In the closing days of 2015, the Paris Agreement was adopted to address climate change.

The greatest race on Earth has commenced. It is a race against time, and almost 200 countries have joined it.

There will be no winners, just losers and those who lose less.

The Australian nation is slow out of the blocks and has a lot of catching up to do.

The start of this race was marked when a small green hammer struck a block of wood in the outskirts of Paris, France. This relatively benign act will be seen in decades to come as the symbolic start of the transition industrial age. It is the age of innovation, industry and interconnectedness of communities, of common motive and of purpose.

Because we are all connected, we can choose where our goods and services come from. Increasingly, we can select products based on factors deeper than price and peer pressure. We can build communities of supply and demand based on social and environmental impact, and we can take actions to ensure our choices are fully informed and responsible.

As consumers, if we do not create demand for goods and services that demonstrably meet enviro-social metrics, we are setting ourselves up for a grim future.

As individuals, societies and countries, we must join the race to change the ways we make, use and consume things so that we reduce our impact on the natural environment.

This change comes in two flavours: imposition and initiation. By resisting change, it will be imposed on us. By initiating change, we may influence it, prepare for it and even enjoy the outcomes.

Australia’s energy consumption is close to the highest per capita in the developed world, and our energy sources are some of the dirtiest. Our government debt per capita is one of the lowest and our personal debt one of the highest. Our manufacturing base as a percentage of GDP is one of the lowest and our primary production one of the highest. We of all countries have most to lose by not changing the way we dig, burn and consume. Our environment is old, unique and fragile. We have most opportunity to improve our impact and much to lose by not doing so.

In the closing days of 2016, the Australian Government passed legislation that may provide the necessary catalyst for change: an industrial change that supports responsible production and allows consumers responsible choice.

Government procurement rules now demand that contractors demonstrate and supply evidence of meeting standards. This calls for clarity about:

  1. product impact
  2. whole-of-life costs
  3. compliance with Australian standards.

This may be the catalyst we need, but how can it be achieved in the time available?

These changes to procurement rules commence in March 2017!

To meet this challenge requires a coordinated and technical approach. Imagine a funnel or series of filters through which products must pass. These filters measure compliance, conformance, and fitness for purpose. They also measure environmental impact, and best and then next practice.

A product first passes through the filter for compliance to Australian law. This is non-negotiable and enforced. These laws ensure products comply with our international obligations and treaties. For example, they must not contain asbestos, or be made with child labour, or kill threatened species.

Secondly, when compliance is demonstrated, these products are scrutinised for conformance to Australian standards. These standards are our expectations of quality, safety and performance, and are managed by Standards Australia — an institution crucial to maintaining the safe environment we see around us. Standards Australia brings technical experts together to develop standards for our benefit. These standards, established by Australian authorities for the Australian market, make our built environment perform the way it does — the way we expect and the way we pay for.

The next filter applies when products are assessed to be fit-for-purpose: what is the intended use and is it compatible when put to service? Does the window let in light and keep out rain and wind? Will it last the distance and fulfil the purpose the manufacturer claims for it? At this stage the appropriate industry associations, run by the experts in their fields, have assessed the products and approved them for use in the built environment.

Then comes the environmental filter — the societal concerns we aspire to, such as green labels, green buildings, energy efficiency, and how the products and buildings perform over their life cycle. This is where whole-of-life costs can be assessed incorporating the long-term performance of products. These environmental and social metrics are achieved based on the framework of compliance to law, conformance to standards and testing, and scrutiny of purpose. Here the whole-of-life considerations measure the building in operation, the embedded energy in its component products, the designed longevity and even material recovery when products are disposed of.

So what happens next? How do we build innovation into this hierarchy of filters to help Australia catch up?

The Australian Government spends close to 25 per cent of GDP on goods and services. Government procurement will now influence the market of products and services ensuring best practice standards. For example, suppliers can now demonstrate meeting standards that positively meet climate constraints. Producers have an opportunity to respond to market demand based not just on procurement cost but also on whole-of-life considerations and compliance to Australian standards.

If we are to meet commitments of the Paris Agreement, we need this new policy to encourage demand for whole-of-life value, and we need industry to demonstrate and compete for responsible supply. We need an open and fair marketplace where responsible producers are rewarded for complying and conforming and innovating.

Can we imagine government creating demand for climate-responsible products and services?

Can we imagine industry transitioning to a new age of shared responsibility?

In the early days of 2017 can we imagine Australia re-joining the race?

Our competitors are picking up the pace. If we do not choose and act quickly, they will leave us behind.