The announcement that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would pour billions into mitigating climate change was taken as a sign, by some, that the private sector may save us.
But climate scientists have warned the announcement actually means governments, including Australia’s, cannot continue to rest on their laurels.
On Tuesday the world’s richest man took to Instagram to announce he would donate $US10 billion ($14.9 billion) into a fund to help scientists, activists, NGOs, and “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world”.
“We can save Earth. It’s going to take collective action from big companies, small companies, nation states, global organisations and individuals,” Mr Bezos said.
The green change of heart is a step in the right direction and has been welcomed by climate scientists and activists across the world.
“As far as $10 billion, it’s 8 per cent of his net worth, it is significant,” said Dr Zsuzsa Banhalmi-Zakar, who lectures in corporate environmental management at James Cook University.
“One can only hope others also cough up.
“$10 billion is good, but it doesn’t mean governments can sit back and do nothing.
“It’s a realisation that something needs to be done.
“In 10 years it will be too late. It doesn’t mean we have no need for policy action or for governments not to step in.”
When asked if she could foresee Australia’s billionaires taking a similar step to Mr Bezos, Dr Banhalmi-Zakar said: “Who? Gina Rinehart? Clive Palmer?”
But the tide is turning, and Australia’s business sector is starting to make waves addressing climate change, she said.
“I see a great desire by the private sector to act. They’re trying to do the right thing.
“But they’ve been looking to government to commit to something, anything and they’re not doing that.”
One of those people is Sam Elsom, whose carbon storage start-up Sea Forrest will launch in three months.
After a challenge from his friend Tim Flannery, Mr Elsom put his money behind farming seaweed, to feed to cows.
“When dried and fed to cattle, the seaweed completely eliminates methane. It lasts 24 hours,” he said.
“Livestock is often overlooked for its contribution to greenhouse gas emission. It contributes 16 per cent – that’s more than the entire transport sector.
“So when you put that in perspective – all the planes, cars and trucks, comparing it to cows burping and farting, it’s significant.”
Not only does the seaweed stop the methane, it also helps the cows grow, he said.
“Farmers might not care about climate change, but this makes economic sense. For us, we just care,” Mr Elsom said.
“Feeding this to cattle we can take drastic action on greenhouse gases without requiring the government to do something.
That is what is required in today’s political environment. If we wait for pollies to make decisions we could all burn.’’
Under growing pressure from a public outraged by the severe weather, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is expected to push for a technology investment target in an attempt to avoid agreeing to net-zero emissions by 2050 at Glasgow this year.
After the revelation was leaked to The Australian, Mr Morrison called reports his government could adopt a technology investment target as “speculative”.
But Robyn Eckersley, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne who has written extensively about environmental policy around the world, said the announcement is the government “kicking the can down the road”.
“Technology is the answer. We know we won’t get anywhere without it, but this sort of spin, it’s a really crude simplification at what’s at issue,” Professor Eckersley said.
“They’re not doing their due diligence of what needs to happen to phase out coal.
“We can still have mining if we have a green economy, but they want it to be brown hydrogen because they’ve got people obsessed with the coal industry.”
Although the private sector makes gains, the government’s inaction is actually holding it back, said Professor Eckersley.
“The problem is you need policies and price signalling to create certainty, to drive investment. It is, in fact, slowing it down because of the policy mess.”
A private sector divided
Former head of BP Australasia turned climate councillor Greg Bourne said Australia’s private sector was just as divided as its politicians.
“I would say there are two parts to the private sector – the incumbents who can be big, quite ugly. They’re incredible lobbyists and they have a lot to lose. The aluminium industry, mining industry … tend to hold things back.
“And then there’s a progressive group that want new opportunities and new businesses.”
One organisation helping create jobs is Climate-KIC Australia, which uses private and state funding to help entrepreneurs and start-ups turn their climate-concentrated business concepts into reality.
“The private sector in Australia is already starting to understand that business success depends on emissions reduction,” chief executive Christopher Lee said.
The organisation’s mission is to help Australia hit net-zero emissions by 2050, but they need everyone at the table, he said.
“Collaborating across an entire system is where the real opportunities are for those big-impact emissions reductions – it’s not for the private sector alone to ‘solve’ climate change.”