As we focus on the daily parade of Covid case numbers, exposure sites and vaccination rates, it’s easy to put that other global emergency out of our minds.

But the need for action on climate change is growing more urgent than ever. Fortunately, as with the vaccines which will help us overcome Covid, we have a secret weapon available to us: our construction sector.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, a synthesis of science from around the world that weighs in at 3000 pages and draws on thousands of scientific papers, brings the dangers into sharp focus. Extreme weather, spiking temperatures and rising sea levels threaten humans around the world, and we are almost out of time to take meaningful action.

COP26, the UN’s global climate change conference, is due to be held in Glasgow in early November. Many believe the event to be the world’s last best chance for climate action; 190 world leaders will discuss what needs to be done on top of the Paris Climate Agreement reached at COP21 in 2015.

We already know which way COP26 will go. The meeting will be focused on reaching global net zero emissions by 2050, speeding up the shift away from fossil fuels, adapting infrastructure and building defences for the inevitable changes to the world’s environment.

All this means that net zero emissions is coming to Australia, and it’s coming even sooner than we had anticipated.

Here in Australia, our built environment provides the fastest and cheapest path to reduce our emissions as we move towards net zero being the norm. That’s because many of the buildings that will be standing by 2050 haven’t yet been built, so increasing their energy performance is a relatively simple change to make.

Best of all, stronger energy performance in our buildings brings with it a host of benefits beyond protecting our climate. Even before Covid, we knew that energy efficient buildings are healthier, but the need for ventilation and airflow in our buildings has a new resonance now. And better thermal comfort in our homes, schools and offices means occupants won’t suffer from heat or cold stress as our climate changes around us. Better buildings will mean a healthier Australia.

But a better, more energy efficient built environment for Australians can’t happen unless our federal government takes real action. As with Covid, a patchwork, state-by-state approach can never be as strong as real national leadership.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) believes that there are five key actions that our government can take. We already have the technology to create the sustainable buildings we need to meet our international emissions obligations – now it’s time to lead.

First up, our governments can show us how it’s done by ensuring their own buildings perform to the highest standards. Secondly, we can build on our technological knowhow by becoming a global leader in high performance building technologies. Thirdly, we can ease the post Covid economy pain by incentivising upgrades to our buildings, creating work for our tradies and a market for energy efficient products. Fourthly, we can ensure households have clear, consistent, easy to understand information about the energy performance of their homes. Lastly, government can deliver a Zero Carbon ready Building Code, ensuring that the minimum standards that govern all Australian buildings expect maximum energy performance.

None of this is new. ASBEC’s Tomorrow’s Homes report already laid out how accelerating Australia’s transition to sustainable housing would mean an extra half a billion dollars of investment in the building sector, generating  7,000 extra jobs – handy as the economy recovers after Covid. At the same time, it would save Australians a collective $600 million on household energy bills. Governments would need to come together to allow national leadership, upskill our tradies, create clear benchmarks and certification for sustainability, engage and inspire homebuyers with what’s possible, and ensure the finance is in place to cover this all important collective investment.

Similarly, a previous report, Low Carbon, High Performance, set out the case for improved energy performance in every kind of building, from schools to shopping centres, saving up to $20 billion in energy bills for business, government and households. Every Building Counts then laid out a clear policy template for achieving this high performance built environment.

As the Covid threat gradually recedes, we need to refocus our federal government’s actions back onto climate change. If our federal government can lead the way down the net zero emissions pathway, a bright future beckons. The better cities, towns, homes and workplaces created will fight climate change, help create the post-Covid jobs we need and ensure a healthier, wealthier Australia for our children to inherit.