Interview with Robert Purves

Part of our Global Sustainability Leaders Inteview Archive, this interview dates from 2011

Interview with Robert Purves AM is President of WWF Australia

As part of our series of Global Sustainability Leader Interviews, ALLEN & YORK were privileged to speak with, Robert Purves AM about how he became involved in Sustainability and what he believes are the major environmental challenges facing Australia over the next 20 years.

Robert Purves AM is President of WWF Australia, a founding member of The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, a Director of Earth Hour Global, a Patron of the Lizard Island Research Station and a Governor of Australian Youth Climate Coalition. He is also the former Chair of Sustainable Business Australia (SBA), a prominent businessman and champion for conservation and the environment.

1.     How did you become interested in Sustainability?

As a youngster I was interested in natural science, my mother’s family were from the bush and I was interested in studying Zoology at University.  However, it didn’t pan out like that, I took a different path and studied business at University, but I have always held a keen interest in Environmental Science and returned to it later in life.

In my 40s I started volunteering/ working  for the WWF and began, in effect, to run a second career within the environmental sector.  From there I have become involved with and founded a number of strategic groups, working to affect change within Australian environmental policy.

2.     In your view, is it more important to engage with government or the business community to drive forward the environmental agenda?

Business is the best at affecting change, but unfortunately we haven’t seen a CEO of a large corporate step forward to champion sustainability /environment issues, as yet. 

Regrettably, environmental and climate change issues have become highly politicised throughout Australia and the introduction of a ‘carbon tax’ is seen by some as being a anti free enterprise system. The newly elected government have announced that they will bring forward the move from the ‘carbon tax’ to a market-based emissions trading scheme and I see this as a sensible decision. 

I work with young environmental professionals within the corporate business world and I find business managers are listening to them more and more.  These young people are important influencers for the future and I anticipate they will continue to effect and mobilise change within individual companies.

3.     What skills will be most in demand in the Environmental sector going forward?

I think this has changed and evolved into a combination of science and environmental law.  It is important for environmental professionals to have a good scientific understanding; this is the bedrock for many environmentalists entering the Australian jobs market today.  Coupled with this, I see a growing demand for an understanding of the law and how the legal system works. In this way environmental professionals are more equip to influence and affect change within environmental policy.

4.     What are the main Environmental challenges for Australia for moving forward?

There are 3 main areas of Environmental focus for Australia;

Environmental Protection 
There are ongoing discussions about the best way to reform the 10 year old Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, most notably, how  to transfer environmental approval powers to individual states and territories in an attempt to ‘cut green tape’.  I believe this would be a terrible decision for many reasons; it would be more difficult to have consistency in environmental standards, there are potential funding issues for smaller states and systems could become more not less bureaucratic.  I believe it is essential to keep the environmental protection of Australia firmly on the federal government’s agenda. 

Climate Change
Australia like all major economies, needs to address its emissions and re-engineer it's power sector. If any country can move to 100 percent renewable power it must be Australia given its abundance of sun and wind .

The Great Barrier Reef
Half the reef has died through a combination of factors including; pollutant run-off, warming waters, dredging and impact of clearing and development .  The damage is so dramatic that UNESCO has warned that the reef could end up on its list of ‘World Heritage in Danger’ which is essentially a list of shame and would be disastrous for Australia.  Arresting and reversing the decline of the Great Barrier Reef has to be a major priority for Australia going forward.

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