Science Direct: Maria Atkinson

Maria Atkinson is the Global Head of Sustainability for the Lend Lease Corporation and a member of the Climate Change Council. She is one of our featured experts on Climate Change.

Maria Atkinson

 © Maria Atkinson

General/personal questions:

  1. What did you want to be when you grew up? I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. My girlfriends all seemed to know what they would become - a nurse, a journalist, a teacher - but me, well I kept changing my mind. When I was in high school I wanted to be a lawyer - that was until I did work experience in a courthouse and realised it wasn't for me. Then I wanted to be a scientist - although I am qualified as Laboratory Technician and Environmental Scientist - I don't actually work in a lab or practice as scientist. When I travel overseas and the governments ask what is your occupation .... I just write Manager!
  2. The idea/s that changed my life was/were...two come to mind. After backpacking around the world which included visiting the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin first wrote of his natural selection theory which is that species can adapt to their environment, and those that do, survive. Travelling reinforced that our physical environment has been abused and it needs solutions that engage and motivate people to take real long-term actions to restore it. I also learnt from a short period of time working in a sport marketing company that good communication and networks help bring about change. So thanks to many people, my role as a spokesperson for greening the buildings in our cities and towns has been effective and this has changed my life because this is what I'm now paid to do globally.
  3. I'm always being asked about...What is sustainability? And why does it always appear to be across everything! My answer is that it is everything and the reason we now have courses and job titles that say Sustainability Manager is because if People, Planet, Profit all had an equal share of consideration in decision making and actions - the world would be a better place.
  4. My worst job has been...my job as a lab technician included feeding a pooh farm to keep microbiological cultures alive, inoculating tins of peas with deadly microbes for experiments, dissecting rats for students - I've also worked as a waitress and shop assistant - but my worst job was working as a young and inexperienced environmental consultant for an engineering organisation. I say this because as a consultant I felt I couldn't influence change - I also hated keeping 15 minute time sheets! Value shouldn't be measured in time but outcomes.
  5. I often wonder...when everyone will make a change to restore the planet back to being healthy again - what will cause people to reduce and ultimately avoid waste and emissions. When will we all understand and connect with what has gone into creating things and in doing so understand that we shouldn't dispose of anything. When will we realize that we are part of nature and that it can teach us so much to allow us to adapt and live long, healthy lives. When? I hope that I live long enough to see this change.
  6. The best thing about my job is...every day is different and yet every day something brings us closer to the moment of real change. The best thing about my job is the contribution I make to change.
  7. The hardest thing about my job is...fitting everything in, and taking time to learn from the day's experience so that I grow as a person and use this to seed something new and good in myself, people and the environment. We know that our industry's profligate use of resources cannot continue. That's why we have stepped up our efforts to research new solutions, technologies and materials, and to improve our efficiency across our business operations. As an industry leader, we are also calling for action from governments, competitors and partners. Only by harnessing our collective intelligence, creativity and humanity can we contribute to a healthier planet for all.
  8. The hardest thing about my job... is being tolerant.

Climate change specific questions

  1. What climate change means for me personally is...we are moving away from relying on economists to tell us what the future means based on past trends and inviting Scientists to use their holistic and interconnected understanding of systems to predict the best and worst case future. In listening to their advice Climate change means for me personally that Australia will have severe storms and there will be wild temperature variances. Australia's response to climate change requires three areas of action: mitigation - to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; adaptation - to prepare for impacts that are now unavoidable and research to understand, monitor and predict the earth's changing climate. For me personally climate change means and increase the severity and frequency of many natural disasters, such as bushfires, cyclones, hailstorms and floods. An increase in the frequency and severity of drought conditions will reduce the availability of water. My family may be impacted by heat-related deaths and a higher incidence of disease from food and water-borne contaminants or a home that is put at risk from rising sea levels and changes in storm surge. I or my children might never see ecologically rich sites, such as the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu Wetlands and the Australian Alps.
  2. Climate change affects my work by... the built environment determines our quality of life. It provides our homes, schools, shops, offices, libraries, museums, hospitals and parks, and the infrastructure on which we depend. But the built environment is currently responsible for 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions - buildings in cities because of their use of electricity and gas are responsible for about 80% of a cities carbon footprint. Buildings also consume a third of the world's limited resources and generate millions of tonnes of waste each year. And there's the rub: we design, develop and build buildings - so we are very much part of what is going wrong. The facts are grim, but working for a leading property company, we are committed to safeguarding our global environment for future generations to enjoy. Instead of blithely continuing to be net users of the earth's natural capital, we have started to measure our carbon and ecological footprint. And for the past 12 months, we've been tracking our environmental impacts across our organisation by measuring our use of energy and water, our greenhouse gas emissions and our waste. We will soon start to measure our impact on human health, biodiversity and resource depletion.
  3. My work may affect how we respond to climate change by...We accept the compelling business case for green buildings. We know that building and managing green makes sense from a risk management perspective. They also provide healthier, more productive environments for their occupants. We recognise that being green is about more than just being energy efficient, or water efficient. It is also about indoor environment quality, waste reduction and management, the materials used, management of an asset, land use and ecological impacts, access to alternative transport and also avoiding harmful emissions. Lend Lease accepts the consensus of the global scientific community that climate change is real and that its impact is likely to be significant. We therefore advocate that action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change, must start now. Our business operations have taken huge strides forward in our goal to be zero net carbon, water and waste as a minimum. We are not there yet, but with nearly 1,000 professionals trained in Green Building rating tools, more than a third of them are accredited, we have a vast pool of technical expertise across the world to blend sustainable environmental solutions into the planning and operation processes of all our projects. Our creativity is one of the most responsible resources we have. We are constantly evolving our thinking and we are determined to act with integrity by respecting local ecosystems. Sustainable solutions demand holistic thinking, so we have joined forces with industry, government and other key stakeholders so that together we can tackle the significant environmental, social and economic challenges of our time. My work is both contributing to climate change and yet it is also a solution to reduce the catastrophic effects of climate change.
  4. What I would say to climate change skeptics is... I'm not willing to gamble with a future that the experts are telling us is grim. There is no downside for taking decisive and early action. If we reduced our emissions in cities by 50% through making our buildings more energy and water efficient - we would have more jobs, more innovation a skilled workforce, cleaner air, healthy buildings and more productive and healthier people - we'd all have more resources and so would future generations ... with the planet being restored so would we be.
  5. What I would say to you about what you can do about climate change is...make your home energy efficient now. Work in a green building, shop in a green store, study in a green school. Make a real and long-term difference to the environment by doing something different every day and help everyone else to change too. Demand that any economic stimulus also brings benefit to people and the planet - governments should be greening homes with their social and first home buyers package, schools and healthcare facilities. We have the technology today to make buildings 100% more efficient than they are. You need to demand green buildings everywhere now.
  6. What I think Australia can do is...develop a cap and trade scheme for buildings. This would mean that each year an owner of a non-residential building - office, shop, hospital, school, public or industrial building, calculates the total greenhouse gas emissions for each building - including both onsite fuel consumption and emissions from purchased electricity - using fuel bills and official greenhouse gas coefficients. These total emissions are then divided by net lettable area to derive efficiency or emissions intensity figures in tonnes of greenhouse gas per square metre, so that large inefficient buildings aren't inadvertently rewarded. Then these figures are then compared to a predetermined cap or trajectory which is set in advance by government and basically the building's avoided emissions or excess emissions are calculated. Once we do this carbon credits or penalties which are called 'Permits' would then be allocated or acquitted respectively. We would have a carbon trading scheme for non-residential buildings with juicy carrots for energy efficient and penalties or sticks for inefficient ones. This idea would provide:
    • 46,000 new high skilled, permanent jobs
    • Grow Australian businesses through high value services for export, and development of innovative technologies, practices and products
    • Get our buildings weatherised against climate change
    • Make us more productive
    • Improve our health - less sick days of around 40%, and reduced healthcare costs $1.5b each year
    • Reduce and in many cases avoid the need for upgrades and maintenance of energy infrastructure


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