We’re not off to a great start to the 2020s.
Since the decade changed on January 1, Australia has struggled with some overwhelming events. Only a few weeks into the new year we’ve seen bigger, more intense bushfires than we’ve known before, with the associated loss of life, nature, homes and infrastructure. At the same time, much of our population has been blanketed by smoke haze, battered by hailstones and assailed by dust storms – sometimes on the same day!
Unfortunately, scientists have made it clear that dangerous climate change is here to stay. We can expect more of these extreme weather events in our near future – so we need to make sure our built environment is ready. We need buildings that are ready for a hotter, more volatile climate, where storms, floods and fires are both more common and more severe. We also need buildings that generate fewer emissions and thus don’t worsen the effects of climate change.
The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC), as a peak body representing professionals and organisations all over the building sector, has worked extensively with a broad coalition of built environment leaders to map out how we might best adapt our built environment to a future where extreme weather events and temperatures are the norm.
ASBEC’s Built Environment Adaptation Framework, outlined in our Preparing for Change report, provides a ten point roadmap for governments leadership in creating a built environment that can cope with climate change. This will help to protect our health and reduce the economic risks of climate change.
Government buildings would be a great place to start leading by example: imagine if new government offices were used as models for other buildings, incorporating all the latest adaptation design and technology? This would not only provide excellent templates for our building sector, but also help to grow skills and momentum in the market.
Education is key to understand the new reality. Public education is needed so people understand how their built environment needs to change. Should we really build beach front homes in low lying areas when we know sea levels are likely to rise? Our policymakers and bureaucrats also need to be educated to allow them to put climate change front and centre of planning and big spending decisions. Data, such as maps, needs to be shared across all sectors.
Then there is ongoing science and monitoring, Yes, we need this in national parks, but also in our built environment. Some outstanding work has been undertaken through the Cooperative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living, including on urban heat mapping. We need more hard science to inform our actions and we need to learn more about what the rest of the world is doing. Research into ways for our built environment to cope with climate change is constantly evolving and we should stay on top of developments from around the world.
We should build climate change into processes such as tenders for infrastructure projects and procurement. There’s also a job to synthesise our many climate change laws and regulations, eliminating repetition and closing any gaps.
Lastly, we need financial products and services that are fit for purpose in the new world. That might mean big changes in insurance if we are to ensure it is available for all, including low income people.
Similarly, climate change poses huge risks for mortgages, increasing the risk borrowers will default. We need to change the way banks calculate risk for lending on building projects.
When it comes to mitigation – lowering emissions – the big one is energy efficiency. We know we must reduce our emissions urgently to meet the global targets agreed in the Paris Climate Agreement. ASBEC’s Low Carbon, High Performance report demonstrates that our built environment offers one of the quickest, cheapest ways to get to net zero emissions. Half the buildings that will be standing in 2050 have yet to be built, so if we improve the minimum standards we’ll be able to massively reduce their energy requirements. If we build new buildings with strong energy requirements, we could reduce our energy use as well as lowering our emissions. Our calculations show we’d also save around $20 billion in energy bills for business and households.
The bushfires we’ve just experienced were terrible. As a nation we have lost so much: human lives, forests, animals, buildings, infrastructure. But we owe it to ourselves to have faith in our capacity to build a better future, by grasping this opportunity to build it back better.