Most Influential Projects 2021

11 Regenerate Australia

Climate Action | Asia Pacific
A koala being released into the wild

For protecting an iconic ecosystem with a future-proofing climate plan

The devastation of the 2019-2020 bushfires in Australia was overwhelming: up to 19 million hectares (47 million acres) scorched, nearly 3 billion animals killed or displaced, and 434 million metric tons of carbon dioxide blasted out into the area’s delicate ecosystem. 

“It was a window into the climate future that nobody wanted,” said Dermot O’Gorman, CEO of conservation group WWF-Australia. “The images that we all saw were really Armageddon type.”

Even in the middle of a pandemic, the group recognized that kind of environmental reckoning demanded a response—and kicked off what it proclaims the “largest and most innovative wildlife recovery and landscape regeneration program in Australia’s history.” 

Launched in October 2020 with hopes to raise AU$300 million over five years, Regenerate Australia aims to rebuild the ecosystem: doubling the number of koalas on the country’s east coast by 2050, rebuilding forests and rewarding renewable energy production achievements to make the country more resilient to future crises. But to become a true catalyst for change, O’Gorman’s team also searched for innovative solutions and developed strategic partnerships with future-focused investors, councils, communities, universities, corporations and think tanks. The objective: Establish bold targets and scalable models. 

“We didn’t just want to put back what was here,” O’Gorman said. “We wanted to regenerate what was lost and futureproof Australia against other climate disasters.”

Seeding a Rebirth

To help restore the 12.6 million hectares (31.1 million acres) of forest and bushland destroyed by the fire, Aussie startup AirSeed Technologies is deploying drones that can shoot 40,000 eucalyptus seed pods into the ground per day, then monitor growth through artificial intelligence (AI). The tech is designed to help achieve the goal of planting and protecting 2 billion trees by 2030 and could become a next-gen solution for rapid reforestation around the world. AirSeed co-founder and CEO Andrew Walker called the technology “a tool in the arsenal to combat biodiversity loss and climate change.”

The tree-planting initiative is part of a broader strategy to ensure landholders, farmers, Indigenous communities, businesses and government agencies work together to make Australia a global reforestation leader by 2030, O’Gorman said. “Australia’s forests are our shared heritage and our legacy, and we all have a part to play in saving and restoring them for future generations of people and nature.”

Those forests also provide essential food and habitat for native creatures, including the koalas, but 61,000 were killed, injured or displaced during the bushfires, per WWF-Australia. To nurture a koala comeback, the organization aims to fund local wildlife hospital upgrades, establish a mobile veterinary response unit and build a state-of-the-art hospital for Australia’s injured wildlife.

WWF-Australia is dialing up the innovation, too, providing AU$1.32 million for nine projects to develop, test or scale solutions. For example, a team at University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland is working on solar-powered ear tags with very high frequency technology that will help scientists track koalas from a longer range. Another team at Macquarie University in Sydney made portable pods that could give koalas a place to hide as fire encroaches on their natural habitats.

“It brings ideas that are out of the box or left field, from people who see things in a different way, from other perspectives that we’re unable to see,” said Darren Grover, head of healthy land and seascapes, WWF-Australia. “They need a little bit of funding to take them from that idea stage through to reality, and that’s what makes it exciting to support these creative thinkers.”

A Call to Action

Determined to tackle one of the root causes of wildfires around the world, WWF-Australia is also taking a climate-change moon shot: turn Australia into the world’s leading exporter of renewable energy by 2030.

Through a combination of wind, solar and hydroelectric projects, Australia was generating 21 percent of electricity from renewable sources in 2019, but O’Gorman’s team wants the public and private sectors to think bigger and imagine a zero-carbon future. 

To get there, they’ve set some ambitious goals, including meeting 100 percent of national electricity needs through renewable sources. Plans also call for building enough surplus hydrogen and solar energy that it can be sold to countries in Southeast Asia.

Hitting those targets would spur massive job growth. And those economic projections are helping O’Gorman’s team galvanize support for the energy transformation. In 2020, governments across Australia invested more than AU$7 billion in clean energy projects as part of their COVID-19 recovery stimulus measures, according to WWF’s renewable energy report card. Queensland, for example, appointed its first minister for renewables and hydrogen, and pledged AU$500 million for state-owned renewable projects.  

“They now see it as an opportunity to improve nature and lives,” O’Gorman said.

The private sector is jumping on board, too. More than 100 companies have thrown support behind the initiative. And O’Gorman’s team is collaborating with policymakers and financial markets to create carbon-offset credit incentives that can be stacked to make private investments more attractive.

The disruptive approach to climate change and bushfire restoration is an extension of WWF-Australia’s organizational transformation that began six years ago. To ensure mutual benefits for all stakeholders, teams were retrained in areas like design thinking and collaboration. As a result, teams responded with greater agility.

“WWF will continue to advocate for policies that benefit both people and nature,” O’Gorman said. “That is how we will restore what has been lost, and ensure we build back a more resilient Australia.”  

Listen to WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman explain how the organization is working to become more innovative and agile.

About five years ago as an organization—in Australia and globally—we realized that the scale of the challenges that we are facing are so, so large that we needed to adopt a much more innovation-focused approach. So here in Australia, we created something called Panda Labs, which is our innovation platform and have spent the last five years both reskilling the organization with design thinking capabilities but also reconfiguring the organization itself. Part of what we've been doing through Regenerate Australia is to continue that journey to make us much more of an innovation organization and an agile one. This is the interesting part for me as the CEO is that everybody says at the moment, “I'm an innovation organization. I'm becoming much more agile.” But the thinking through what that means and what’s the change process for the organization to be able to still maintain the project management skills—which have been a foundation for WWF for 60 years because they're super important in delivering the outcomes—but marrying those with ideation, design thinking. 

I like to say we're very typical of a more established organization going through an innovation process. So lots of stuff we have done on innovation. We bought an innovation platform four or five years ago. It didn't really work because we didn't have the ecosystem and the capabilities around it to use it properly. So we had to go back and invest a whole lot of skills and capability building before we could come back to it. 

One of the tests has been during the bushfires in terms of being much more agile. In a two-day period, we pivoted the whole organization and within eight weeks had got about AU$6 million allocated into bushfire-affected communities in that January, February, March period last year. And then we continued to do that in lockdown. So I think it was an indication that that team are becoming much more agile.