Paris commitment, but it’s about half of what it should have been. In fact, that was the government advice at the time from the Climate Change Authority that it should have been 50 to 60 per cent, so we’re behind the pace.

Who do you think had the best response to the recent warning from the IPCC stating that if temperatures rise 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels it would have a catastrophic effect on the world – Labor or Liberal?

Of course Morrison said it was irrelevant to Australia, which was pretty ignorant to say that, whereas the Labor Party at least acknowledged the significance of it. Nobody’s really translating that into a national objective of say net zero emissions or net negative emissions by 2050, and what transition would be required between now and then to make a full transition to renewables in that period. Transition in the transport and other industry sectors are just completely neglected in terms of the public debate and the government policy. So Labor’s doing more than the government, but nobody’s put down a feasible transition strategy or climate action plan.

You’ve been recently appointed the position of Chair of Bioenergy Australia, what does bioenergy offer as a generation source over other renewables such as wind and solar?

The big surprise in this whole area is that we don’t have a bioenergy strategy at the national level. We don’t have a national waste strategy and waste is now becoming a massive issue. We don’t have a fuel security strategy. Neither side of politics has a regional economic growth and development strategy. They’re all issues bioenergy can solve. Most of the opportunities in bioenergy are regional and it’s surprising that they all talk about a regional strategy when they don’t have one. We’ve got waste building up, a really severe problem of fuel insecurity. We have a fuel insecurity crisis in this country – we’ve only got about 21 days of fuel supply. All of those things come under the head of bioenergy opportunities.

What are your main goals as Chair?

Initially, it will be raise the profile of the issue and the opportunities. First, we need some sort of parliamentary inquiry to go through the bioenergy economy and look at the impediments to the development of the bioenergy economy. Secondly, we’d like to see that translated into a bioenergy strategy that deals with some of those elements like waste and fuel security and make that happen in government. Somebody’s got to own it, so we’d like to see a minister responsible for the bioenergy economy to give it the focus and the resources it needs. You need it owned and driven within government at a political level and a bureaucratic level and so that’s where I’d start. If we achieve that as stage one I think it will be pretty effective overall.

Do you think your political background will give a useful insight to get it off the ground?

I’m bringing those years of experience, as well as academic, bureaucratic political and business contacts to the role and I think that would be of benefit to the process of getting the recognition I think the bioenergy economy needs.

Australia has never been more divided in terms of energy policy and politics more broadly. Given your experience in both sectors, what would you like to see happen?

We have got to have leadership at the political level, we’ve got to have leadership at a business level; the Council is pretty much divided on these sorts of issues. There’s no consistency, the only group that seems to understand the importance of the issue are the voters. The electorate in every survey and poll I’ve seen say they want decisive action, they want it quickly and they accept the need for the transition to a low-carbon society, so basically they’d like to see government stop the stupidity and the short-term debate and the point scoring and just get on with the transition strategy and looking at what would need to be done. For example, in the electricity sector, closing coal-fired power stations. We need to answer questions like how to facilitate the transition to baseload and peak-load renewables with proper storage. Rather than have a negative debate, we need a positive debate. That’s going to take leadership at all levels of our society –politically, in business, and in the broader community.

Related article: Bioenergy Australia calling for Parliamentary inquiry