Interview - Ken Hickson

Interview: Ken Hickson, carbon and environment consultant - 14th August 2008

Media Man Australia continues to report on the environmental sector.

What's your background?

Started out my working life as a journalist some 40+ years ago. That included reporting, writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, radio and television. Also worked in PR - with a lot of work for international airlines and other major companies. Was based in Singapore for 17 years where I set up and ran a communications consultancy. In recent years I have been lecturing in communications - I'm associate professor adjunct at the University of the Sunshine Coast - but keeping my hand in with consulting and writing.

Why "ABC" Carbon?

I came up with the title for the book "The ABC of Carbon" as I wanted it to be an easy to understand primer on the whole climate change/carbon situation globally. It follows each letter of the alphabet to explain terms and provides case studies from around the country and around the world. So it's sub-title is "Issues and opportunities in the global climate change environment." I registered as I thought it was catchy. And I have my consultancy as abc carbon and produce a weekly e-newsletter called abc carbon express. Of course it's nothing to do with the other ABCs - Australian Broadcasting Corporation or ABC Learning or - for that matter - the Audit Bureau of Circulation!

What's your mission or mission statement?

My mission throughout my life has been as a "crusader for communication", to communicate effectively - whether through my reporting or writing or on behalf of the companies and organisations I have worked for. Communication is so essential. CEOs of companies large and small need to communicate more effectively. Clearly, concisely and compassionately. And when it comes to the whole climate change situation, I strongly feel that it has not been communicated effectively - by the scientific community, by Governments, by global bodies responsible. I am doing my best to get key messages across. We cannot - whether we're scientists or business people or Government officials - deal with this dispassionately. We need to lead, to advocate, to create greater awareness and encourage action.

Why is carbon a good business to be in?

Carbon as a word has spawned a whole industry. Not only the consultancies and agencies that are helping companies become carbon neutral, deal with their carbon footprint, adapt to climate change's impact, become more energy efficient and switch to renewable energy. The the trade in carbon - or emissions if you like - is already big business overseas. We have carbon trading, carbon markets, cap and trade, carbon credits and carbon offsets. It is an opportunity for business globally. There are exchanges - like stock exchanges - dealing with carbon and other greenhouse gases. But more that capitalising on emissions, it is also directing vast amounts of money into planting trees - vast and safe stores of carbon - retaining forests, renewable energy from solar, wind,waves,tidal, hydrogen, geothermal, hydro and bio-fuels.

Are you an environmentalist, and if so, how do you demonstrate this in practical terms?

You could describe me as an environmentalist I suppose, but I'm not a "protestor" who chains himself to trees or chimney stacks. I try to influence people and organisations through my writing or speaking. I like to work with and through organisations like WWF - World Wide Fund for Nature - which I've been associated with for many years. I was asked, way back in 1996 when I was in Singapore, to be an honorary representative - a bit like a diplomat - for WWF International. I helped them in Asia to organise workshops (in Malaysia and Vietnam), talked to media and business people - and provide space in our office for WWF people to work. When I came to Australia end 2000 I was asked to help the organisation. The first task was to help organise a business dinner in Brisbane when the Duke of Edinburgh came to speak. By working with the QUT Business Leaders group, we managed to get about 600 people to attend and raised about $80,000.

When is your book, the ABC Of Carbon coming out, and how is the internet assisting you with the project?

My book is taking longer than I hoped to get finished - mainly because the subject matter doesn't stop coming! I've been working on it for exactly a year. Now it is in its final,final stages - the last wrap up chapter - so I expect it to go to the printers very soon - and I expect it to be completed next month (September). The internet has been a great help. I have accessed web-sites and courses all over the globe. One source leads to another. So I have used the internet - the web - as a massive resource library to access people, news, projects and products. I will also have an e-book version out as well as a printed version.

Your ABC Carbon Express is a handy snapshot of what's going on in the industry. What's the reaction to the newsletter, and how do we pick up a copy?

I decided to do the e-newsletter abc carbon express as an ongoing update on what's going on with climate change - it was meant to follow on from the book, but I started it in March well before the book was ready. It's to give people a taste for what's happening and a sample of what the book's about. I've had a good reception to the newsletter. There is so much out there - too much in fact - so I act as an editor and distiller of information - select and refine it in one weekly easy to digest newsletter. People can pay to subscribe to the newsletter - but I do have a free list as well, if I feel someone would benefit from it. I've had a lot of support from companies backing me with the book project and they get a mention in the newsletter, but I would consider taking in some advertising from the right sort of "green" businesses.

What motivates you in your professional endeavours?

It is certainly not the money! I seem to do things mostly for love. I love keeping busy. I have had some success in business but I also put a lot of my time (and money) into projects that I believe in. I will never stop writing and talking abut things that I think are important. It comes back to communication - I think it is in my blood. As a boy I used to deliver newspapers around my home town, then delivered telegrams for the post office - remember those? This was before I started out to be a journalist. My grand-father as a great preacher and some of my distant relatives have been in the printing business and in transportation. I have a love of aviation as well - I love flying and traveling. But I have never been tempted to become a pilot. I'm happy to let others be the pilot. I'm a good passenger and I like writing about aircraft and travel.

What do you do in practical terms in your role at governor at the World Wildlife Fund?

As a Governor of WWF Australia, I do what I can to support the organisation. Work with other Governors to raise awareness and raise funds. I also help out when I can to work with the Brisbane office on business development and communication. As Governors we can also set examples as leaders in the community.

Why is it important to stay well clear of anything that even hints of greenwash?

There are a lot of companies doing some very good things - they are becoming green in their business. They are committing to becoming carbon neutral. They should not be afraid to communicate this to all their stakeholders - staff, shareholders etc. It is when a company tries to sell their particular brand or product by suggesting it is greener than someone else's. That's the problem. But the Government - with the help of industry - needs to establish some standards. We have the basis for this now with the Greenhouse Friendly program. Companies need to be accredited. The consumer needs to know who products and services qualify. The good thing is that the consumer is becoming aware and wants to be green and climate friendly. We need to encourage that but also have some industry regulation to make sure the claims are genuine.

What do you think the Australian government is doing right, and wrong, in relation to the carbon trading business, and National Emissions System in general?

I think the Government got it right to call it the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, but it's focus is almost entirely on an Emissions Trading Scheme, which is good in itself, but not the complete answer. We need to see clear Government guidelines, for example, on how Australia will reach its 2020 target for 20% of our energy coming from renewable sources. That will attract more investment in the right places. We need to have a massive campaign nationwide to encourage greater energy efficiency. As businesses and as householders we can save money and save energy. But there needs to be awareness building and there needs to be incentives. To limit the solar energy incentive scheme to those earning less than $100,000 per household was plain stupid. It has hit the solar industry and it has stopped hundreds of homeowners from switching to solar energy. The principle must be to encourage all forms of renewable energy and all forms of energy efficiency.

What are some of your most important clients, and why?

In the past I've had Multinational corporations, It businesses like Intel, leading car companies like BMW and international airlines like Singapore and Lufthansa. Now I do a lot of work for many organisations and agencies - most of its professional, some is paid for, but much of it voluntary. I have a leading property developer as a client, for example, as they are committed to become carbon neutral in their business and to develop five star green properties. I am ready to show businesses how they can become greener - not just in name, but in practice. That means helping them get the best advice and support to audit their energy and emissions, to make significant changes in the way they do business, to become sustainable in their business, to think of the environment and the community. And so much of it comes back to communication - to communicate what they are committed to. To tell all stakeholders and all customers what they are doing. I also work in conjunction with other experts and agencies, who find they can call on me to utilise my specialty - communications.

What's your view on green events, conferences, rock concerts and such?

I'm all for green events that raise awareness - and hopefully raise funds - for suitable green projects, like saving a rainforest. Or supporting efforts by organisations like WWF and Australian Conservation Foundation. Events are very attractive to the young. And the young can be motivated and very supportive of green projects. But organisers need to be aware of their own carbon footprint. All events need to manage their energy use. Be audited and offset what emissions they produce. They need to encourage public transport - as well as walking and cycling - and not be wasteful in how they are run and what they produce.

Will we see you at Greenfest in Brisbane this October?

I'm a great supporter of Greenfest. In fact I'm the director of communications. I'm helping where I can to raise awareness for the event in the media and with the business community. This is Australia's first real Green Festival. It is free, what's more. So no excuse not to attend. There's something for everyone. Green cars and a speakers festival. Great bands and acts. Art. Products. Green building products. Organic food. Everything that's green. Colman Ridge has done a great job to initiate this event. He has invested his own money to make it a private enterprise effort, but bringing in all community groups and business to be part of it. Make plans to be there. October 10-12 this year.

You're an impressive public speaker I witnessed at the recent Climate Summit at Darling Harbour, Sydney. How did you develop your public speaking skills to such a level?

I see a lot of other speakers who impress me more, so I wouldn't rate myself very highly. But I think I do come across as being sincere. I can get quite passionate. I think many people - in business and the community - need to be themselves when they speak in public. Think first what they want to say. Prepare themselves with good facts, as well as images and examples, if they can. I have over the years done quite a lot of talking and lecturing. I also think my time in the media - particularly radio and television - helped me to speak clearly and well. I encourage people to go to Toastmasters where they can get a chance to practice. But preparation is important. And don't bore people. Keep to the time you're given. Short and sweet is better than long and boring! Some people are very good at telling jokes - I'm not. So throw in a few quotes or jokes if you can. But keep them tasteful and to the point.

What positive initiatives have your seen come out of dirty business industries such as aviation and shipping?

I probably wouldn't call the aviation and shipping industries dirty in one sense. They have been essential means to get people and goods around the world. And we all need to travel and experience how other people live and work. But both aviation and shipping are contributing a considerable amount of emissions. Collectively probably somewhere between 2% and 10% of the global emissions of greenhouse gases. It depends whose measuring what. Airlines are doing something about it. You can offset your travel. They are trying clean bio jet fuels. They are operating so they are more energy efficient. The International Air Transport Association - which all airlines belong to - is committed to zero emissions for airlines by 2050. And when you measure the technological progress of aviation in the past 40/50 years, anything is possible. Shipping needs to do much more. Maybe we need to seriously look to a return of the sailing ship!

Al Gore and Richard Branson... eco entrepreneurs, environmentalists, or both, and why?

Al Gore is a visionary and a great communicator. I think he single-handedly turned around public opinion and brought the climate change/global warming message to people in the street - or in the cinema. He has achieved a lot and deserves his Nobel Peace Prize. He has also influenced a lot of people - political and business leaders - to change their ways. If he is an eco entrepreneur that's great we need more like him. Leadership. Branson the same. He is committing his own organisation in airlines, trains, credit cards, music etc to do the right thing. He has committed millions for a Virgin Global Challenge - a prize for the most inventive idea to deal with CO2 emissions. He is investing in bio fuels for his airline and others. He is truly a business leader with the right green focus. More could follow his example.

Do you think Dr Tim Flannery is correct in his view of Australia's oceans being ok to conduct commercial whaling in?

I'm a great admirer of Tim Flannery. He is Australia's best communicator on climate change and a great advocate for the environment and conservation. I personally don't go along with commercial whaling. There was enough of that in the past and I oppose what the Japanese are doing. Let's protect whales. Let's enjoy looking at them. Let's ensure they have enough oceans to enjoy. So many species are threatened by climate change. So let's make sure we don't lose any species through commercial exploitation or claim change.

What can Australian state and federal political leaders learn from eco visionaries such as California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Arnie is a good example of a political leader who has influence beyond his territory or state. California has been a leader in the US for awareness and action on climate change and has some great examples for us to follow. In fact just this week one of Arnie's advisor's was here telling Australia there are some things we can learn from California. Professor Michael Hanemann is the Director of the Climate Change Centre at Berkely University and has been advising the Governor on how to reach that state's ambitions emissions reduction targets. The point the professor makes - and California is doing this - don't put all your eggs in one basket. We need more than an emissions trading scheme. California is one of the leading US states in renewable energy. Let's follow California in more than film making!

What Australian financial institutions do you think are smartest and most receptive to matters in relation to the environment, and why?

I think most of the banks - notably ANZ and Westpac - are doing the right thing. They are showing by example. ANZ is building probably Australia's most advanced energy efficient green commercial structure in Melbourne. They can do more by funding green enterprises - small, medium and large businesses who practice what they preach. If they want to go green provide the funds to help them invest in clean energy, energy efficient buildings and processes. The insurance industry knows what this is all about. Besides putting up premiums to cope with greater risks - more extreme weather events for example - they also accept the reality of climate change. It is here to stay. We must invest wisely. And there are increasingly opportunities to invest not only in carbon trading but renewable energy. It is a great opportunity for business.

Does Australian government listen to indigenous Australian leaders and peoples enough as far as environmental policy is concerned, and why or why not?

I'm not sure Government does enough listening or acting on what it hears. If we see the examples of policies like Fuel watch and Grocery watch. These will not achieve what they set out to do. Government is doing some things that are merely symbolic. In environment policy - whether at home or aboard - it must make a difference. It must set out to preserve what we have of our native forests, our rainforests, our Great Barrier Reef. We must look at ways to better manage our resources - water, land and culture. The indigenous leaders obviously have some environmental concerns. They have a lot they can tell us and show us. We must not only listen but act in co-operation with our communities to protect our environment and our cultural heritage. What is happening in Cape York - with the new rainforest national park - is a wonderful example of what can be achieved by working together with the indigenous communities.

Do you think Al Gore is right in that Adelaide Airport is likely to be underwater in approx 30 years due to climate change?

If the predictions of the scientists we can trust - those who have studied the climate and acknowledge the impact of CO2 emissions - we must expect that rising seas levels will affect many parts of the world. In the Pacific and including Australia within the next 30 to 60 years. We are already seeing glaciers - in the Antarctic, in the Himalayas, in Europe and in New Zealand - melting faster than we thought possible. We are seeing Arctic and Antarctic ice melting faster than we thought possible. Coastal communities and infrastructure in Australia are under threat. If this is enough to convince us we must do something about it, let's start to take action. It is not just the sea level rise we must be aware off, but it is the danger from extreme weather - and we're already see more of that - it is tidal surges that come with cyclones, for examples. Look at Myanmar and Bangladesh. London is already looking at increasing the strength and height of its Thames Barrier as it severely tested last November by tidal surges. The Thames Barrier and associated defenses currently provide London and most of the Thames Estuary with a flood defence standard of about 1:2000 years (0.05% risk of flooding in any given year), which is a world-class level of protection. With sea level rise predicted in climate change models, that level of protection is no longer enough and the risk of flooding will increase by 2030.

What Australian political party do you think is most switched on to matters to do with the carbon business, and why?

I avoid engaging in political points scoring. But we need to recognise that the previous Government made a start - in fact set up the Greenhouse office, the Greenhouse friendly programme and made a commitment to the emissions trading scheme. There were also energy efficiency schemes underway - like the switch to energy saving fluoro light bulbs - and investment in some renewable energy. The new Government has taken this further and faster. But we need to make sure the political leaders - of all persuasion - keep on track. We must substantially reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. There is not one solution. It is a basket - or cocktail - of measures we must adopt. Emissions trading, vast investment in renewable energy, carbon capture and storage that works economically. But perhaps as important is being incentivised to change the way we live our lifestyles, the cars we drive, the energy we use (and abuse), the food we eat. We must cut our energy use - particularly when it comes from fossil fuels like coal and oil - until new technology gives us all the clean energy we need.

Should celebrities get included in environmental matters, and why?

There is room for all to be involved. I admire Cate Blanchett greatly and particularly how she has identified with the issues and opportunities of climate change. She is supporting the Australian Conservation Foundation with its Who On Earth Cares campaign as well as WWF's Earth Hour. She is not only encouraging others but setting a good example herself at home and when she travels. Cate is my hero as an actress and as an example of good clean and green living. I would encourage other "celebrities" to follow her example.

What's your favorite green themed film?

Al Gore's Academy Award winning Inconvenient Truth will go down in history as the most influential film of all time. I encourage all film makers to look creatively and passionately at this subject. Art and artists have a lot of responsibility. I heard about - but I haven't seen - a film called The Burning Season focusing on land clearing and burning in Indonesia. It is apparently very good. It is locally made. Look out for it.

Do you believe in planning for the worst in the decades ahead, as far as initiatives like eco home bunkers, underground homes, seed banks and such?

We need to think ahead. We need to plan our cities and communities to cope. We need to work towards sustainability in everything we do. I don't believe in the bunker mentality. That is bit like putting your head in the sand. We need to think positively and act responsibly. We can fix the problem if we act now. It is not impossible We need to recognise that we - mankind and our industrialisation - got us into this mess. We can get a man on the moon. We can do wonders with technology. We can - if we get the best brains and business together - change things for the better. No bunker. But a business like approach to fix the problem now and forever.

What's your motto?

I read a terrifying but influential book in my youth called "Knock on Any Door" and the motto of the main character was "Live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse". I think for a time I liked that and wanted to adopt it. But I'm afraid I wasn't living fast enough - no drugs, smoking, fast cars/women - so I didn't live or die to make that reality for me. I think I try to live a good life. Treat people with respect. Be kind. Be happy. Be positive. I was once told that I was not tough enough to be a success in business, but if that meant trampling over people and treating staff badly, I didn't want it. I think I have been a good father, husband, and boss. I'm a people person. And I'm a very positive, optimistic person. It probably comes back to communication as well.

What do you do to relax?

Reading books. That is my favourite form of relaxation, even though most of what I read is for business and not pleasure. I am a fan of newspapers and magazines too. I enjoy watching a little television - mostly news and documentaries. I have a few favourite TV programmes - some quiz shows and English dramas. I enjoy the arts - going to musicals, ballet, art exhibitions - more than sport. I have been known to play and enjoy tennis, table tennis, golf and hockey, but I don't make the time for much physical activity these days, except walking. I try to walk a lot and use public transport. I do love to travel - for leisure and business - but don't do enough of that. My favourite holiday ever was cruising on the canals in France a few years back. Just the right blend of recreation and relaxation.


Editors note: Ken Hickson is a wealth of information on environmental and carbon matters, and his weekly newsletter is a great read and presents a concise and informed snapshot of the industry on a weekly basis. We look forward to Ken's book, and catching up with him at Greenfest.


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Ken Hickson

Carbon Trading


Environmentalists and the environment