Back in December 2015, 174 countries and the European Union agreed to limit the increase in global average temperatures to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to aim to restrict increases to 1.5 per cent under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

As part of this, Australia has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 per cent of pre-2005 levels by 2030.

According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report produced in 2014, the construction sector in Australia was directly or indirectly responsible for 18 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions throughout the country in 2010. For this reason, the property industry is critical for Australia to meet its commitments.

This raises questions about how the sector is performing in responding to the agreement. Such questions were explored during a panel session at the recent DesignBuild Conference in Melbourne, chaired by Edge Environment chief executive officer Jonas Bengtsson and featured Cbus Property sustainability manager Lorraine Moore, Master Builders Association of Victoria sustainable building advisor Dr Philip Alviano, and Good Environmental Choice Australia business development and sustainability advisor Kim Andrews.

On the commercial front, Moore says Australia is a leader in reporting and international benchmarking. Already, Dexus and Investa have signed up to science-based targets which aim to identify the magnitude of emissions reductions which each company will need to make in order to achieve deliver their share of reductions. CBUS is developing science-based targets for its portfolio and hopes to publish these next year.

Much of this is being driven, Moore said, by the Green Building Council of Australia, which released an executive summary of its carbon roadmap at the Green Cities conference in March. GBCA has set aggressive requirements so that to obtain the Green Star rating of six-star, five-star or any other level, you will have to be carbon neutral by 2021-22, 2045-25 and 2027 respectively.

Green Star is becoming increasingly recognised and developers and occupiers are going to want to push behind that, she said.

Alviano agrees, saying industry will respond to the drivers of occupiers and investors. Whereas some had been happy with the minimum in sustainability in recent times, he says many are now working toward Green Star Ratings.

Beyond commercial, action in residential has been driven less by market forces and more by minimum performance requirements under the National Construction Code – especially in buoyant market. Whilst there is a market for building sustainable over and above Code requirements, Moore says this is not as strong in residential as in commercial. Many consumers, she said, rank stone-top appliances over and above sustainability features of their home.

Likewise, much of the feedback Alviano has received from volume builders was that demand from consumers for sustainability performance over which exceeds Code performance is not large.

He says Australia also needs to work out how to upgrade existing residential stock. It is possible, he said, that some form of energy rating disclosure scheme could apply to established homes on the sale or lease of stock. This may encourage residents to consider energy efficiency when undertaking renovations, he said.

Still, there are encouraging signs. There is great interest in a green living program run by Master Builders, and around 2,000 builders have been trained throughout Victoria, he said. Those who graduate and are accredited say that on average, projects where household environmental performance exceeds minimum requirements amount to around 15 per cent of their jobs.

Andrews concurred, noting that soaring energy costs and growing use of energy ratings have spawned interest in energy efficiency. Compared with the same period one year ago, GECA’s enquiries have tripled.

Beyond buildings themselves, Andrews says the industry is struggling in products and manufacturing. Many manufacturers and suppliers, Andrews says, view sustainability as a challenge which is difficult and burdensome. Greater education is needed for these companies, as is support in finance and technology.

The industry is also battling with behavioural patterns during occupancy. Take, for example, waste and use of rubbish bins. In its own portfolio of commercial buildings, Moore says Cbus places bins in their correct locations and offers training about how to use them (especially in regard to waste segregation).

Alas, whilst some tenants are interested, others are not, and fail to implement sustainable operating practices.

A final question revolves around the longer term notion of a carbon neutral building and whether we know what this will look like. As mentioned above, buildings will need to achieve carbon neutrality going forward in order to qualify for Green Star ratings from various dates depending on the rating.

On this score, Alviano says RMIT’s Pixel building (carbon neutral) in Melbourne has been around in the commercial segment since 2010, whilst Henley’s also built a carbon neutral home that same year. Takeup of the Henley model in residential since then, however, has been limited. Large volume builders have found that the additional revenue from clients requesting sustainability features over and above those required by Code represents only a tiny proportion of their overall margin, he says.

Moore says we are not seeing interest in carbon neutral on a large scale yet. The Bullitt Centre in Seattle – America’s first carbon-neutral commercial building – came in at an above average cost and even then required exemptions from some building requirements. Before being rolled out more widely, she says these will need to be shown to be economically viable.

Australia’s property sector is doing some things well on sustainability.

To help deliver on our Paris commitment, however, further progress will be needed.