21/05/2008 - 22:00

Passion for the environment a driving force

21/05/2008 - 22:00


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Former Liberal senator Ian Campbell is an unlikely eco-warrior but his track record since leaving federal parliament last year definitely has a green tinge, albeit with a very corporate approach.

Committed: Former environment minister Ian Campbell (right) has taken on a number of environmentally focused roles in the private sector.

Former Liberal senator Ian Campbell is an unlikely eco-warrior but his track record since leaving federal parliament last year definitely has a green tinge, albeit with a very corporate approach.

With his background as federal environment minister it may seem obvious that Mr Campbell could capitalise on that experience, especially coming from the conservative side of the political divide.

But the ex-Howard government cabinet member is clearly very passionate about environmental issues and has immersed himself in pursuits that are not all necessarily in keeping with someone of Liberal pedigree.

Of his public gestures, joining the advisory board of a hard-core antiwhaling group is certainly the most extreme and unusual.

Mr Campbell admits that the move, announced in January, raised eyebrows and did not necessarily go down well some of those close to him.

But he doesn't shy away from the move, believing that Sea Shepherd's militant approach to anti-whaling helped halve the expected kill during the recent season.

Mr Campbell said Sea Shepherd was merely an extension of the policy he claims to have brought back to life as environment minister, after a long period of stagnation and a lack of action internationally.

"As environment minister I tried to create a sense of urgency and alarm among the countries that were on our side," he said.

He does not accept any of the arguments put forward by whaling nations such as Japan or Norway that whales could end up becoming too numerous for their own good.

And he is clearly appalled by the brutality of the kill, with no quick method having yet been devised.

"There is no humane way to kill a whale," Mr Campbell said, then with a degree of intensity outlines the details, such as the average time of death (seven minutes) and the cause (they drown).

The invitation to join Sea Shepherd came directly from its leader Paul Watson, whom Mr Campbell said he had got to know quite well through the environment portfolio.

Clearly, an environment minister makes a different class of friends than in other more industry focused portfolio.

However, it's not all about placing oneself, albeit metaphorically, in front of a Japanese harpoon.

Mr Campbell has built up a small portfolio of corporate roles, most with an environmental feel, except perhaps his directorship of Henderson shipbuilder Austal Ltd.

For instance, he is also on the board of Australian Securities Exchangelisted minnow Solco Ltd.

While that Welshpool-based company had something of a firebrand beginning, launched as a developer of solar water pumping technology with a view to helping people in the third world, these days it's far more conservative.

It currently sits in the usually staid utilities sector with its earning power centred mainly around solar water heaters.

Solco is under new leadership and reviewing its options, though Mr Campbell suggests the solar focus will remain.

Less well known is another environmentally focused venture, called AusCarbon Pty Ltd, a Nedlands-based newcomer to the carbon sequestration game run by Denis Watson, who has also recruited pastoralist Ken Broad to his board.

While there is a clear link to his work on developing a carbon trading system during his ministerial days, joining a start-up like AusCarbon is a less obvious step than some of the many more established players on both sides of the emissions fence.

Mr Campbell is a big fan of market leader CO2 Australia, founded with the backing of Ian Trahar, which he said lobbied hard over years to encourage the establishment of the regulatory system.

There are also numerous big energy producers and users who would want an ex-minister such as Mr Campbell on their board.

Another unlikely element of AusCarbon is its strategy.

And again, the passionate environmentalist emerges when Mr Campbell discusses this company.

While others in this distinct sector plan to plant particular species in rows - CO2 is focused on oil mallees - AusCarbon's plan is to use native trees and plant them in a way that reflects the original environment to

recreate a natural forest.

"The model is to plant indigenous species back into the area," Mr Campbell said.

He believes the growth rates of the species native to the area are very well known and even the undergrowth will have a carbon value that will be marketable.

AusCarbon has just settled on its first property, a 2,500-hectare farm near Canna in the far reaches of the northern Wheatbelt, an area where falling rainfall levels have left agriculture struggling to survive.

The company plans to buy additional properties over the next 18 months, returning most of the land to forest and keeping any remaining arable portions for agriculture.

"We don't want to compete with agricultural land, the land we are looking at was more than marginal," Mr Campbell said.

Companies sequestering carbon in this manner typically enter joint ventures with emitters who want to offset their emissions.

Mr Campbell said the forestry venture was devised as interim step towards a much bigger development - measuring the vast amounts of carbon that can be stored in soils.

"This was recognised in Kyoto but the trouble is how do you measure it?" he said.

"They (AusCarbon) were trying to find a way to effectively and costefficiently measure soil carbon.

"There is better cash flow to be in tree planting.

That is where it (the company) has gone, to provide cash flow to develop soil carbon."


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