The Victorian Climate Change Act 2017 was passed in February and will come into operation this year. What does it mean for those who procure, design and build buildings?
It would be ideal if the Act meant something clear to improve our methods of building design and construction, because over 30 per cent of the world's carbon emissions are caused by heating or cooling our built environments.
That carbon emission problem means all the buildings we are in the process of building right now are changing the climate for the worse, rather than minimising our impact on climate change. Right now, our buildings are poorly designed and built. We could be reducing our carbon emissions out of buildings by up to 90 per cent if we designed and built better.
It goes beyond renewable energy like solar panels. It goes as deep as the building fabric itself. We can drastically reduce our carbon emissions using existing knowledge and technologies, like the International Passive House Standard.
Professor Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy, spoke compellingly on this topic in New York at the Passive House High Rise Symposium in 2015. She combined passion, great intelligence and deep logic on the importance of proper building design to ameliorate climate change. She noted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports are extensive and have been produced for many years now, but that the opportunities to reduce our climate change impact are being missed. It is good to see some of this panel’s important work being translated into local laws and policies, but aren’t we still missing important opportunities?
Has our Victorian legislation taken up the opportunity in the Climate Change Act to improve on our building structures to the maximum extent that it can?
Will the recently enacted version of the Act make a difference to our current, inadequate building strategies? I looked at it partly from the point of view of a barrrister whose focus is legislative compliance, and partly from the perspective of a passive house designer, which role also involves extensive compliance. I did so without comparing this Act to its predecessor enacted in 2010.
Given the importance of this issue, what follows contains some extracts of the legislation word-for-word so readers can draw their own conclusions.
First, it is very interesting to see how our Parliament has taken on board the pressing concerns posed by climate change. Parliament has not presented this topic as a debate, and has not given any room for argument from any climate change deniers. Our Parliament has presented its conclusions as accepted fact. That in itself is a useful starting point, and could have far reaching positive consequences.
The Preamble to the Act makes Parliament’s view clear, with some laudable aims that are worth setting out in full:
"The Parliament of Victoria recognises on behalf of the people of Victoria that the international community has reached agreement to hold the global average temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1·5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. There is overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change and that global emissions will need to decline to net zero levels by the second half of the century if this global goal is to be met.
The Parliament of Victoria recognises that some changes in the earth's climate are inevitable, despite all mitigation efforts. Victoria is particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Natural disasters are increasing in frequency and severity as a result of the changing climate. Impacts are felt differently and to different extents across individual regions and communities. Although responding to climate change is a responsibility shared by all levels of government, industry, communities and the people of Victoria, the role of subnational governments in driving this transition cannot be understated. Through decisive, long-term action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Victorian government can help Victoria achieve an orderly and just transition to a net zero greenhouse gas emissions economy and remain prosperous and liveable. It will also enable Victoria to benefit from the global trend towards decarbonisation.
Victoria must also take strong action to build resilience to, and reduce the risks posed by, climate change and protect those most vulnerable.
The Parliament of Victoria recognises that the community wants and expects Victoria to play its part in global mitigation efforts and in preparing the community for unavoidable climatic impacts. This Act will help ensure Victoria remains prosperous and liveable as we transition to meet these challenges."
It is interesting to note here that there are two key aspects highlighted by our Parliament: mitigating climate change, and preparing for climatic impacts.
Section 1 of the Act states a number of worthy purposes, including to set a long-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, facilitate the consideration of climate change issues in specified areas of decision making of the Government of Victoria; set policy objectives and guiding principles to inform decision-making under this Act and the development of government policy in the State; and provide for a strategic response to climate change through a climate change strategy, adaptation action plans and emissions reduction pledges.
Then there is an interesting set of definitions in section 3 which are worth setting out. They might be useful definitions to be adopted for other discussions outside the legislation itself.
The term "built environment "means the places and structures built or developed for human occupation, use and enjoyment. Examples cited are cities, buildings, urban spaces, housing and infrastructure.
The phrase "built environment system" means the built environment, and how people use and interact with the built environment.
“Climate change” means a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.
“Greenhouse gas emissions” means emissions of “(a) carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide or sulphur hexafluoride; or (b) a hydrofluorocarbon or a perfluorocarbon that is specified in regulations made under the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act 2007 of the Commonwealth.”
“Net zero greenhouse gas emissions” means zero greenhouse gas emissions after “(a) determining the amount of total greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the State, including any removals of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere due to activities within the State; and (b) deducting from the amount described in paragraph (a) any eligible offsets from outside of the State.”
Interestingly, it would be theoretically possible for the amount of total greenhouse gas emissions attributable to Victoria to be the same as it is now, as long as eligible offsets are increased. Of course, this approach would not be enough to ameloriate climate change as drastically as we need to do. We need to reduce emissions, period.
Section 8 states that the Premier and the Minister must ensure that the State achieves the long-term emissions reduction target.
Section 17 provides that "Decision makers must have regard to climate change" in relation to decisions or actions authorised by particular Acts.
What decisions, actions and Acts are relevant here? It is actually quite limited. A few examples include management plans under the Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994, Coastal Strategies, certain recommendations of the Environment Protection Authority, a Council's municipal public health and wellbeing plan, and a draft sustainable water strategy.
These particular provisions have no explicit or direct impact on our built environments.
Section 20 is broader than section 17, stating that "the Government of Victoria will endeavour to ensure that any decision made by the Government and any policy, program or process developed or implemented by the Government appropriately takes account of climate change if it is relevant by having regard to the policy objectives and the guiding principles."
And the Minister may issue guidelines about "the policy objectives and guiding principles when making a decision or developing or implementing a policy, program or process" (s 21). Now we are starting to sound a little like a "Yes Minister" episode, where the actual obligation can sometimes be obfuscated. Hopefully, all Government decisions will “appropriately” take account of climate change. If they do, the impact will be significant.
The policy objectives of the Act are set out in s 22. Among other things, they aim to:
- reduce the State's greenhouse gas emissions consistently with the long-term emissions reduction target and interim emissions reduction targets
- build the resilience of the State's infrastructure, built environment and communities through effective adaptation and disaster preparedness action
- support vulnerable communities and promote social justice and intergenerational equity
Here, we have a reference to the built environment, but not in the sense that improving our built environment will help us ameliorate climate change - only in the sense that our buildings can be more resilient. Still, at least there is a policy of having building resilience.
Buildings which have very good insulation, airtight envelopes, no thermal bridges, air ventilation units and excellent, properly placed double or triple glazed windows; are the sorts of buildings we need to be truly resilient. These measures should be coupled, of course, with proper building physics design, like that found in the International Passive House Standard.
Buildings that comply with the International Passive House Standard have significantly better resilience against extreme climatic conditions, improve the pressure on the State’s infrastructure, and can better support vulnerable people who are unable to pay high power bills for heating and cooling.
So this means that the policy of the State of Victoria as enshrined in law supports deeply energy-efficient building envelopes like those procured by the International Passive House Standard.
While the Act doesn't say this, buildings that are resilient in hot or cold weather, despite the potential for power failures, happen to also be buildings that help to ameliorate climate change. That’s because those buildings have up to 90 per cent less power consumption than traditional buildings, in which case they are better for reduction of our carbon footprint world-wide, not only now but in generations to come.
Section 23 provides that:
"it is a guiding principle of this Act that a decision, policy, program or process—
(a) should be based on a comprehensive analysis of the best practicably available information about the potential impacts of climate change that is relevant to the decision, policy, program or process under consideration; and
(b) should take into account the potential contribution to the State's greenhouse gas emissions."
There is specific reference to the “built environment system” in section 34, which states that the relevant Minister must prepare an adaptation action plan in relation to this system (and other systems). This sounds like a good idea, but unfortunately it does not have to be done until October 2021. That’s nearly five years of no such adaptation action plan. We all need to act before this date regardless of what that adaptation action plan might eventually look like.
It’s great that the Victorian Government has legislated in this important field. All governments at all levels should be taking climate change seriously and ensuring that all government decision making takes the lead in this area.
However, there is nothing concrete that I can see in this Act that will drive improvements to the extent that we need them driven, in relation to the built environment. It will still take leadership both in government and in the private sphere to apply the principles in this legislation proactively, and to improve our built environment in our cities, suburbs and the rural areas.
It is still up to all of us – people who are buying and designing and building buildings, to take the lead along with government where we can.