How to Build a New, Low Carbon Future for Australia

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016
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Recent news stories have suggested we’re past the point of no return when it comes to climate change. With higher temperatures, more severe storms and rising sea levels now a reality, there’s an added urgency to Australia’s attempts to honour our Paris commitments to lower emissions.

Fortunately, a large chunk of the emission reductions challenge can be met by our building sector. Buildings are responsible for 23 per cent of our carbon emissions, so a zero carbon building sector would cut out almost a quarter of our emissions.

Unlike some other sectors, such as aviation, the technologies to lower emissions from buildings already exist. Transitioning to a zero carbon building sector would help us lower Australia’s overall emissions while buying time for other sectors to catch up technology-wise.

A new report from ASBEC, titled Low Carbon, High Performance, contains detailed modelling showing just how this can be accomplished. Economists at Climateworks have crunched the numbers to demonstrate what can be achieved if the right policies are put in place by governments. Making the shift to a low carbon building sector could save up to $20 billion by 2030 via lower energy costs.

The great news is that achieving these lower emissions and energy costs from buildings is not about compromising on quality. In fact, low carbon buildings are better buildings in a myriad of ways.

They are cheaper to run, with lower costs to heat, cool and light than conventional buildings. Lower energy costs are obviously a winner for business and government. But it is especially important at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, because energy bills form a higher percentage of the budget for low income earners.

Low carbon buildings are also better places to work, live and learn. Natural light, airflow and more comfortable temperatures make for homes where we can sleep better, offices where we work more productively and schools where children learn more effectively.

This isn’t some obscure pipe dream, either. Market leading companies are already showing the way, with major new developments demonstrating how it’s done.

Grocon’s Pixel building in Carlton, Melbourne, for example, scores 104 points under the Green Star rating system for building design (75 points is the benchmark for 6 Star Green Star) with technologies including high efficiency lighting with daylight control, solar PV and wind turbines and used low emission concrete.

So why would we not make the shift to a low carbon building sector? The barriers are many, and the situation is highly complex. The stakeholders include millions of homeowners as well as large multinational companies and governments of all levels.

The only way to tackle this is for strong government action. Low Carbon, High Performance sets out a detailed list of policy asks, including a national plan to coordinate action; strong mandatory minimum standards for energy performance in buildings and appliances; incentives such as stamp duty discounts for green buildings; energy market reforms; and measures to improve data collection, research and education.

We can’t waste time making this transition. Every inefficient building we build or energy guzzling appliance we install locks in higher emissions (and therefore higher costs) for decades. Even a five-year delay in taking up the opportunities outlined in the report could cost $24 billion in wasted energy costs and more than 170 megatonnes of emissions. Every year we delay will cost us dearly, with high emissions leading to more serious effects from climate change; higher costs to run our buildings; and worse quality of life.

The transition will not be an easy task, but it can be done, if governments accept the challenge. If they do, a low carbon building sector could open the door to a better life for all of us.

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