John Hepburn had been a successful environmental activist and social entrepreneur in Australia for two decades when he heard about the launch of the Climate Breakthrough Award in 2016. “I remember seeing it and thinking, That’s a great idea; I’m excited to see who they find,” he says.
After co-founding a Friends of the Earth chapter and a recycling co-op in Brisbane and then leading several campaigns for Greenpeace, he launched The Sunrise Project in 2012 to fight coal and gas development in Australia and advocate for a rapid scale-up of renewable energy.
Shift the global financial system away from fossil fuels by targeting major insurers and reinsurers, who are major investors and can make fossil fuel projects infeasible by refusing to underwrite them.
The audacity of John’s ambition—taking on the coal industry in what was then the world’s top coal-exporting country—impressed the Climate Breakthrough selection team. They also noted his clear strategy for building a social movement to overcome entrenched interests in Australia.
John says he was stunned by the award. It transformed his thinking, from trying to make the most of limited resources to asking, “What’s required to shift this system?” That was a “real gift,” he says, “to just push me to think: How do you have the biggest possible global impact?”
His answer was to take on the financial system that supports fossil fuel development. John decided to start by harnessing the power of social movements to influence the global arbiters of risk: major insurance companies. After mapping out the key players, Sunrise launched Unfriend Coal in early 2017, a campaign to get insurers to stop underwriting coal projects.
That November, Sunrise published a new insurer scorecard showing companies were starting to divest from coal, and some were refusing to underwrite it. The campaign grew into a global effort called Insure Our Future.
In 2022, Insure Our Future’s 2022 Scorecard showed 41 companies had restrictions on coal, making coal projects essentially uninsurable outside China. And every year, more insurers adopt restrictions on other fossil fuels as well: 22 so far on tar sands and 13 on oil and gas, including Munich Re, Swiss Re, and Hannover, the top three reinsurers in the world.
“We shifted the majority of the global insurance industry to stop underwriting new coal projects and have materially increased the cost of insurance for fossil fuel projects globally,” John says. And although Australia continues to be a top coal exporter, the insurance campaign has also scored victories at home. In 2021, a contractor for Adani reported to Parliament that no insurer would provide coverage for its work for the mining company.
Sunrise has also grown exponentially, with a staff of about 150 across 12 countries and a grant program awarding about $60 million per year to over 200 organizations around the world. “The initial work funded by Climate Breakthrough has enabled Sunrise to build a global finance program that is now much wider,” John says, “including banks, bond markets, private equity, investors, and financial regulation.”
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John Hepburn is an activist and social entrepreneur with decades of experience running environmental campaigns. He is the founder and executive director of The Sunrise Project.
Prior to founding The Sunrise Project in 2012, John worked for a decade at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, leading national, regional, and global campaigns. He also co-founded Friends of the Earth Brisbane and several nonprofit recycling businesses, including Reverse Garbage Co-op Ltd., which won numerous small business awards and led to him being awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2002.
John holds degrees in manufacturing systems engineering and business from the Queensland University of Technology. Before becoming an activist, he worked for several years as an engineer making components for the oil, gas, and coal industries.