global perspectives

How Martijn Wilder is seeding fresh climate solutions at Pollination

18 April 2023 / WORDS BY Oliver Balch, Reuters

Suggest a good idea to a room of 10 legal practitioners, Martijn Wilder jokes, and you’ll get 11 reasons why you shouldn’t do it. The Sydney-based environmental lawyer, chief executive and co-founder of climate change advisory firm Pollination, is cut from a different cloth, adopting a dogged “can-do” attitude.

It’s a philosophy that has left him with an eclectic CV, including stints as chair of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, director of Australia’s Climate Council, and president of WWF-Australia. Occasionally, it’s also landed him in a slightly awkward spot. As a young, thrusting lawyer, Wilder recalls trying to persuade the chief executive of a major Australian energy firm to take action on global warming. His response? “Climate change doesn’t exist. You shouldn’t worry about it. Would you like a cup of tea?”

As a self-described life-long environmentalist, 55-year-old Wilder is used to running into rebuttals.

But addressing today’s climate and nature emergencies requires all forms of thinking, he reasons. “It’s a huge, multidisciplinary issue that we have to deal with,” he says. “So, if you’re trying to transform and decarbonise our economy, you need perspectives from all different hats.”

It is this same logic that prompted him to up sticks from a 20-year career at global law firm Baker McKenzie and co-found the climate and nature advisory firm Pollination. In less than four years, the company has amassed a workforce of around 220 experts, drawn from the worlds of finance, investment, technology, business, policy and law – many of the latter coming from the global climate change law practice that Wilder built up at Baker McKenzie.

Pollination has been quick to make waves. Last December it announced that a new joint venture with HSBC Asset Management called Climate Asset Management, to fund nature-based climate projects, had raised over $650 million. Earlier this month, U.S. tech giant Apple pledged an additional $200 million to the fund, which will also finance sustainable forestry and regenerative agriculture. A follow-up 150 million Australian dollars ($101 million) investment fund focused on high-potential climate and nature ventures is also in the pipeline.

The moves come on the back of Pollination’s brokering of the sale of a first tranche of innovative “blue carbon” credits. The credits derive from the regeneration of a degraded mangrove forest in Pakistan’s Sindh province. The project, which has been running for six years and counts Microsoft among its initial buyers, is expected to sequester around 142 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over its 60-year lifetime.

Wilder says his career has always concentrated on “creating the market” for environmental innovation: “I started out as a climate change lawyer helping build the first carbon contracts, doing the first carbon investments (and) working with governments to design the first legislation around carbon markets.”

His work for governments extends to advising on Gabon’s Sustainable Development Law back in 2014, through to helping draft Fiji’s more recentClimate Change Act. The former is notable for the invention of “community capital” credits (in addition to more conventional carbon and biodiversity benefits), an instrument to raise finance for things like community lands, crops, water resources and education.

Likewise, Fiji’s approach to climate is noted for its introduction of a 5% levy on high-end tourism (instigated prior to the recent act), the revenues of which are used to finance local climate-related initiatives.

As for nature-based carbon offsets, Wilder understands why there is rising criticism surrounding the weak governance and verification of some projects. In fact, the gold-rush fever surrounding carbon offsets is something he has witnessed first-hand. He recalls sitting in on transactions where participants have, as he puts it, “no idea of what they’re buying or selling, they don’t understand the quality, they don’t understand the risks of those transactions”.

Yet in the case of large-scale nature restoration, projects need a carbon component to qualify for most existing schemes, he argues. Without that, the onus for funding falls on public grants or private philanthropy, neither of which will get close to the $700 billion required annually to conserve current biodiversity levels. (Note: investment in marine and land nature-based solutions garner a mere $900 million and $23 billion per year, respectively, according to the U.N. Environment Programme’s latest figures).

Pollination’s work is based on the conviction that a well-functioning market framework is essential if international environment targets stand any chance of being realised. “We have to basically create nature as a concrete asset, which people can invest in to protect it,” says Wilder. “(If not) the next best economic use is to chop it down for either timber or agriculture.”

He points to the example of a novel forest bond that he helped facilitate between mining giant BHP Billiton and the International Financial Corporation. The bond, which dates back to 2016, fits within the United Nation’s REDD+ structure and is designed to help companies offset their emissions.

But Wilder stresses the critical role of regulators in ensuring that markets are robust and well-designed. “One of the things you got to understand about this whole decarbonisation play, (is that) a lot of it is driven by government policy,” he states.

Market-making policy can take multiple forms, from bank-rolling low-carbon technologies (as with the recent U.S. Inflation Reduction Act) right through to banning high-carbon industries.

Over the last couple of years, WIlder has chaired an independent panel set up to advise the government of Victoria, Australia, on how to achieve its climate goals. The south-eastern state has pledged to cut its emissions by 75-80% by 2035 (against a 2005 baseline), which, by his reckoning, is the “most aggressive target in the world”.

To do that, he says, “requires you to shut down all coal generation and coal power generation in the state (which) is very hard to get your head around … but if you want to make things happen, you have to come up with really good ideas and go into the market and execute them.”

Pollination is an example of the kind of hybrid organisation that the sustainability field can expect more of going forward. While niche consultants and service providers will always have a role, the growing complexity of today’s sustainability challenges, and the multi-faceted nature of the solutions, demands advisory firms that can join the dots. If, as in Pollination’s case, they have their own capital funds to help accelerate a promising new technology or kickstart a high-impact venture, then all the better.

While Pollination’s main markets are the UK, the United States, and Australia, it has ambitions to extend its global reach, with Asia a key focus. It is also actively recruiting, with John Morton (former climate counsellor to the U.S. Treasury) and Helen Crowley (ex-head of sustainability at Kering) among its recent notable hires.

Wilder says if he and his colleagues can come up with some “really incredible concepts” that set a precedent for others to work with, or a handful of governments to chart a new approach, then the firm’s purpose will be validated.

“We are a small group of people,” he says, “but I’d like to think that we can create ideas and push boundaries that will incentivise others to really push harder.”


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