Billionaire climate activist may target more major polluters with green campaigns

Mike Cannon-Brookes at TEDxSydney 2017. Credit: TEDxSydney via Flickr

Billionaire climate crusader Mike Cannon-Brookes could target more major polluters with weak plans to curb emissions after forcing a strategy overhaul at Australian utility AGL Energy Ltd.

Several companies that rank as key sources of greenhouse gas emissions lack detailed proposals to meet their pledges on climate action, while others tout net-zero goals that fall short of recognized standards, Cannon-Brookes said in an interview.

Repeating his tactic with AGL of becoming a leading investor and pushing for changes “is certainly one of the tools I would go for” with other polluters, the Atlassian Corp. co-founder said at his firm’s new R&D center in Bangalore. “If the opportunity makes sense, if the company is not going in the right direction and offers a large opportunity,” similar action could be taken, Cannon-Brookes said.

Firms including some of the top 10 polluters in his native Australia are failing to set out plans to deal with Scope 3 emissions — those caused by a customer’s use of products or services, like a power plant burning a miner’s coal exports — and others have goals that don’t align with the United Nations-based Science Based Targets initiative. “I could write most of their net zero plans on the back of an envelope,” Cannon-Brookes said.

Cannon-Brookes declined to identify any specific potential targets.

Australia’s fourth-richest person has used his wealth, social media following and influence with global notables like Elon Musk to lobby for far stronger climate action from companies and governments. A 2017 online bet with Musk prompted Tesla Inc. to install the-then world’s biggest battery farm in South Australia, an action that helped catalyze the energy storage sector.

Cannon-Brookes has often insisted his campaigning is his nights-and-weekend job. “I’m not saying I’m going to go off and become a full-time corporate activist,” he said in the interview.

The entrepreneur has amassed a fortune estimated at north of $17 billion largely on the back of his 22% slice of Atlassian, a developer of collaboration software. Cannon-Brookes said he used a credit card to borrow $10,000 to launch the company in 2002, building a business with a current market value of about $58 billion in a country more traditionally known for birthing energy and mining juggernauts.

Since late 2021 however, Atlassian has run afoul of a global sell-off in richly valued tech stocks as a post-pandemic hangover and mounting macroeconomic uncertainty forced a flight to safety.

AGL, a 185-year-old utility that’s one of Australia’s biggest polluters, was in May forced to abandon a strategy that would’ve kept coal-fired power plants running for about two more decades after Cannon-Brookes became the firm’s top shareholder and demanded changes. It’s among the most successful recent examples of investor-led activism and follows the move last year by fund Engine No. 1 to have three climate-conscious directors voted onto the board of Exxon Mobil Corp.

A plan to “refresh and reinvigorate” AGL is in place, including changes to its board, management and efforts to accelerate decarbonization, Cannon-Brookes said, without elaborating. His Grok Ventures family office, now the firm’s top shareholder, hasn’t finalized who will take up a board seat. AGL rose as much as 1.8% in Sydney trading on Tuesday.

Atlassian, which has hit a goal to run its operations on 100% renewable electricity, has set science-based targets to cut its carbon pollution, including Scope 3 emissions. The company is also working with suppliers including Amazon Web Services Inc. to align them with its target of hitting net zero by 2040, Cannon-Brookes said.

Grok Ventures, which has backed firms including solar technology developer SunDrive Solar, is continuing to study more investments in energy, agriculture and transportation, he said. Cannon-Brookes also sees potential in grid infrastructure needed to transport energy over long distances. “I’m very bullish on high voltage DC cables,” he said.

The A$30 billion ($21 billion) Sun Cable project, backed by Cannon-Brookes and iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest, aims to export solar power from Australia’s Outback to Singapore via a 4,200-kilometer (2,600-mile) high-voltage undersea cable.

Before the end of the decade, the tech developer and wife Annie Cannon-Brookes aim to spend an additional $1.5 billion of their personal wealth on efforts to speed up climate action.

The couple will devote “at least $500 million in philanthropy and at least another billion dollars toward investments in sustainability,” he said. “My money is out the door in eight years. I’m not building a big foundation and having money sit there.”

(By Saritha Rai and David Stringer)

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