In many parts of the world and in Australia, the push toward sustainable buildings and cities is gathering momentum.

One aspect of this is the regulatory environment, which must help to underpin and facilitate good standards and practices.

That raises questions about what can be achieved through political leadership as well as whether or not Australia’s regulatory environment is doing what it can to promote sustainable construction.

Tony Arnel, Global Director of Sustainability at Norman Disney & Young, says regulation should both set core requirements and facilitate market-based mechanism which encourage sustainable practices.

Arnel says standards currently required by the National Construction Code are not strong enough, which is problematic given how often the Code is mistakenly viewed as setting the standard by which to build as opposed to setting minimum baselines. In the residential sector, for example, Arnel says the industry could go well beyond current standards in areas like glazing and insulation but thus far has not done so.

Moreover, Arnel expressed frustration about how infrequently sustainability requirements are upgraded. Having first been incorporated into what was then the Building Code of Australia in the middle of last decade, Arnel says sustainability requirements have been the subject of modest upgrades on two occasions, the last of which was in 2012. At this stage, he says it is likely that the next substantial revision opportunities for energy efficiency standards will be in 2019 for commercial buildings and in 2022 for residential buildings (although anyone can submit a proposal for change during any upgrading cycle).

“That would mean around 10 years had passed since the last update to the residential code had occurred,” Arnel said. “That effectively means a decade of inactivity – and a massive lost opportunity.”

Arnel’s comments follow a discussion during the recent Green Cities conference in Sydney about strategies which have been adopted at city and state levels to drive sustainable cities.

The Canadian City of Vancouver, for example, aims to have the world’s greenest city by 2020 and to generate 100 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. Councillor Andrea Reimer says successful approaches involve strong leadership, a clear plan with targets and deliverables, follow through action and partnering with businesses and residents. In Vancouver’s case, the plan in 2009 was set up by 16 leaders and included 10 goals with 17 targets. It encompassed three broad areas, including transport and buildings, access to nature, and sustainability from an economic perspective. That last point represented a recognition that any plan which shifted manufacturing elsewhere would have little benefit for the overall environment.

Residents were not consulted about the targets, the city believing that the right goals were needed irrespective of public opinion. Once the goals were set, however, businesses and residents were engaged about detailed initiatives to deliver on those objectives.

Thus far, Vancouver is doing well. Whereas emissions per person in Toronto and Calgary stand at 7.2 and 20.9 tonnes respectively, Reimer says Vancouver’s are an impressive 2.9. The city also ranks fourth on the Global Green Economy Index, which examines factors such as agriculture, cleantech, buildings, forests, fisheries, biodiversity, air quality and transport. Renewables now make up 31 per cent of energy generation in Vancouver, whilst a Google Street Map analysis by researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that the city has the highest portion of green canopy cover anywhere in the world.

In Canberra, meanwhile, the Australian Capital Territory Government has targets for 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020 (it is at 35 per cent now), to reduce emissions by 40 per cent from 1990 levels and to become carbon neutral by 2050. Major areas of focus include planning, transport, climate change, renewable energy, energy efficiency of water assets and nature and conservation.

Having secured contracts for 100 per cent of its electricity (which accounts for 60 per cent of its carbon emissions) to be derived from renewable sources, the city also has commitments for the Capital Metro light rail system to be run on renewables. Meanwhile, the government is looking closely at the role of gas as a transition source of energy as well as hydrogen. In conservation, the government is subsiding the planting of thousands of trees.

Despite his frustration regarding the National Construction Code, Arnel welcomes changes to the Commercial Building Disclosure program. From July 1, 2017, the threshold at which most sellers and lessors of office space require an up-to-date Building Energy Efficiency Certificate will drop from 2,000 square metres or more to 1,000 square metres or more.

Increased disclosure, Arnel says, will help tenants choose the most suitable building for their needs and provide incentives for owners to upgrade stock. That requirement helps address what Arnel describes as the “white elephant” in the room – upgrades of existing stock as opposed to focusing only on new stock.

Arnel dismisses suggestions that more stringent code requirements could hamper innovation, arguing that the performance-based nature of the code enables flexibility. Whilst acknowledging the need for better enforcement of existing requirements, he says this is separate from the urgent need to upgrade the code itself.

Arnel dismisses arguments that there will be cost associated with more stringent requirements. Additional requirements, he says, must be put through cost/benefit tests. Where the two upgrades have occurred in the past, he says the benefits were clearly shown to exceed the costs.

“There are quite a few critics who say we can’t afford to increase the stringency because it’s too costly,” Arnel said. “But those arguments have been well and truly refuted.”