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Greenpeace Australia Pacific: Driving the urgent shift to clean energy

Rainbow Warrior III Open Boat in Sydney Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter in The Australian Business Executive

If you ask the question ‘who is out there protecting the environment’, there’s a good chance that ‘Greenpeace’ will be the first name that springs to mind. The iconic independent global environmental campaigning organisation turns 50 this year – and the mission has never been more crucial.

David Ritter is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, as well as a widely-published author whose most recent book is called The Coal Truth. Prior to joining Greenpeace, Mr Ritter worked in commercial litigation, before becoming one of Australia’s leading native title lawyers. 

2021 has been a huge year for Greenpeace in Australia, with a high-profile federal court win against AGL, and a swag of major clean energy commitments from household names like Bunnings, Coles, Woolworths, and Aldi. Mr Ritter spoke to us about 50 years of Greenpeace, discussing the organisation’s founding mission, his own journey into a socially-minded career, and how Australia can ‘do its bit’ in responding to the global climate crisis.

Magnificent diversity

“Greenpeace was founded in Canada 50 years ago this year,” Mr Ritter says. “The name comes from someone yelling out at a meeting, one of the founders, ‘let’s make it a green peace.’ Even 50 years later, that really speaks to our mission, which is to secure an earth capable of nurturing life in its magnificent diversity.”

It’s a mission that Greenpeace pursues with complete independence, having not taken any financial support from any government or business anywhere in the world in the half century of its existence.

“It really is a precious thing, because it enables us to speak truth to power wherever we are, with the only limitation being what is in the best interests of people and of our beautiful planet Earth. So all of the work that we do goes into that environmental campaigning mission.

It also allows us in our 50th year to look back at the incredible legacy of the individuals and families who have so generously supported us, all over the world, and the impact they’ve personally been able to have in protecting the environment. I’m always particularly moved by the gifts given by way of bequest, by people who decide to leave a gift to Greenpeace in their will as a lasting contribution to the mission of securing the future for life on earth.”

Prior to becoming CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Mr Ritter worked first for Justice Robert French (later Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia), before working as a corporate lawyer in the areas of litigation and Indigenous rights, experiences which gave him valuable experience for the position he holds today.

“I really enjoyed my time as a lawyer, and learned a great deal from some terrific people with whom it was a privilege to work, but I guess I had always had a socially-minded outlook and was deeply committed to doing something with my life about inequality, about sustainability. These things were precious to me.”

Mr Ritter fondly acknowledges that he always had a deep level of respect for Greenpeace, even having a picture of the organisation’s most famous ship, The Rainbow Warrior, on his wall when he was a teenager. Once he became a lawyer he was quick to begin giving a monthly donation to the organisation for which he would later work.

“For a range of reasons I found myself in London in 2007, and I’d pretty much decided that enough was enough being a lawyer, and there was a job for a senior campaigns position with Greenpeace, and for whatever reason they were generous enough to try me out in the role.”

This change in career was a bit of a challenge at first, but Mr Ritter eventually found his place, learning the art of campaigning, and strongly identifying with the strategic focus of the organisation.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter in The Australian Business Executive
With the same drive to create a better planet as it had on its foundation 50 years ago, Greenpeace’s journey has only just started

“In 2012, when the CEO job came up at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, I leapt at the opportunity to apply, and I give thanks every day that I have the opportunity to serve this organisation and this cause that I love.”

The organisation’s fiftieth year happens to fall in the same year that Mr Ritter also hits the half-century mark, and his love for Greenpeace has existed for as long as he can remember. Much of this stems from the core values on which the organisation is founded.

“It is partly the independence, the commitment to peace and to a flourishing world, the joy that the organisation has hardwired into us about nature and the miraculous ability of people to achieve just about anything when we work together, but it’s also an organisation with a proud history of changing the world for the better in really quite profound ways.”

Greenpeace’s impact is evident in a slew of huge real world impacts – usually achieved in strong collaboration with aligned organisations. The conservation of Antarctica, the banning of nuclear testing and drift nets, as well as the preservation of vast forests, and the progress made towards achieving a Global Oceans Treaty are all testimony to the effectiveness of the organisation.

“Most recently, in Australia, Greenpeace, working in collaboration with many other organisations and communities, achieved the protection of our Great Australian Bight and all its incredible marine life and local communities from deep water oil drilling.”

These achievements are worthy of genuine celebration, reminding the world of what can be achieved when people work together, to put their minds to creating these positive outcomes for the environment.

“But in all honesty, we have got to have our best years ahead of us. We are going to do fantastic things over the coming years, because we have to make an urgent transformation of our energy system, of our economy, of our society, to secure an Earth that is capable of nurturing life in all its magnificent diversity.”

As a completely independent organisation, Ritter reflects that the ongoing generosity of individuals that will continue to be vital in enabling Greenpeace to operate. 

“Independence is at the core of our effectiveness, our democratic legitimacy and our business model.”

Mr Ritter has two daughters and often reflects on the criticality of his work to their futures. 

“Leaving a legacy of a better world for my daughters is what makes this work personal for me.” 

Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter in The Australian Business Executive
David Ritter is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, as well as a widely-published author whose most recent book is called The Coal Truth

Australia Pacific

Although Greenpeace is a global network, it must naturally take its priorities from the specific area in which it is working, with operations heavily conditioned by each national or regional geopolitical context. 

“In a place like Australia, Greenpeace is very well known, and although we have a very lean staff, we have roughly 1.2 million people who are part of Greenpeace across all our platforms and networks. It’s a really significant part of the fabric of Australian society.”

The biggest priority in Australia is to do something about the damage being done to the country and the world by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, but also gas and oil, which is the major contribution Australia is making to driving global warming.

“In that context, that’s where it has come to, the work we are doing in Australia to shift major energy-using companies to adopt 100 per cent renewable electricity across their operations by 2025 or sooner.” With a federal government that is lagging behind on climate action on the world stage, it is more critical than ever that business steps in and pushes a clean energy revolution in Australia. This has already started, but we have to put everything we have behind it to make the systems we need change. 

In the course of our REEnergise campaign, I’ve spoken to many business leaders on making the clean energy shift, and their commitments always come down to three things – their financial bottom line (which they’ve always found in the long run will be positively impacted), their stakeholder expectations (both customers and staff now want to buy from or work for an environmentally responsible company that is not contributing to the destruction of our planet) and lastly, a commitment to their family, friends, or a future for our planet (multiple leaders have mentioned, they have kids, and need to sleep at night as well).” 

Greenpeace’s work in the Pacific is a little different. There is a long history in the Pacific, with the most well-known incident being the bombing of The Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985, which came during a Greenpeace campaign against nuclear testing in the Pacific.

“Really our role in the Pacific is to stand with Pacific Island nations and communities to ensure that those voices are as powerful as possible in trying to get the world to act more quickly on reducing emissions, because it is a life and death situation now for the low-lying Pacific Island nations.”

It’s been a huge year for Greenpeace in Australia, with one of its most significant achievements being the organisation’s successful defence of an aggressive law-suit from Australia’s largest electricity generator, AGL, which alleged that Greenpeace had breached copyright and trademark laws by using its logo in a campaign that described the company as the nation’s ‘biggest climate polluter.’ The result was an overwhelming victory for Greenpeace. The presiding Federal Court judge found that Mr Ritter was an “honest and credible witness”. 

“On the positive side of things, the campaign involving companies like Bunnings, Woolworths, Aldi Australia, Coles, Telstra and others, will result in more than 6 million tonnes of carbon emissions being abated per year once the changes have been implemented, thousands of new jobs in renewable energy, and a change in the national narrative around the need for an urgent shift to clean energy.”

Mr Ritter is firmly focussed on the future though. He is insistent about the need for greater progress that is even faster, and the wider benefits that this will bring to the country and the economy. He says it is fundamental that Australia’s largest domestic greenhouse gas emitter, AGL, commit to closing its coal-burning power stations by 2030 at the very latest in line with what climate scientists say is needed for Australia to do its bit to meet the global Paris Climate Targets.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter in The Australian Business Executive
2021 has been a huge year for Greenpeace in Australia, with a high-profile federal court win against AGL, and a swag of major clean energy commitments from household names like Bunnings, Coles, Woolworths, and Aldi

“For other major energy users, there is still a whole lot more that needs to be done to convert their operations to 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2025. Optus needs to match the commitments of Telstra and TPG Telecom, for example, and there are many others out there that we will be calling on to make that shift.”

Severe climate damage, like bushfires, heatwaves and drought, is becoming more frequent. One of Greenpeace’s responsibilities is to highlight the direct connection between the disasters we are experiencing, and the burning of coal, oil and gas which is causing them by being the largest contributors to the climate crisis.

“The longer term vision has the same clarity as the vision did fifty years ago, which is that we want to make it a ‘green peace’. We want to see a flourishing society, driven by the limitless power of renewable energy, a world in which our forests are teeming with life, our oceans are teeming with fish, we have air that is clean and safe for our children to breathe.”

The organisation wants people to look forward optimistically to what the future might bring, but is also making sure that they do not ignore the severe damage that has already been inflicted on the climate.

“It is to have an iron determination that people working together can achieve just about anything, and together as a country, as a community, as a world, we can still see our way through all of this.”

Greenpeace is all about collaboration, and Mr Ritter concludes the interview by stressing just how willing the organisation is to hear from people who might be able to help it achieve its long-term goals. The work of transitioning Australia rapidly to becoming a clean energy economy, society and country, requires the work of many hands. 

“If you’re running a business and you want to have a chat about how to become a part of the solution, let’s have a conversation. If you’re an individual, wherever you might be, and you want to have a conversation about the biggest influence you can have, reach out, because we need all hands on deck.”

With the same drive to create a better planet as it had on its foundation 50 years ago, Greenpeace’s journey has only just started. In Australia, the organisation is clearly in good hands. Find out more about Greenpeace Australia Pacific by visiting www.greenpeace.org.au.

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