Last week, we got the news that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has appointed a new cabinet. As part of this keenly awaited announcement, we learned that two previously separate portfolios had been combined, meaning that Josh Frydenberg is now the Minister for both environment and energy.

This represents a great opportunity for action, because energy and environment are inextricably linked. To address the problems with one, we’re going to have to change the way we use the other.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) recently published a report called Low Carbon, High Performance, showing how the built environment holds the key to successfully reducing Australia’s carbon emissions in order to meet our Paris climate obligations.

Buildings are a key piece in the emissions reduction jigsaw, because they are currently responsible for 23 per cent of Australia’s annual emissions. Fortunately, the report outlines how energy efficiency measures can reduce this by more than half in a relatively short time.

A low carbon building sector is not just an opportunity to save the environment and avert the worst effects of climate change. It is also a huge economic opportunity for Australia. There are for two reasons for this. Firstly, buildings are the cheapest way to reduce emissions – much cheaper than reducing emissions from sectors like transport or agriculture. Secondly, the changes we make would deliver a huge saving on the energy costs for individuals and businesses – around $20 billion over the next 14 years, according to the expert calculations in the report.

At the same time, Australia is well placed to become a global leader in sustainable building technology, driving jobs and growth in our economy. At a time when there is a downturn in the mining sector and a global move away from fossil fuels, can we afford to ignore this low emissions goldmine?

Unlike some other sectors, we already have the technology to reduce building emissions. Market leading companies in Australia have demonstrated over and over again that rapid improvements in building energy performance are possible. New Green Star rated buildings emit less than half the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the average 10-year­-old building.

In fact, Australia is already being recognised as a global leader in energy and sustainability. For example, leading Australian property group Stockland successfully reduced emissions across their office portfolio by 50 per cent since 2006. In response, the World Dow Jones Sustainability Index named Stockland the world’s most sustainable real estate company.

As well as saving us money, a low carbon building sector can buy us time. With the world signing up to keep emissions to levels expected to limit global temperature increases to two degrees, Australia has a strict “carbon budget” setting out the amount of greenhouse gas we can emit and still meet our targets. If we take no action whatsoever to improve our building sector’s energy efficiency, buildings would emit 4,600 megatonnes of greenhouse gases by 2050. That represents almost half of Australia’s carbon budget, leaving even less for other sectors of our economy, like aviation and transport. At current emission rates, we would use up that carbon budget in just 13 years.

On the other hand, if all opportunities outlined in ASBEC’s report are implemented, building emissions could be halved. Buildings would then be consuming only 20 per cent of our national carbon budget. This would extend the available budget for other sectors to 19 years – providing crucial breathing space for other sectors to meet the technological challenges of reducing their own emissions.

None of this can happen without strong policies being put in place. That’s where Minister Frydenberg has a great opportunity to show leadership. Low Carbon, High Performance identifies five key policy solutions we need to implement across the building sector to achieve net zero emissions by 2050: a national plan; mandatory minimum standards; targeted incentives and programs; energy market reforms; and a range of supporting data, information, training and education measures.

It’s great to see the Turnbull Government acknowledging how intertwined the two issues of environment and energy really are. If Australia can rise to meet the challenges of lowering emissions and keeping global temperature increases manageable, we have the potential to create a smart, sustainable built environment and a more robust economy, for everyone’s benefit.