Complex climate

Jo Evans

12 minute read

Since completing a combined bachelor degree in Asian Studies and Economics (Honours) from The Australian National University (ANU), alumna Jo Evans has secured senior roles in several key portfolios. Earlier this year, she was appointed Deputy Secretary in the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, and leads the implementation of the Australian government’s climate change policy.

She is also on the Board of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), and works closely with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Climate Change Authority, the Clean Energy Regulator and the Wind Farm Commissioner.

In 2009-10, Jo was a member of the advisory board that developed the report Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for Reform of Australian Government Administration. Prior to joining the Australian Public Service (APS), she worked for management consultants McKinsey & Company.

In this interview, Jo shares her corporate and public-service experiences, the evolving complexities of climate change and how her ANU degree prepared her for her career.

Q. Can you tell us about your career path and what drives your interest in the field of climate change?

I started my career as a Business Analyst with McKinsey & Company, which provided me with an excellent foundation of skills in problem-solving and strategy development. I had an Economics degree and an Asian Studies degree from ANU, but McKinsey recruits from all disciplines. What they are looking for is people who think creatively and logically, and who naturally look for evidence to support their advice. I worked on a diverse range of issues and industries in the time I was with them, from the creative arts through to heavy industrial manufacturing and mining. It instilled in me a high regard for values-based organisations.

From there, my career followed people. I worked with some McKinsey colleagues on an internet start-up in the late 1990s, which gave me insights into what a start-up culture feels like and the kind of issues a newly developing and rapidly changing business might face. After a couple of years there, I reached a point where I could sift through all the different types of industries and issues I had worked on and decide to focus on a particular area. I was keen to work with resource companies and on environmental impacts, so I went back to university to gain some expertise in environmental science, specifically environmental modelling. This eventually led me to working with the Australian Greenhouse Office on projecting greenhouse-gas emissions for the Australian economy and starting to work on climate policy.  

The APS is a strongly values-based organisation and has such a compelling mission – to get the best outcomes for Australians. Like many people, I originally joined the public service thinking it would be for a short time, but what I found is an organisation with many highly talented and well-educated people from a variety of backgrounds, who thought deeply about critical issues and wanted to work with the Government to solve them. I had found my long-term career. Within the APS, I have again worked on a range of issues – not just environmental policies – but it is fair to say I have spent a long time working on climate change.

Climate policy is probably one of the most complex policy issues of our generation – with many trade-offs needed between the way we have traditionally lived and worked, and the significant impacts on society we are striving to avoid. It pulls together technology developments that are new and an understanding of existing businesses, and what can or cannot be readily changed. It draws in sociological issues about how people understand complex and vast challenges, and how fast societies are willing or able to adapt to change. It has international and negotiating dimensions and very sharp political edges. This makes it challenging but fascinating, and there are many people I work with who, like me, have now worked in this area for a long time.

Climate change has international and negotiating dimensions and very sharp political edges. This makes it challenging but fascinating.

Q. Which direction is your field’s policymaking heading to over the next decade, and what will be the key challenges and opportunities associated with it?

In 2015, countries around the world, including Australia, signed up to the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. This agreement sets out the direction in which policy will head in the future. There is consensus that the world needs to achieve net zero emissions in the second half of this century. 

This is a challenging goal, but it is also achievable. Technology is rapidly advancing; costs are coming down for renewable energy and innovation is tackling the broader set of issues that emerge as you try to move from one type of energy to another. Our understanding and ability to use the landscape to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it safely is also improving, so the world can get to net zero emissions in the timeframe required.

Australia is just one part of this global challenge, but what we do is still important. Our challenge is to continue to provide affordable, reliable energy to all Australians, while we move towards low or zero-emission electricity sources. We have extraordinary renewable energy resources to take advantage of in Australia, but we also have a long, fragile electricity grid that was designed and built around large, continuously operating fossil fuel generators.  

There are many opportunities for the taking in the future, including exporting hydrogen or possibly a resurgence of energy-intensive manufacturing based on renewable energy. The challenge is to find ways to bring costs down as fast as possible, and to enable the adoption of new technologies as fast as possible. We also need to think about how this affects societies and communities that have built themselves around, and support themselves through, traditional industries. It is understandably frightening not to know whether your current lifestyle can continue or not. Many Australians and people around the world have first-hand experience of this anxiety now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recovery from the impacts of COVID-19 will be a focus for governments around the world.  The priority will be on re-establishing economies and re-employing people. It is very possible that some of the best mechanisms to do this will also be aligned to the industries of the future and low emissions. It is also likely that some actions that might be necessary to restart economic activity will mean emissions increase. Neither of these things are “right” or “wrong” – they represent choices about what is most important for Australia, now and in the future. I will continue to provide advice to the Government, so they can make those choices with the best information and options available to them. 

My time at ANU gave me an understanding of how much you need to work with other people to get the most out of any experience, and how to value diversity.

Q. How did your degrees at ANU prepare you for your career? 

My ANU degree is a Bachelor of Economics (Honours) and Asian Studies. I have no doubt that this degree, and the fact it was from ANU, helped me get my first job with McKinsey. ANU has a very fine reputation. The ANU Research School of Economics was known for its emphasis on rigorous study of mathematics and conceptual thinking. What really cinched one of my interviews with McKinsey was the fact it was conducted in Japanese. I clearly held my end of the conversation up well enough! More than that, I think my time at ANU gave me an understanding of how much you need to work with other people to get the most out of any experience, and how to value diversity.

I encourage graduates of the ANU College of Business and Economics to seriously consider a career in the public service. We truly are at the frontline in building a stronger economy and more jobs for Australians, which I would argue is a compelling calling and a great start to any career.


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