Napoleon Bonaparte famously described a leader as “a dealer in hope” – a remark that has never been truer than when applied to the current debate on climate change – and some have even been elected on the platform of the ‘hope’ message.

But while many of the world’s – and Australia’s – government leaders continue to grapple with how to take action, we can take heart from examples of local and state government leadership that are transforming the built environment, lowering our collective carbon footprints and saving taxpayer dollars.

A report issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last week found that the global economic crisis has undermined trust in government, with just four out of 10 citizens in OECD countries saying they have confidence in their national governments.

“Citizens look to governments to lead the way. Without strong leadership, supported by effective policies, trust is easily eroded,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

The Government at a Glance report found governments can rebuild trust by being more inclusive, transparent, receptive and efficient.  But this means putting their “fiscal houses in order,” delivering high quality services and providing open and transparent data.

In terms of the built environment, a number of governments around the country are looking to rating systems such as Green Star to improve efficiency, accountability and transparency in the way they manage their built environment assets.

City of Gosnells Civic Centre

City of Gosnells Civic Centre

Last week, Wyndham City Council in Melbourne’s west signed up the first building in Australia to achieve a Green Star – Performance rating, and will begin to measure the operational performance of its four-storey community and conference centre in Werribee.

Nearby Melton, meanwhile, has Australia’s first sustainable library, with the Melton Library and Community Hub (5 Star Green Star – Public Building Design PILOT rating) serving as a facility for the community to gain insight and inspiration into the benefits of sustainability. In addition, the efficiency features of the library building are expected to deliver utility cost savings of $23,700 in gas and $5,000 in water compared with non-Green Star buildings.

In Sydney, meanwhile, Parramatta City Council became the first local government in Australia earlier this year to seek a Green Star – Communities rating and target 5 Star Green Star ratings for buildings in its $1.6 billion Parramatta Square development.

The Tasmanian Government has committed that all new building works undertaken for major schools, hospitals and community health centres must meet 5 Star Green Star benchmarks.  A number of schools are currently undergoing Green Star certification.

Melton Library

Melton Library

When governments achieve Green Star ratings, they set new benchmarks, drive innovation and shift the market one step closer to better building practices. When governments ‘walk the talk’, they provide real-world examples of efficient, cost-effective and sustainable buildings for the community to emulate. As the OECD’s report highlights, it’s about demonstrating to their constituents and taxpayers that they are fiscally prudent.

The City of Gosnells just south east of Perth, for example, sees its Civic Centre as a future-proofed investment able to withstand tighter environmental legislation and the rising cost of utilities. Paul McAllister, who project-managed the 5 Star Green Star – Office Design v2 project, says the council expects a five-year payback period on the extra outlay of $750,000, demonstrating that building green is a smart financial decision.

“We have a commitment to fiscal responsibility for our rate payers. That’s why we decided to build green,” he said.

 Fiscal responsibility starts with measurement – after all, how does a government know how much it is spending on energy costs if it doesn’t measure its building portfolio and benchmark it against best practices?

After each election, we write to each new government to encourage them to undertake environmental audits of every building they own or occupy – from schools and hospitals, to community centres and office blocks. By assessing such environmental impacts as energy and water use, waste management and indoor environment quality, governments can gain a complete picture of current levels of building efficiency and identify potential cost savings and opportunities for improvement.

Parramatta Square

Parramatta Square rendered image.

Environmental audits can reveal staggering results. The O’Farrell Government in New South Wales commissioned an audit of NSW Health’s energy costs, finding that they had increased by nearly 50 per cent over the last four years – from $81.8 million to $120.4 million. The Audit Office expects energy costs to rise by another 50 per cent in the next five years.  With knowledge comes power, and the NSW Government is now in the position to address these spiraling costs.

Potential cost savings are no less significant. Modelling undertaken by the Green Building Council of Australia in the lead-up to September’s federal election found that a modest 10 per cent improvement in the energy efficiency of the federal government’s buildings alone – far below the 66 per cent average improvement recorded by Green Star-rated buildings around Australia – could save taxpayers $35 million a year in electricity costs. Retrofitting the federal government’s building stock to improve  indoor environment quality also has the potential to boost public sector productivity by almost $2 billion a year based on productivity gains achieved in Green Star-rated buildings around the country.

Government leadership is not just about being the ‘first’ to make a commitment, achieve a rating or announce a policy. It’s also about being prudent with taxpayer dollars and spending money wisely. It’s about being open and transparent and accountable. One of the best ways to do this is to know what you’ve got and how to measure its performance.