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Q&A with Daniel Harper, Director of Cool Planet

Q&A with Daniel Harper, Director of Cool Planet

Q&A with Daniel Harper: Australian sustainability options in 2007 vs 2022, corporate Australia’s changing view towards sustainability, and what pathways are available to small businesses looking to go green.

Daniel Harper is the Director of Cool Planet. Founding the sustainability consultancy in 2007, Daniel and his team hold immense experience providing sustainability advice to entities across Australia. Having led this pioneering business within Australia since the beginning, Daniel today holds expertise knowledge of the ways in which organisation’s can become greener, as well as an in-depth understanding of the dynamics which have informed Australia’s success - and setbacks - on its path to becoming more sustainable.

Kylie Browne of the Solar Trust Centre spoke with Daniel about the origins of Cool Planet, what a typical day in his role looks like for him, how sustainability methods available across the nation in 2007 compare to 2022, the changing attitudes of business towards green action, and more!

1. Thanks for your time Daniel. To start with, could you tell our readers a little bit about your background and how you came to be in your current role with Cool Planet?

I started Cool Planet 15 years ago. Prior to that, I was a graphic designer and decided that I didn't want to be a graphic designer my whole life. My partner and I had just had a little baby, and I wanted to start my own business. I really wanted to do something positive for the planet. I thought climate change was the biggest issue at the time and thought what better focus for a new business, and remember, this was 16 years ago, just at the forefront of the industry.

I taught myself how to do carbon reporting and how offsetting worked. At that point, there wasn't any training to do sustainability work or carbon accounting. So, I spent about a year researching it, and working it all out. I developed the first carbon calculator in Australia, and one of the first few in the world, in fact it was the first carbon calculator in the world that you could pick which projects the offsets came from.

Over the last 15 years, things have evolved a great deal, and as a result I've taken on many different roles. When I started, Australia was at the forefront of climate change. Before long‚ we introduced a carbon trading scheme under the Gillard government, and it was a really exciting time. Unfortunately, that got repealed‚ and we spent essentially 10 years in the wilderness at the federal level of government. So, a lot of my work after that had to be at a state level, with state and territory governments, because that's where most of the action has been. I’ve worked on numerous contracts for New South Wales, Victoria, the ACT‚ and local governments. The states have all been pretty progressive in this space, which has been a large part of why Cool Planet is where it is now

2. Just as many of our readers will be familiar with the work of your team already, for those who are yet to come across Cool Planet, in your own words can you give us a quick elevator pitch snapshot of your organisation's value proposition to clients?

We help businesses and communities be more sustainable and implement circular economy solutions. That's a very broad statement, but generally we do a large amount of commercial waste and recycling assessments, and we also look at energy efficiency and renewable energy. We do a lot of carbon reporting and Climate Active certification, helping businesses not only quantify their carbon footprint, but also looking at the best and most efficient ways to reduce carbon emissions, and a businesses’ environmental impact. I have a number of clients that want to be zero waste, they want to compost, have renewable energy, greater energy efficiency, water efficiency, and so on. All those different areas that fit into the sustainability footprint of a business.

The other side of our business is that we work a lot with the state governments, implementing environmental programs on their behalf. With New South Wales, we're the largest provider of regional commercial waste assessments and commercial energy assessments, having seen about 3,000 customers over the last 8 years or so. We have also worked on food waste and composting solutions for the hospitality industry. Also, retrofitting and energy assessment for low income earners. We’ve also developed a variety of education courses that we have delivered through the community and government agencies. More recently we have started helping businesses with B-Corp certification, and are also doing Scorecard energy assessments for residential homes. I very much enjoy developing relationships and helping people on their sustainability journeys. That is reflected in the direction and services that Cool Planet provides.

3. What does the typical day look like for you in your role?

Well, because of Covid-19, I’m doing a lot more Zoom calls than I used to! This said, a typical day will involve writing carbon reports, communicating with clients, and general business and staff management. When I’m not in the office, I'm generally out on the road dealing face-to-face with businesses. If you want to look at the sustainability of a business, you can do a lot online, but it’s important to actually walk around and do a site visit, as well as develop client relationships and understand what's actually happening in the premises. It becomes particularly important, for instance, if you're looking at the thermal performance of a building - or if you're looking at waste and recycling - to see where bins are, what's actually in the bins, and so on. All of that is fundamental, and it needs to be done on-site.

So, my duties are actually a good split between those two areas from one day to the next. I certainly like being at home, having a cup of tea, writing those reports, and having some greater freedom about a day’s work from hour to hour. But then it's also nice to get out on the road and actually speak to people face-to-face, to gain a greater understanding of their businesses on-site, and learn how I can help them as best I can.

4. Given Cool Planet has been in operation for so long, let’s say you've had a business that's consulted with you in 2007 and now in 2022 is reflecting on what new steps they could pursue. Obviously we’ve had so many changes - with the rise of renewables and solar power being a leading one - but alongside that, what would you say are some of the most exciting contemporary developments that a small business could leverage in the 2020s that they couldn't have in previous years?

There are probably a couple of things. One would be Climate Active, which is the federal government standard for being carbon neutral. It’s been completely redesigned, and it’s now far more accessible and a lot cheaper for businesses to be carbon neutral than it was even just a few years ago. There's also a lot more training and education available these days. People can get a university degree in sustainability and climate change, or do short courses on ways to improve a businesses’ sustainability performance, and so on. That's really amazing!

The other big piece of progress surrounds technology advances, with solar power being a great example. Solar power is now so affordable. Overall, there is a range of new technologies out there like energy monitors, LEDs, heat pumps and rapid dehydrators, to name just a few. I’d also say the clients that we hold have stayed with the company for long periods of time as sustainability is really a journey. It’s not as simple as just saying one day, we’ve done it! It's a constant journey of reflection, education, communication and implementation. It’s like sailing a boat in this sense, as there needs to be constant monitoring and adjustments to ensure you’re heading in the right direction.

5. Do you find that the board of directors are now becoming more interested and are pushing businesses to act more sustainably, or do you think it's the business itself just saying, "Yep, no, we need to step into the future and take advantage of these government subsidies and programs."

It does vary from business to business as everyone has different motivators, but definitely there's a lot more ‘bottom up’ pressure which wasn't there previously. Now there is such a strong public sentiment for sustainability and climate action that I think there's an understanding at all levels of a business that it makes sense. Often the big motivator prior was when it made financial sense - say with utilising solar and increasing energy efficiency - where a business could save money as well as reduce carbon emissions, that it was then a worthwhile thing to do.

I think the sentiment has now shifted even further along though. Now, the feeling is more urgent, in the sense that ‘if you don’t act you will get left behind’. It's a competitive marketplace and pretty much in every industry, there's people that are championing sustainability and leading the way. If you're a business and not addressing sustainability in some capacity, then you're at a disadvantage because the public takes the ‘greenness’ of a business into consideration when supporting them. So, I think from business owners to employees, to stakeholders to the general public, there's a general push for more action on sustainability, and this is reflected in the way the business community is making decisions regarding environmental performance.

6. It's no revelation to say that for a long time business in Australia seemed well ahead of the federal government when it came to sustainability pursuits. We've since had a change of government and it occurred in what many commentators have dubbed a ‘climate change’ election. To what extent do you think Australia will now see a greater convergence of government and business as it pertains to getting where we need to go with sustainability?

It's always nice to be hopeful! I think there's no doubt if the Coalition got back in federally, then it would’ve meant no real progress with sustainability,  the environment, biodiversity, renewable energy, climate change, and so on. A change of government has greatly improved the chances of there being meaningful action in these areas. So yes, I'm bullish that there will be significant steps forward with a Labor government. I also think having the Greens and ‘teal’ independents in the mix will help Labor stay on track, and help deliver the systemic change that is going to be needed to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Overall, I think the Labor government will definitely be an improvement on what we have had for the last 10 years or so. Labor were pretty moderate in their climate goals leading up to the election, but there is a political reality where they've got to court more conservative electorates. My hope is that the Labor government, alongside the Greens and independents, will push the nation in the right direction. A huge amount needs to be done - and Australia has left it until the last minute - but I'm far more hopeful for coordinated national action now than I have been in a long time.

8. For a small business that's right now looking to make the jump into becoming sustainable in a big way, can you give us an insight into the typical process by which they would pursue this positive change with Cool Planet?

The first step is really to quantify what's occurring in the business. By collecting data and talking to the people within the business, we can see exactly where the business is, where they want to go in the future, and then explore, track, and implement those changes. It’s important to determine the motivation, potential barriers, different stakeholders involved, and what the ultimate goal is for the business. For instance, do they want to be carbon neutral? Reduce waste costs? Promote their green credentials? Be Climate Active certified?

Once we've established the parameters of the job at hand, we can then establish a carbon inventory, and identify environmental impacts for the business. This is followed by establishing an emissions reduction strategy. This strategy can be broken down into key areas and recommendations with particular focuses. For instance, waste and recycling might be identified as a key area, and so we could look at bin placement, different waste services available, costs of different waste companies, bin contamination, staff education, signage with bin placement, composting, packaging and supply chain waste - and that’s just one area!

After an emission reduction strategy and a timeline for implementation has been established, we then look at being carbon neutral. We identify different carbon reduction projects in Australia and internationally that align with an organisation’s values and costings. There's nearly always a preference for Australia-based projects, and as a result we support a lot of tree planting, biodiversity, and savanna burning projects. We then source the carbon offsets from the desired projects, and retire them on the business' behalf, to certify them as carbon neutral.

After that, it's an annual process for carbon neutral certification, but I generally work with businesses all year round to help with implementation, marketing and advice. That’s the process for a business going carbon neutral, but sometimes a business might want to just look at one certain aspect within the business, which would be a quicker and simpler process.

STC thanks Daniel for his time.

Further info regarding his work can be found here.

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