How to get members of bands such as Queen, Pink Floyd, Rush, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple together to help a country devastated by an earthquake? How helpful can celebrities be in the clean energy transition? Do we fully recognize the role business plays in solving environmental problems? Jon Dee, leading Australian figure in sustainability and environment answers all of the above! Jon Dee’s website describes him as a “social entrepreneur, broadcaster and philanthropist”. If you download his bio, you’ll find it’s a 35MB power-point presentation. Jon has founded four major charities: Rock Aid Armenia (1988), Planet Ark (1992), DoSomething (2008), and One Tree Per Child (2015). Between 2015 and 2018 he hosted 115 episodes of Smart Money on Sky News Australia, showcasing stories of businesses using sustainability, efficiency and innovation to improve their bottom line. Since 2017, Jon has been appearing weekly on ABC Radio Australia highlighting good news about the environment and sustainability on his Good News with Jon Dee segment. Jon is the Australian coordinator for RE100, which has spurred over 250 major corporations worldwide to commit to 100% renewable energy. He is currently launching Smarter Futures, a website and series of interviews focusing on business sustainability solutions. Jon has written two books: “Sustainable Growth” (2010), and “Energy Cuts: The 20-Step Guide to Cutting Energy Bills in Your Business” (2015) selling over 140,000 copies in Australia . In 2010, Jon was named Australian of the Year in New South Wales.
Jon Dee’s website
Rock Aid Armenia
Planet Ark founders cut ties with 'lost' organisation
ML: My guest on Episode 11 of “Cleaning Up” is a leading Australian figure in sustainability and the environment. In fact, you could say that he's the leading Australian figure in sustainability and the environment. If you download his resume you'll find that it's 34 mb, it's worse than mine. He's written two books, he's founded four charities, he's made literally hundreds of episodes of tv shows on business, and businesses impact on environment, and sustainability, and climate and so on. He's got hundreds of radio episodes that he's contributed to, he actually had a top 40 hit back in the midst of time, which he's going to talk about as well. He's an extraordinary guy so what we're going to do is I’m going to get a beer and then we're going to welcome Mr Jon Dee into the conversation.
ML: So Jon, I promised that I'd get a beer. As you can see I’ve got myself a Fosters.
Jon Dee: Mate, that's very sad to see, you know, the only people who drink Fosters are the English. No one actually drinks it in Australia but they've done a very good job marketing Fosters to the Brits as an Australian beer, but I’ve got to tell you it's breakfast time here so here's my coffee. I'd rather join you in a glass of wine like we did last time we had dinner. So, unfortunately, it's coffee for me.
ML: Well, you know, I’ve already learned something now that you don't drink Fosters but we do over here. The learning I’m sure will continue for the next, just under an hour. So what are we going to do is I’m going to pour this. Meanwhile, could you perhaps just say how would you describe what is it that you actually are doing today? We'll go back through all of the different bits and pieces that I’ve got here, but let's start with what is it that you are doing today?
JD: One of the most exciting things I’m doing right now is working on the RE 100 project, which is run by the climate group and CDP, as you know. My job there is to help run Australian operations, recruit Australian companies and that's very exciting. So far we've managed to get 12 major Australian companies to commit to go 100% renewable by a set date, most of them by 2025. So that's my main thing that I do on the energy side. When it comes to sustainability and social issues I also run a charity called “Do something” and anyone who wants to check it out we have our website, which is dosomethingnearyou.com.au. The idea is that no matter where you live in Australia, you type in your postcode and basically find out what it is that you can do to give back in your local community. And on top of that, I do consulting with companies on energy and sustainability issues and also writing my new book – “Smarter Futures” – and getting ready now to roll out the first of the Smarter Futures videos. I’ve interviewed Lisa Jackson, which is just going out at the moment. Lisa is the head, Global Head of Sustainability and Social Issues at Apple. So, quite a varied workload at my end, but I don't think I'd have it any other way.
ML: Well, that sounds like about 35 megabytes of current activities, never mind if we get into the past things. So that's essentially as there's RE 100, just to clarify those who don't know, because there might be some out there. That's a group of what is it now about? 250 corporations, that are committing to go 100% renewable energy in their own operations, is that right? And that's an international. That started I think in the UK with the Climate Group and Carbon Disclosure Project, CDP?
JD: Yes, indeed, we've now got 254 major companies that have committed to go 100% renewable with their electricity use by a set date. We've got really big organizations involved, you know, we've got household names like AB InBev, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Ikea, Lego. There are many. many major brands.
ML: I’m going to show my ignorance is Fosters AB InBev
JD: I’m actually not sure, I don't think it is they actually…
ML: No, right, I’m going to be changing brands, there we go. There's another good reason to change brand. It's not authentic and they haven't, Fosters, has not signed up yet we think to RE 100. Okay, so there's a theme, there's some themes already that are going to emerge more. So, you work with business, you're a communicator, you get business to come along, showcase what they do best. But I want to go back to where all this started, because in preparation for this show I came across your work, for Rock Aid Armenia, and a video with a very young Jon Dee, with some very big names, backstage, and that stuff is absolutely extraordinary. So talk us through, that was the first of your four major charities that you launched, wasn't it? Rock Aid Armenia, how did you get into that?
JD: When I was still at school in England, where I grew up near Shrewsbury, basically I ended up running Yes's fanclub, Yes is a band, for people who don't know, that was really huge in the 70s and 80s and yeah, I first saw them as a 13-year-old in in 1977, actually live! And I ended up getting to know the band, I was this kind of young kid still at school, hanging out with these rock stars. Before you knew it, I was going to their weddings, I was meeting people like Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin…
ML: But you have to translate for millennials and, even I don't know, generation whatever, they are generation XYZ, ABCDE. These are huge names!
JD: I mean Led Zeppelin, massive quantities of albums, and you know, if they were to tour live, they would be selling out stadiums like they used to. What was interesting about that, I co-produced the global broadcast that launched World AIDS Day and I did that out of the BBC on December the 1st 1988. We did that for the World Health Organization to launch World AIDS Day, and then, basically, I had this phone call the next morning about 3 o'clock in the morning from America, saying „can you help us to get this film crew into Armenia?”, which was then the Soviet Union. So I managed to get, because I knew the Soviet ambassador from having done this AIDS global broadcast. I managed to get the first foreign film crew into Armenia after the earthquake.
ML: So the earthquake had already happened when you got that call, so the film crew was because of the earthquake, right?
JD: Well, they were in Turkey doing something else. I managed to get them across the border with permission from the Soviet Union, thanks to the ambassador, and got the first independent crew on the ground into the earthquake zone. So I ended up seeing like just the worst footage you could imagine, stuff that just couldn't make it to where… I remember in particular footage from a school, where the ceiling had just collapsed on top of these poor children, and only one kid had survived in that whole school. So I felt compelled to do something. So initially I kind of helped out other organizations, that were doing things because of my background in the entertainment industry. But then I thought, hold on, I know all these rock bands: I know Pink Floyd, I know Zeppelin, I know Queen, I know Yes, I know Black Sabbath, I know Deep Purple! No one’s ever got those guys together. So I called up David Gilmour, explained the idea. It turns out he had an Armenian friend, and he said yes, and he said what song are you looking at doing? I said “Smoke on the Water”, and he said does it have to be? And I said at least you can play it, you know it's the easiest guitar tune to play. Then I called Brian May from Queen, and he said yes, and I realized once I had David Gilmour and Brian May, I definitely had a charity record on my hands, that could be a hit.
ML: How old were you at this point?
JD: I was 24 at the time when I did that. I ended up with the guitar players from Pink Floyd, Queen, you know, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Rush. Jimmy Page couldn't do it, from Led Zeppelin, because he was overseas. But I ended up having, you know, a real who's who of guitar players, singers and drummers. And look, Bryan Adams at that time was number one in 13 countries and he literally swung by the studio one day, and we said well do you want to sing on it? And he said „which verse?”, we said that we've already recorded verses, „how about you do backing vocals?”. We had this number one superstar and we could only squeeze him in on backing vocals! But the good news is we ended up having a top 40 hit in the UK with that. The album was even way more successful, we put a remix of the „Smoke on the Water” track on the album. Everybody gave us their you know their biggest hits and we sold 100 000 copies in 10 days. That was the first charity album in the UK to go gold, and what was exciting about that is, you know, we relaunched Rock Aid Armenia in 2009. And of the back of that we ended up building a really fantastic music school that teaches 220 kids a year in the earthquake zone. So it's very exciting that the outcomes of that…
ML: You went back in 2019 and you met some of the people that you had not seen for whatever that is, 30 odd years, right?
JD: So what we did, I have to acknowledge Ian Gillan from Deep Purple, he's the lead singer of Deep Purple, and Tony Iommi, the lead guitarist of Black Sabbath. If you look at all the people who've been involved, those two have been incredible in their ongoing support for the project. Back in 2009, I was or given, Ian Gillan and Tony Iommi and I were given the Order of Honor by the president of Armenia, which at that time was Armenia's biggest medal that they could give us for the work that we've been doing. Ian and I have been going back on and off over the years, but last year we ended up having our 30th anniversary event and I had the main opera house in Yerevan, the president, Armen Sarksyan, a friend of yours who came along as our main guest. Basically Ian Gillan and Tony Iommi came out for that, we had a packed house and it was really fantastic to take them both to the school the next day, because Tony's never seen the school in action, and so we got to see all the kids performing for us and it's really important, because music plays a really important part in the culture of Armenia. And when they had the earthquake, literally the music stopped. So, one of our aims as an organization at Rock Aid Armenia was to help get the music underway again. What was interesting was, I think, Rock Aid Armenia's main benefit was not the fact that we've built a school and done all these things over there. I think it was the fact, that their favourite bands like Pink Floyd and Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, which are still huge in Armenia, the fact that their favourite rock bands were still caring many, many years after the earthquake. It had a really big impact on the morale of the people.
ML: And did you also raise money at the time? I mean, presumably, there's some dollar figure that you helped with the earthquake relief.
JD: Yeah, so a lot of the work we did. We raised money from the album, which was not a huge amount compared to say if you were going to do a concert, but we also did a lot of in-kind, because we got all these rock stars, we had a lot of people offering their time for free, so we focused our work on therapy for the kids. Because you know, there was one school in particular that we helped and we did it with a combination of money but also in-kind volunteers. This entire classroom, they called it the orphans room, and every single child in that room had lost their mum, their dad, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, grandparents and they literally had nobody left in their life that they knew that they were related to. And it was like a horror movie, these kids they were alive, but they weren't alive. It was so sad to see. A lot of the work we did, I did, a combination of inkind support and also cash.
ML: Now, I mean, one of the themes that this sort of touches on this, you know, in the climate and environment space there are a lot of celebrities that, you know… how can I put it. Some of them get in involved, and it's authentic, and they do something, and they achieve something, and they stick at it for the long term. Then there's lots of, you know, sort of bungee celebrities, who will go on one trip to somewhere, Africa or wherever, or they'll make some comment about how important it is to unplug your mobile phone from the charger because of the climate, or they'll you know fly to London, and that was the most recent one – flying to London to take part in an Extinction Rebellion protest. But you've done something incredibly authentic there, and then you went on and you've done other things. So maybe we come back to that question of how do you well use celebrities in your work, if you're an NGO, or if you're a celebrity? What is it that you should do and what is it you should not do? Because you went on from that experience and then you've got the next one that you did was Planet Arc, is that right?
JD: That's right. So in June in 1991, Pat Cash – he is a very close friend of mine, and has been now for more than 30 years the tennis player, he just got knocked out of Wimbledon and he called me up and he said, because he's done very well at Queen's and just before Wimbledon and so, he had a whole case or two of Stella Artois beer, and he joked “you've got to come over, because tomorrow I’m going away for a couple of weeks, and if we don't drink that whole case of Stella Artois beer it's going to go off”.
ML: The Queen's Club is the Stella Artois tournament, isn't it?
JD: That's right.
ML: Right, I get the connection.
JD: I’m this charity guy, so when someone calls you up and says, you know, we've got to drink a whole case of beer, otherwise it's going to go off within two weeks, I will just go along with that. And so Pat and I got drunk. What was interesting was, you know, we were these young guys, and both at that time, gosh, 26, and instead of doing the usual boy talk, we ended up finding out that we were both really passionate about the environment. My first full-time job in the environment had been at Earth Life with John Elkington and Nigel Tursley in 1996. By the end of the evening, and all those beers later, we decided we would set up our own environment group, because we thought: okay, there isn't really a pro-business environment group that goes out to the public with solutions, with celebrities to kind of get the message out. So, Pat and I decided to set up what became Planet Arc. I moved to Australia to do that on January the 1st 1992, within seven weeks managed to get a really huge multi-million dollar sponsorship from Channel 7, where they gave me two prime-time ads, every night, seven days a week. We had that all up for about two and a half years, over the two series that we did.
ML: What were you doing with that? I mean, you got the income side sorted, presumably you got the donations, what were you doing with the funds?
JD: What we ended up doing was, because you mentioned celebrities, the deal I did with Channel 7 was that okay, they give me millions and millions of dollars of airtime free of charge, I had to sign a contract that said I would go out and get celebrities to present them. I thought, okay, who are the most authentic celebrities? So Bob Geldof, Paul McCartney and people like that, Olivia Newton-John, people who had gone on the record about their concern for the environment and had done so for many, many years. In answer to your question, I ended up more than delivered on the celebrities, we ended up doing over 350 TV ads over the two series that we had. I managed to get an unbelievable array of major celebrities, not just Australian celebrities, but some of the biggest names in Hollywood like Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Pierce Brosnan and many others. What we always looked for, and what I have always looked for, is people who are authentic over a long term, I'll give you a couple of examples.
ML: What was Planet Arc delivering though? I want to come back, because it's very interesting. You've got all these celebrities, but you were doing National Tree Day, National Recycling Day, but what were you telling Australians to do or what were you paying, what was going on? What was the charitable goal?
JD: So what we were doing with the ads, was showing people the practical things they could do in their day-to-day lives to make a difference, to reduce their impact on the environment and in many cases actually save money. The other thing we did, which was a real first, and bear in mind, this is 1992, the first 52 videos that we shot, the first 52 ads that we shot were presented by news readers and they focused on what businesses were doing that was helping them to improve their sustainability performance, reduce their environmental impact, but also save money at the same time. I wrote that series back in 1992 and with the celebrities part, Channel 7 wanted us to get celebrities to go out with positive messages, to show people the practical things, that they could do and it worked incredibly well.
ML: Again, this is something that you know. this is now nearly 30 years ago and it was getting businesses, showing businesses how they can do well, while doing good and then celebrating it. I mean that's sort of the shorthand for a number of the things we're going to talk about. Okay, Do Something you already mentioned in your intro. You're still involved, that's Do Something Nearby, and that's about joining some sort of civic activity nearby, is it all environmental or not at all?
JD: No, it does both. So, we have dosomethingnearyou.com.au and it took us years to…
ML: Now, sorry, near you not nearby.
JD: It took us years to pull it together because as a coding platform it was quite complex. We have 15 000 suburbs and communities in Australia, and then we went out to find out, okay, what can you do in your local communities? We ended up having to get all the information on where all the charity shops were, where all the different rotary lions clubs were, all the land care organizations, where you can plant trees… Every charity you can imagine is listed on this website and so it basically is about getting people to give back and do good in their local community. I think as society has developed, we've become very self-centered as people and in Australia, in particular one of the things, one of the reasons I moved here was every Australian I'd ever met in the UK always helped other Australians when they were out of a job, or if you didn't have a job, you still went out to the pub with your friends and everyone else would pay for your beers, everyone else would pay for your food. And then, when you got a job, you were expected to do the same. I really like the fact that people looked after each other and dosomethingnearyou is about trying to encourage that kind of approach, where we look after each other a bit more, and where we can volunteer and give back in the community. Just one thing I would like to finish on thought, just very quickly, was your earlier question about celebrities. One of the things we found, and I think this is important for anyone who wants to use celebrities, the people we got had long-term commitment. So I mentioned Olivia Newton-John, we started National Tree Day together in Australia and we fronted that for the first 10 million trees that got planted Olivia had planted 10 000 trees in her home. We had Pierce Brosnan doing ads for us, and Pierce back then and still to this day, is a very eloquent and well-spoken advocate for environmental issues. Same with Pat Cash, you know, Pat ever since he won Wimbledon has been a very good advocate for the environment, and seeks out information to educate himself. So when he's giving interviews he's giving the right information. We always went out to get people who had genuine empathy for the issue and I always joke that the people you want to get to front your initiatives, they should be able to have 24h flight to London, arrive totally jet lagged, and if they had a tv, camera put in their face could still answer the questions about the campaign they were fronting, because they know it from the heart and they know it factually as well. You want to have people who aren't going to embarrass you either, so you don't want to link up with any celebrities who might have any drug issues or something like that, especially with all the work we did with kids. So we needed to take that into account when we were doing it.
ML: What about the question of… these people, every single one that you've mentioned, has an incredibly damaging lifestyle in terms of the environment. I mean, they're all flying everywhere, they've all got huge homes, they've got swimming pools, they're not going to not do those things, right? So how do you deal with that from a reputational perspective or somebody who works with them? Is it okay? They bought offset, so that's fine, but you know, not everybody can just have that fabulous lifestyle and then buy offsets, not everybody in the world, there's 8 billion of us.
JD: At the end of the day celebrity culture is a really huge thing in society. What I think we need to do is recognize that's just a fact of life, but if you look at the broader population, you know, as in with the billions of people who now live on the planet, a lot of them look up to celebrities and if you are able to have those people advocate for things that we can all do, and celebrities can also use their clout to advocate for things like green cement, green steel, it doesn't have to just be things you could do in the home that some people might see as token. The fact is we are where we are, with regards to the lifestyles of well-known celebrities, but a lot of the celebrities I know do whatever they can to minimize that impact through offsets, by planting huge numbers of trees themselves. There's a number of people I know who go out of their way to make sure that they have an income say with a tour, a music tour, they've gone out and planted tens and tens of thousands of trees, just out of their own pocket and without telling anyone. A lot of the people who do that kind of thing tend to be quite, authentic as much as they can. But I think when they go out there and talk about these issues, they put them out there in the media, it makes it a lot easier for politicians and businesses to then enact those in action on those environmental issues. When you have celebrities doing that, the knock-on effect is far bigger than any impact they have in their life. For example with you and I, we do a lot of travelling internationally, but if you look at the environmental results that we bring about, through the sustainability advocacy that we do, the impact, we have results-wise far outweighs any impact that you and I have from the travelling that we do. ML: You won't be surprised, it's something that I’ve thought about a lot and I’ve discussed a lot. I’m very open about so for instance for many years I didn't buy offset because I thought well, why are we focusing on let's say my flights? If we take my life as a whole, the work I’ve done on renewable energy, the work I’ve done with investors changing the flows at an absolutely grand scale, you know. I mean Bloomberg NEF subscribers have invested literally trillions of dollars now in renewable energy and other, but you know I’ve had a tiny weenie effect but on a very big number. When it comes to celebrities, first of all, I’m not 100% sure I’ve reached the right sort of conclusion. I now do buy offsets, but when it comes to celebrities, I suppose, the concern I have is that you have a system which fundamentally is telling people that these are the people whose lifestyles you want to emulate, and not just these particular ones that are buying offsets, but all of them. You should just fly around, you should want to be on a permanent holiday, you should want to be perfect on Instagram, in front of swimming pools and in hotels, and jet skiing, and on quad bikes and et cetera et cetera. It's sort of… if we all actually achieved that lifestyle, even if we all tried to buy offsets, there would not be enough offsets. There's something, I mean, isn't there something that's just at a structural systemic level got to change?
JD: Look, I mean, if you look the kind of celebrities I’ve worked with tend to be very authentic. They're not the kind of the Instagram crowd that do tend to be a bit vacuous, but I think the key thing that we need to bear in mind is that the number of celebrities is quite small when you compare them to the overall population. And what we've seen with Covid is I think a lot of these celebrities have given interviews saying they've actually really enjoyed not having to travel. For example, I came back from Colombia for One Tree Per Child the start of March and I haven't travelled since. I have really enjoyed it the fact now that we're doing these kind of interviews and all our meetings are being done now with Zoom, or Skype, or Teams. A lot of us have realized we didn't have our balance right, and so if we have to look at what is one of the positive things that's come out of Covid, if you could say that, because it's so awful, is that it's actually made us rethink travel. So, it's going to be very interesting to see what the long-term impact on the travel industry I mean, we all will need to travel for work and see family… but a lot more people have got used to this kind of communication, where we're talking to each other and as Internet speeds improve, as bandwidth improves, as computers and cameras improve, you know, we'll be doing a lot more of this, and within a short space of time we'll see each other in 3D, you know, instead of on a screen like we're seeing now. I think there's going to be a lot of people that actually like the fact they're not having to travel and have such a big impact. And the fact that we've all been made to stay in our homes, it's made us rethink what kind of world we want. I think there's been some very good debate off the back of Covid about what do future cities look like, and how do we engage with each other, how do we reduce that impact.
ML: Without question and I think, how sticky these behaviours are going to be and in fact whether this sort of conversation eats into telephony, because I now have Zoom calls with complete strangers. Normally I'd have said - let's have a phone call, now I have a Zoom call. Whether it actually reduces the amount of conferences and inperson? I mean there's some big open questions. I like your optimism. You mentioned One Tree Per Child. That's the fourth of your big charities, tell us what it's about? It’s planting trees, lots of trees, lots and lots of trees and then I want to move on to your media activities, your sort of non-charitable hardcore media activities.
JD: One Tree Per Child again, you know, Olivia and I fronted National Tree Day for the first 10 million trees. I think is up to 25 million trees now and Planet Arc are running that. That's great to see that is just every year there's a million new trees going in the ground, but what we realized was that there's only on National Tree Day the local councils who provide that support for schools can only provide so much support to local schools. And we thought okay, well, what everyone could agree on that it would actually be really good if every child planted a tree, because I remember when I planted a tree as a kid and I’ve seen tens of thousands of kids plant trees in the time. I was fronting Tree Day and I realized it had a really big impact on the kids, the kids love planting trees at the same time, they love watching the trees grow and as the trees grow so does the kids commitment to the environment, because they're seeing they have had a really big impact. So the kids are taught about the benefit of the trees, they're taught about the benefit of habitat from those trees to wildlife, and so we thought okay, well, maybe what we need to do is to launch a policy to try and get it out there, that we should try and have it, so that every child gets the opportunity to plant a tree. I ended up…
ML: Jon, can I ask, are they physically planting the tree or do they just get a certificate saying “you've planted this tree somewhere in the middle of nowhere”?
JD: No, getting them to plant the tree, because I think that just getting their hands in the soil, getting their hands dirty is really important with kids, and they love doing it. Any education they get about tree planting and benefits to wildlife and the environment is brought to life when you are involved in planting the trees. What we did was I sat down with George Ferguson, who was the then mayor of Bristol, and George is really passionate about kids and tree planting, like I am, and so we ended up having dinner and I said well, look, we had the idea in Australia, but we'd rather start it somewhere else. Will Bristol become the first city to actually do this, and let's try and get a role model, that we can point to where we've done it successfully. So Bristol had 36 000 kids, I think about 130 schools, and so we said okay, let's try and get every school involved. Let's try and get 36 000 trees in the ground. Bristol was the European green capital, just about to become European green capital, so it became the main kids’ focus of that green capital year. The good news is, within 18 months we've planted those 36 000 trees. And every time there is a new year, the new enrolment in primary schools in Bristol, now all of those kids get the opportunity to plant a tree. So we're now up to 60 thousands trees in Bristol. We've now started running our role models and case studies in other countries to ensure that it can work across different cultures, so we're planting trees in Kenya with CHASE Africa, where we've been planting trees in South Sudan in an internal displacement camp with a UN peacekeeper called Colonel Bond, who got all the kids to plant trees, because they were all very depressed because they were stuck behind in this camp with the UN protecting them and the kids. It gave the kids hope by getting them to plant their own tree, and he said when your tree gets to this height then you can go home. So it was about giving kids hope. Here in Australia we planted hundreds of thousands of trees, we've just raised hundreds of thousands of dollars with Tree Pittsburgh to do it in Pittsburgh in America, and we are rolling it out in a big way in Colombia as well. We're trying to do it around the world to show that if we can get one kid each to plant a tree in these different communities, different backgrounds, different countries, if we can do it there, we can do it everywhere. The idea is to try and encourage this so that every kid plants the tree.
ML: Of course the great Wangari Maathai, she's really kicked off the sort of Kenyan understanding of the importance of trees and reversing deforestation, didn't you know?
JD: She did an amazing job, and such an inspiring person. What we're doing in Kenya, actually, is very interesting. Some of our projects are near Mount Kenya, and so schools over there have a lot of land. The project we're backing over there is where they teach the kids how to grow their own trees. The trees are grown at the school, you crop them in order to get firewood, so that helps the local women not have to go out and walk, you know, many kilometres every day to go and get firewood, which inevitably comes from the local forests, so they get it cheaply and it means they can do other things. We end up the wood that end up getting grown, what CHASE Africa have been doing is they then sell that wood for construction locally. Wood is kept back, so they can build classrooms, they can also use the firewood to give the kids a hot meal. The benefits of trees in a society like Kenya can be absolutely huge, and if you teach kids how to grow their own trees, and basically build their own homes in a way that doesn't impact on local forests, then you know the environmental and social benefits can be very significant.
ML: Okay, so now that you did these four charities and you worked with celebrities, but in the end, you've sort of became the celebrity, right? I mean it's you had your own persona, that then the public started to know and then you sort of shifted your career into more, I don't know what to call it, traditional media or into the media. So you did these, you wrote some books, you did “Smart Money”, you then stopped doing that and you're now doing this “Good News with Jon Dee”, where you sort of highlight stories on ABC Australia Radio, but it's all about celebrating business, so you've really focused on celebrating the wins, how business can do good and do well at the same time. Talk about that transition, how did you sort of go from being the guy who starts charities and plants trees, to the guy that you see on the telly or hear on the radio?
JD: I got to that kind of position where, if I’m really honest, I got a bit bored with the whole celebrity thing and thought that actually, if we want to create the biggest change possible in the shortest space of time, we need to get businesses to do a lot more, and a lot faster, and we need to really wrap that up. So I found, because I was known for my pro-business position, which has not always been the case with a lot of environmentalists and when I sat down and talked to sustainability directors at major companies… you kind of realize that once they had a certain level of knowledge, there was a lot of things that they didn't know about the solutions, that not only would reduce their company's environmental impact, but would actually save them money as well. I thought, okay, well that's what I need to focus on, because looking at where I want to be, when I’m finished up with my life, I want to be able to look back and think okay, could I have done any better? Could I have done more to get the word out about the solutions? And so I thought that's what I’m going to really make my main Ffocus. So I wrote a book called ”Sustainable Growth” in 2010 and the deal I made with the book publisher was that they would give a copy of the book away free to every business person who turned up to see me speak. What they didn't realize was as soon as I got that contract signed, I then lined up 300 speeches around Australia and spend about two years, kind of going around just speaking to business owners - both small and medium-sized. It ended up becoming a book that became the first mainstream book, that in very plain simple English told about making your business more sustainable. I assumed from the get-go, that let's assume you know nothing about sustainability, and which in fact is the reality for a lot of small to medium-sized business owners back then. Then off the back of that I did lots of speeches, did lots of media interviews that led then to the Australian government, giving the Do Something organization nearly a million dollars to allow me and my team to go out and do research, looking at hundreds of companies and how they used energy. So that led to a book called „Energy Cut”. One morning I got a phone, I’ve actually got a late night text from the guy who ran Sky News in Australia at the time, and he said, guess what I’m reading? And he sent me a copy of the “Energy Cut” book on the bedside table he said come and see me, I’ve got an idea. I ended up sitting down with Angelo and James, who is the business channel manager at Sky News and I thought they were interviewing me to be a regular guest, a weekly guest on Sky News Business Channel and I realized, by the end of the meeting, they said so you can begin you the show in in two weeks time. I suddenly realized they were actually offering me my own tv show, which was called “Smart Money”. 2 weeks later I ended up having my own live tv show, going out every week. I did 150 episodes showing what businesses could do that could save them money, and at the same time demonstrably reduce their impact, but also improve what they could give back to society.
ML: I love that, it's called “Smart Money”, it's not called “Green Money”, it's not called “Sustainability”, it's not called “Do the Right Thing”. It's called “Smart Money”, and I’ve got to get you together with the episode seven, Bertrand Piccard, he's the guy who flew around the world, first of all in a balloon non-stop, but then in an electric airplane. I’m now a member of the advisory board of his foundation, the Solar Impulse Foundation. He's identified 652, what he calls, efficient solutions, so he's kind of giving them a certification, a stamp, a kite mark to say don't do things the old way, do it the new way, because it's smart, he says, it's not just ecological, it's logical - it's how he describes it. And the parallels between what you're doing with your 115 episodes and what he's doing with his 652 solutions, he is on track to get to a thousand, which he's committed to do, are so strong. I’m amazed you've not bonded yet, but I'll get you two together.
JD: Look I think it's a great idea and this is what is exciting about the role I now have. I’m sure it's the same for you, you know, I’m 57 now and I am still learning, and I love the fact that I’m still learning. I’m just doing a consultancy at the moment, for a major property company, and just finding out new things about green concrete, green steel, green cement, geopolymer cement is fascinating. The potential to massively reduce impact, use up waste materials and save money… there are so many solutions out there, that just make common sense. That's one of the areas where I’ve never got involved with politics, my preference is always to work with businesses, because if you can provide a really good business case for a solution, businesses automatically will do it, because it makes financial and business sense. Whereas if you go to a politician and try and get them to do it, often their knowledge is very low, the advisors often tend to be quite poor quality in Australia, and I guess in the other countries too. So my preference is always where you can, work with business, because if you have a good compelling argument, has a good financial basis to it, you've got a far bigger chance of getting that up and running.
ML: Yes. Well, so, I’m going to have to talk about the quality of advisors to politicians in the UK, I have to do this very carefully because a couple of days ago it was announced that I’ve been appointed as an advisor to the Board of Trade. I think the UK has got fabulous advisors, of course one of the other advisors, who was appointed at the same time was your former prime minister, Tony Abbott. I’m going to say absolutely nothing about quality, It’s probably best if I just say nothing about quality of advisors at all. I won't get into trouble, but what's important, we are going to talk about politics, because you're doing all this stuff, you're planting hundreds of thousands of trees, you're doing extraordinary things, you're then celebrating businesses, hundreds of episodes of the tv show, and now you still do this roundup on radio, that I mentioned, celebrating news stories out of the business community, probably most of them, and yet, the background in Australia for climate and energy policy - I'm going to say it, you could disagree, but you don't have to agree or disagree - but the background is really toxic.
JD: It's unbelievably toxic. What is interesting, it makes no sense, so you have a political party look, and I’m not politically aligned with anyone, I've made it, my point of doing that at a federal level, this is the national level, the conservatives have almost worn it as a badge of pride with their scientific ignorance and they define themselves by what they're against. They say they're pro-business, but when you look at the decisions they're making, it's not actually good for the long-term health and sustainability of Australian business and Australian society. So they've actively taken part in denial of the climate science and acted in ignorance of science, full stop. What is interesting, though, and to balance that off some of the best people politically doing things are at the state level and the local level. That's where the politics gets out of it, there are some great people in the conservative side of politics at the state level. Matt Kean is a good example, the environment minister in New South Wales for the government here. He's a liberal, which is in the UK that's the conservatives absolutely fantastic.
ML: So an Australian liberal is actually on the political right would be a conservative in the UK system?
JD: Yeah, that's right. So you know, he's been fantastic the premier of South Australia has carried on the fantastic renewable policies, that were implemented by Labour at the state level in South Australia. If you look at Victoria Lily D'Ambrosio, the energy minister, there is absolutely fantastic and have some great advisors around them. So it's at the federal national level, where things have really fallen over, and there's been this ridiculous argument over renewables. When we had the last election, you actually had the current prime minister of Australia, saying electric cars will ruin your weekend because weekends will be banished, because of electric cars. It was really ridiculous stuff and anyone who's driven an electric car will know actually, the issues of long distance and fast charging are being overcome. The prices are coming down and the crazy thing, this anti-electric car policy, that the government took to the last election made no sense, because if you go on the autobahns in Germany, and other major motorways in Europe, about half of the fast charges are actually made in Brisbane in Australia, by a company called Tritium. It's created hundreds of jobs and yet, we had a government that were actively acting against the interest of these new industry jobs, which makes no sense. So we're amongst the best in the world, same goes for things like green cement Wagners in Queensland have a geopolymer cement that is absolutely fantastic, it can replace most cement, that is currently being used, performance wise just as good. I think that a lot of the toxic debate that's gone on, has undermined really good innovative businesses in Australia, that have the potential to be world leading, creating jobs at a massive level. I know we're going to talk about this later with Sun Cable, Australia has got the potential to really take advantage of the renewable energy economy, not just for Australia, but also for exporting it, too.
ML: Yeah, and just for those who might be watching this, but are not familiar with the sort of energy debate in Australia. This is not about being, this has real consequences and I find it inexplicable you have Australia and you've got cheap coal, you've got cheap gas, you've got so much sun, you've got cheap wind. You've got uranium, you've got I mean literally every single energy resource you could possibly want. Whichever ones you agree with or disagree with, you've got them all. And yet you have some of the most expensive electricity and some of the most fragile grids in the world. It takes real talent, whether it's one political party or whether it's polarization, and who contributed to it. I come in as a visitor, I'm just sort of like, I just call it yourself the lucky country well you're lucky in the resources but not in political delivery, what you do with them?
JD: Yeah look, I'll give you a good example of just how stupid it is. So we have this huge gas resource and we used to have really cheap gas and then nobody voted for this ,right. This was not a government policy, this was not voted on at an election. Suddenly we had LNG and we started exporting gas.
ML: And in a very big way, right? JD: Now, we are the biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world. What is crazy about this is what has the outcome been. Has it been where we're getting billions of dollars a year? No, we're not, we probably get more money from beer royalties than we get from the gas that we're exporting around the world. What we have got is a doubling of household gas prices, because we're being told that, oh no you have to as Australians for Australian gas you have to pay the international price, because our politicians were stupid to not put in place a domestic reserve to ensure, that our businesses kept having cheap gas. We're in a position where overseas companies that are competitive to Australian companies can buy Australian gas cheaper than Australian companies can, and you know the as I said the price of gas domestically has doubled, so prices have dramatically gone up, a lot of businesses have gone out of business. People have lost jobs and as you say, it takes a really special skill to screw up something like that.
ML: So there’s the solution to this, right? Because in the in the aftermath of Covid, the solution to this surely what's called, the gas driven recovery, we'll just… all we have to do is drop, do something to drop those gas prices and then we'll have a big recovery from Covid, isn't that a great solution?
JD: Well, of course it isn't, because if you look at all the major property companies now, who are doing big high-rise office developments, high-rise residential, doing really big housing developments, all of them are planning to do that without any form of natural gas. So they're taking the lead, here we have the property sector in Australia is really progressive. We have the green building council in Australia, who are absolutely fantastic and we're moving away from gas. If you look at where we are going to use gas, we need to be using hydrogen. The potential for green hydrogen, I think in the UK it's probably got better potential, like if you look at Leeds, the city of Leeds. They're looking to replace natural gas with hydrogen within the grid, just as we did when you and I were younger and we went from town gas to North Sea gas. We do have a precedent in switching over entirely the type of gas that we use at a household and business level, and so it makes sense to be thinking about creating green hydrogen and using that where you can, but also exporting it. Liquefied hydrogen, using hydrogen for exporting products, there's just huge opportunities within that space, and in fact Arab and the UK are doing some really interesting stuff on that whole issue of how do you use hydrogen within the economy. I think some bits of that have been overhyped, I can't see hydrogen cars ever taking off, I think electric cars are far further along and just make more sense. I think there's certainly a lot of uses for hydrogen within a hydrogen economy.
ML: Absolutely, and of course I raised the question of the gas driven recovery. In fact, the last thing that I did that involved talking to Australia and Australians was with the Energy Efficiency Council and another great sort of association of business and interests. Actually that brings me to you know, one of the last things I want to raise with you, which is business seems, correct me if I’m wrong, to have really stepped up in Australia in those vacuums. You talked about the states, and I give credit, the states have stepped up, but also business has stepped up and is filling some of those gaps, those hydrogen plans they're not really being promoted primarily at the federal level. They're being promoted primarily from a bunch of businesses and investors in my experience. Have I got that right? Is business filling the gap?
JD: Yeah, you have, and what's been interesting is we've got something for an example of this is Mike Cannon-Brookes, very wealthy billionaire who is the co-founder and coCEO of the software company Atlassian, he's an Australian. Mike's worth billions of dollars and so he has been a fantastic advocate for renewable energy, he's part of RE 100. You and I did an event together in Sydney, where you were speaking and Mike was speaking and I was hosting it and as you know, Mike is a very eloquent advocate for the renewable economy, so what's been interesting, is he's a supporter of Beyond Zero Emissions, which is the best think tank in Australia. When it comes to looking at what the renewable energy-led economy what looks like, what is the benefit to business and they've come up with a one million job plan over five years to look at the different ways in which renewable energy can bring down energy costs to help businesses, to look at how can we retrofit homes to be energy efficient, to have solar on them, to build social housing in a green way. They've come up with a lot of ideas for businesses on green aluminium, green steel and if you look at all the opportunities we have with all the solar and wind in Australia, you know, we can be making this stuff here and adding value instead of just shipping it offshore and let someone else add value to it. There's been a lot of business focus on how can we do that here better in Australia. Mike has also been involved with Sun Cable and this is really interesting for Australia. We're trusted as a country, where if you place an order with us for a certain type of energy you will get that energy guaranteed. We're politically very stable and we're very good at delivering energy to other countries, so Sun Cable is a project that Mike has put money into, Andrew Forrest has also put money into it, he's another billionaire in Australia. The idea is to create a 10 gigawatt solar farm, then basically pipe that energy to a huge battery that's far bigger than anything that's been done to date in Darwin at the top of Australia. Then with a high voltage direct current cable four and a half thousand kilometres of that all the way to Singapore. The idea is that here, in Australia this project could provide 20% to 25% of the power for Singapore, and if you can do Singapore you can also do Indonesia, and you can do other cities in Australia. That's all been led by business, government has not been involved with that, however since businesses kick-started that, since Mike has been talking about it and doing a brilliant job, doing that now it's got a priority status as a government project. So governments are kind of following the lead of business, but I think where things are hopefully will move, is that as those kind of projects prove themselves and certainly renewables have shown that they can bring it down with pressure on energy prices. We need to get government policy working in partnership with business, then we can really move, and the benefits the economy, the benefit to jobs will be very, very significant, indeed. That's what we all want, we want a better society, we want secure jobs and one of the best ways to get out of this whole Covid economy situation that we have now, which has been damaging us so badly around the world. A renewable energy led recovery is absolutely critical. ML: And I’ve written about and spoken about energy, clean energy superpowers, where you've got really cheap wind and really cheap solar and they're either co-located, or you can link them with a HVDC cable, you're going to have the cheapest clean electricity, 70-80% of the time. Then you've got to figure out the other 20%, but the fundamentally, the economics are clean and the economic your that energy system will be cheap. The locations that have that, there's North Africa, there's Australia, there's the Gulf, there's parts of Mexico, Southwest US, parts of China, parts of India… these will be the, these surely ought to be the manufacturing superpowers, because you've got the cheapest electricity. No, it won't just be the cheapest clean electricity, it'll be the cheapest electricity, and I suppose to turn that into a question for you. How do you persuade a sort of business political, I don't want to say clique, but community that has just had a great three, four, five decades selling fossil natural resources and extractive commodities. Are you getting through to them or are they listening those people, or are you talking to all the other parts of business?
JD: Look, I think you have to look at a really good example of a country doing this properly is the UK. You've got the conservative government over there, who have led the way on the phase-out of coal-fired power doing a very, very good job on that. What is important, if you look at the North Sea oil and gas sector, well, how do you transition away from that, Britain provides us with that role model, Britain when it first started doing offshore wind, everyone was criticizing the UK, saying it's crazy, it's too over subsidized, this doesn't make sense. But if you look now at what Britain have done there, the Conservative party have done an absolutely brilliant job on getting hundreds of those offshore wind turbines out there. It's created a whole new industry, communities that could have collapsed post North Sea oil and gas have now got an alternative job, and they found a way to get these very highly skilled people to switch over to offshore wind. What's exciting about that, as you know, is because it's had that government policy support, major companies have now invested in even better wind turbines, so we now have a situation where some of these real mega turbines, just one of them can provide power to 13 to 15 000 houses per turbine. Now if you think about the opportunity for offshore wind around the UK is absolutely enormous, so the potential for the exporting of that technology to places like Australia, we could use offshore wind here but we've also got this huge landmass. We're bigger than Europe here, and yet we've only got 25 million people, a lot of it is desert where you have nonstop sunshine, and lots of areas where we have wind. If we were to do things in the way that the Conservatives have done with offshore wind and apply that to other parts of our economy, I think all of us would do well from following that lead.
ML: It's fabulous to hear, it's very interesting to see the UK story, sort of reflected through the eyes of somebody from overseas, because of course I see the UK almost even though I’m a Conservative and I should just love what you're saying, but I do see the UK almost as an accidental world champion. We have done those extraordinary decarbonization of the shutting down the coal with huge amounts of offshore wind, actually quite a bit of onshore previously and even solar, but there it's a bit patchy. There are still some things we need to work on, I don't want anybody get the impression out there, that this has been either you across the board success on every sector or that it was plain sailing and that everybody's happy with it, and that there isn't push back from segments of the Conservative party or in fact of broader society. We are running out of time, and I actually think that's a whole separate show, to ask the question how come the UK without explicitly having this fantastic sort of political consensus that you might have in Germany or Denmark. We seem to have outperformed so magnificently on delivering, there's definitely elements of luck, and there's elements of accident to it as well. Some things that we did right, the carbon floor price, the mandate to shut down coal the offshore wind and I think a big push into electric vehicles, which is going on currently.
JD: I was just going to mention that, right, so if you think about the solutions, Britain is provided us with the best case study and role model for offshore wind, but then look at electric cars, let's look at Norway. Last month two-thirds of new cars sold in Norway were electric cars, because they've gone and put in place the recharging infrastructure, they've made it easier for people to make that transition and so I think for every problem we have in every economy of the world, somewhere, some government or some business has come up with a solution that makes financial sense. It makes environmental and social sense and so the key thing I think we need to do, and this is the job of people like yourself and myself, and people watching now. We need to find those solutions, communicate them, get them out there to make sure that everyone is aware of it and that's why, for me I’ve got a new series starting, called “Smarter Futures” and the idea is to interview major global business leaders about the sustainability solutions they found and in a compelling, plain English way explain what they've done, how they've done it. So that way people have a resource to find out, if you want to find out more about what the Norwegians have done on electric cars, what the Brits have done on offshore window, a myriad of other solutions, then at least have a good starting point, where people can find out more about it. And then hopefully adapt that and implement it in their own country.
ML: Jon, with that I'd like to thank you, it's always a pleasure to talk to you. It's inspiring, it's informative and it's fun, so I hope we can do this in person after Covid and the pandemic is over. But I'd like to thank you for joining us today, on “Cleaning Up”.
JD: Thanks Michael, thanks for having me, I appreciate it.
ML: So that was Jon Dee joining us from Australia. Founder of charities, media figure communicator around sustainability and the environment, and his core insight that it is businesses that have to be engaged, and their contribution to solving environmental problems has to be celebrated. Next week on “Cleaning Up” we're going to get stuck into the heart of the clean energy transition. My guest is a real visionary for, well, over a decade he's been talking about what happens as photovoltaics, but also other clean energy technologies, other renewables, batteries and so on, get cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, until they pass through a singularity. He teaches at Singularity University, he's also a science-fiction writer, and a brilliant speaker. I'm going to really enjoy talking to Ramez Naam next week, Episode 12 of “Cleaning Up”.