Bridging the gulf between sustainability and speed of policy change takes a hands-on approach. Stuart White isn’t afraid of getting dirty.

As the Director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) at the University of Technology, Sydney, Stuart White, BsC, PhD is leading new generations of researchers into some of the most challenging territory they may ever traverse: the intersection of community, industry, and government.

As societal inequality grows, as political divides deepen, and as nations leisurely ponder the impact of climate change and other hot-button issues, the discrepancy between the need to save the planet and the need to empower its people is widening. The ISF seeks to mend that rift through project-based research and advocacy, and concentrating on the practicalities of building truly sustainable futures.

An expert in least-cost planning methodology, White is bringing the message of structural efficiency to the oft-opposing worlds of citizenship, industry, and government. We recently spoke to him about the business practicalities of creating sustainable futures, especially when it comes to communicating messages across varied interests.

“When you work with ordinary people they tend to recognize the importance of the transition from fossil fuels,” he told VENTURE. “They agree on the objectives, but they might disagree on the way of getting there. We have taken many innovative approaches to community engagement where we use random selection, we bring people together, and we discuss key issues of public policy including energy and climate change, and you take what people think.

“What you tend to find is that probably less than two percent of people are hostile to the view that we need to do something about human-induced climate change. They don’t have much information and therefore don’t have a particularly strong view.

“But when you can sit and discuss innovative processes with randomly selected citizens, you find the people don’t necessarily have a great deal of information. They do have a fantastic capacity for judgment when they are given the information in a way that enables them to take off their hat of self-interest, and put on a hat of being a center of the community. That applies to ordinary citizens and to the C-suite, so the question is, ‘Why are we having trouble reaching people if that’s the case?’”

The answer comes from one of the biggest bugaboos in business: decision-making silos.

“We’ve got a lot of institutional practices and policy areas that prevent the right thing from happening. Ironically, we have a set of rules in part because of historical impact of money and power on our political system. It tends to make us do the wrong thing, not the right thing,” White mused.

“There’s also a lot of disillusionment. We are starting to see cynicism about healthy processes and authority. To get through that we need a more active citizenry, we need to have some of the people who have power in the system help to break down those policy barriers and institutional barriers how to make way for a fairer and, ironically more market-oriented response.

“We actually need to make sure we have a counter to the vested interests, the institutional actors that support the fossil fuel industry. That will give people some hope. It will allow more innovative thinking, so we will get more solutions through both from innovative startups and new businesses, but also it will have more empowered citizenry to say, ‘Well, this is what I want to do, so let me have access to some of those resources.’ We’re seeing it happen. We’re seeing that through startups. As soon as you change the policy landscape then you get flourishing opportunities for rapid change.”

Sustainability and Justice For All

“In order to give up fossil fuels as soon as possible we cannot only focus on renewable energy,” White stressed. “In fact, the cheapest, quickest, and the largest contribution to getting off fossil fuels will come from quiet achievement, which is energy efficiency.”

Efficiency is a main theme of White’s current work, and for good reason: It works, and it resonates with business leaders. “The only way that renewables can achieve what they have to achieve is doing what we call efficiency first. The role of demand response or peak demand management in managing the balance of supply and demand of the electricity system is extremely important for the climate as well. There are three things: efficiency, peak demand management, and renewable energies, applied in that order.

“There’s hardly a week that goes by where there’s a major media outlet that’s not talking about what has been known as the ‘trilemma:’ affordability, reliability, and sustainability of our energy supply. Mostly electricity. But of course it also applies to other sources as well. What we tend to say is this is so easily converted to a trifecta, where you can get a win-win-win on all three of those.

“The way you can do this is by looking at the process of what we call the just transition. How do we transition the energy system in a way that recognizes the importance of equity, and the importance of maintaining effective social justice? There’s absolutely a way to do this.” Unquestionably, the immediate conversion to renewables could provide good financial results, but there’s a lack of practicality in the approach.

“If we have a transition that is the quickest, cheapest way to start this journey to improving efficiency beyond which is already happened in places like California. … If we do efficiency and demand response first, this will already be cheaper than supplying electricity through fossil fuels. So it will save money. We can use those funds to then invest in a renewable future. It doesn’t make it cost more if you do it that way. If you just do renewables alone without paying attention to efficiency, then sure you will in certain circumstances pay more.”

The question in the balance is one of social justice, specifically, how to recognize the equitable distribution of energy resources. “Consumers have traditionally been left out the equation. Energy companies have been focused on producing a commodity, charging for it, and when the end-user can’t pay, services are cut off, or the customer is put on a welfare program.

“We need a consumer-centric energy system that pays attention to customers, with processes in place to ensure that less well-off customers have access to renewables rather than just the wealthy.”

One of the ISF’s most recent endeavors, Social Access Solar Gardens, brings the energy saving benefits of solar power to people who don’t actually own a roof on which to set photovoltaic (PV) panels. A solar garden is a centralised solar array that utility customers can purchase or lease. The electricity generated by the panels is credited to the customer’s power bill, just as it would be if the panels were sitting on the roof of their dwelling. The program united the government of New South Wales with utility providers, council estates, and community agencies to create the solution.

White recognizes the driving force of budgetary concerns in decision-making, for good or ill. “Things are either cheaper or more expensive overall. In economic terms that’s the cost of allocating efficiency. But if something is cheaper, is it distributed fairly? Will it impact harder on the less well-off? That’s distribution efficiency. We need to look at those issues.

“Unfortunately, we don’t even look at the first one let alone the second one. Our policy and decision-making often neglects the fact that a sustainable energy future, or clean energy future, if it follows efficiency first approach, is actually more economically efficient,” he affirmed. “That’s all very well, but does it fall fairly and recognize justice? Part of that is about the consumer, and even about small businesses, but part of it is also about the structural change for the better but there are still families that get left behind.”

In their report, “Ruhr or Appalachia: Deciding the future of Australia’s coal power workers and communities,” the team at UNSW Sydney’s Industrial Relations Research Centre observed, “The Appalachian region in the United States is a heart-breaking story of industry transition characterised by short-term, reactive, and fragmented responses to closures of coal mines, resulting in entrenched, intergenerational poverty and social dysfunction. Compare this with the transition away from a heavy reliance on coal mining in Germany’s Ruhr region, where forward planning, investment in industry diversification, staggering of mine closures and a comprehensive package of just transition measures delivered a major reshaping of the regional economy with no forced job losses.”

White pointed to the successful transitions in the Ruhr Valley as well as in Australia’s Hunter Valley wine region, once a center for coal-fired plants. “We’ve been through this before in other industries. Through the changes in the defense sector in the United States in the 1990s, for example, we’ve got a lot of experience and how to do just transitions in a regional sense with new pilot programs, and changes of industry so that the Ruhr Valley will now actually have high-tech industry starting to be populated, and governments and universities are getting behind new innovations to transition those Industries and their workers.”

The common issues of justice and preservation fuel White’s passion for making changes that yield practical and sustainable results. “All of these issues are interlinked,” he posited. “When we started looking at energy over here I said we need to look at resource use, then we started talking about greenhouse and started taking a look at food and fire. Issues close to my heart are more about the approach to how we grapple with sustainability, looking at the demand side, and the decision-making processes that go into the policies around it.

“Whatever demands we’re talking about, whether it’s energy, transportation, or waste, we should ask, ‘What is the service the people are needing? What is the functional unit? What is the question?’ Rather than saying we’ve got an answer, we say, ‘What was the question again?’

“How do people get to have cold beers and warm houses? There are many ways to supply that, but efficiency is the cheapest, quickest, and largest one … the issues that are closest to my heart are the way we think about infrastructure and the way we’re thinking about the things we use.” That’s the best way to design and build a bridge to a lasting, sustainable, healthier future for all.