After the devastation is the time to get building. It’s been that way forever.
After the First World War, constructing Victoria’s Great Ocean Road created jobs for returned servicemen, and produced a world class tourist attraction that’s still growing in popularity. After the Second World War, the Marshall Plan saw the US government provide billions to rebuild Europe.
While we couldn’t compare our situation in Australia to the devastation of London after the Blitz or the battlefields of the Somme, it’s no secret that we are in a bad place. The devastations of fires, floods and storms, combined with the COVID-19 shutdown, have seen our economy contract sharply. With construction one of our biggest employers, how and what we choose to build now is crucial.
The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) along with a coalition of industry bodies including the Green Building Council of Australia, the Energy Efficiency Council and the Property Council of Australia have produced a report, Building Efficiency for Jobs and Growth, outlining the huge benefits of a program to increase energy efficiency in residential, commercial and government buildings.
COVID-19 might have been distracted us from thinking about climate change, but the urgent need to reduce emissions hasn’t gone away. The measures outlined in Building Efficiency would dramatically reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions at a time when it’s crucial for our climate and our international obligations under the Paris Agreement. At the same time, because creating energy efficient buildings is jobs intensive, it gives us the potential to create over 90,000 job-years of employment at a time when our economy needs it most.
But jobs are only part of the story. Investing in better energy performance across all our buildings can deliver savings that will help our economy for decades to come. That’s because our energy costs are set to continue rising steadily over time. But if we act now to create energy efficient buildings, we could cut the bills for the energy used by our households and businesses by almost $5 billion per annum.
Our electricity grid is outdated, with big investment needed to replace ancient wires and power generation stations nearing the end of their lives. This means that energy efficient buildings could strengthen the electricity grid, reducing the risk of power shortages and helping our infrastructure cope with the extremes of climate change.
The Commonwealth Government’s Homebuilder Scheme aims to get more building projects in the pipeline with grants of up to $25,000 for those building homes for up to $750k or undertaking home renovations worth $150,000-750,000. If we added targeted upgrades and incentives for deeper energy efficiency retrofits, we could do this while making our homes more comfortable and cheaper to run. With many poorer people unable to afford to buy homes, priority should be placed on measures for social housing and low income and vulnerable households.
As recently as May this year, the King Review, commissioned by the Australian Government, identified 26 ways to fight climate change by reducing emissions while strengthening Australia’s economy. These included some significant built environment initiatives, including energy performance ratings for homes.
There are currently many different ways to measure a building’s energy consumption, with star ratings and benchmarks confusing many people. A single national rating scheme for home energy performance should be developed, empowering building owners, buyers and renters to compare apples with apples when it comes to a building’s energy performance – just like we see on our washing machines and fridges!
A lot has been said about residential buildings, but commercial buildings could be massively improved too. Tax incentives are needed to drive commercial building upgrades. The Commonwealth should also establish a $500 million ‘Smart Building Fund’ to support mid-tier building owners to rate and guide the upgrade of their buildings.
Our schools, hospitals and other government buildings consume a lot of energy – costs State governments need to find out of increasingly stretched budgets. An ambitious program to upgrade these public buildings could make a huge difference to the comfort and cost of their operation. This should be established in partnership between Commonwealth and State/Territory Governments.
An ambitious building energy efficiency program requires specialised skills. The Commonwealth should undertake a rapid review of skills needs around energy efficiency to work out what the gaps are and train our practitioners and tradies accordingly. Priority also needs to be given to support workers transitioning from other sectors.
We can build a strong post-COVID economy, with construction jobs and new skills. At the same time, we can create a future Australia with buildings that are comfortable, cheap to run and don’t strain the electricity grid. With commitment from governments at all levels, we can truly make every building count.