Earlier last week, at the first leaders’ debate in the run up to the federal election, both contenders for the nation’s top job clashed over their policies and their vision for Australia.

Among a range of issues, climate change and environmental policies were front and centre.

The Prime Minister said he thought it was “a threat” and required “urgent action”, while the Opposition Leader vowed “to take real action on climate change”.

But despite these public statements, neither side noted the opportunities presented by one of our biggest sectors when it comes to the critical issue – buildings.

It’s probably no surprise that buildings have an enormous impact on our national productivity and standard of living, but they also represent one of the biggest opportunities we have for reducing our emissions output.

If we get the settings right for our buildings, not only can we reduce our impact on the environment, but we will also grow our prosperity and improve our quality of life.

At the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) we have set out a path for progress in the lead up to the federal election, to leverage the potential of our nation’s built environment and create new economic, social and environmental opportunities.

The plan includes five key initiatives that will help to bring forward positive change.

The first is establishing a plan for net zero emissions buildings by 2050, with clear actions and targets to decarbonise while building better and more efficient communities and infrastructure.

Targeting the energy use of our buildings represents one of the most cost-effective ways to improve energy efficiency and meet our international obligations, since buildings and their operations generate almost one-quarter of the nation’s emissions.

The GBCA has been working with our members, industry and government to develop a pathway to net zero buildings in Australia. Our Carbon Positive Roadmap for the Built Environment presents a plan that establishes the steps required for commercial, institutional and government buildings and fit-outs to reduce their emissions over time.

Secondly, the GBCA supports strong leadership with stable commitments to emissions reductions.

Reducing Australia’s emissions in the built environment depends on businesses taking up clean energy technologies, and promoting innovation to develop new and more efficient ways of reducing emissions.

Visionary government leadership, and regulatory settings that provide certainty in our energy and climate change policies will be essential for providing industry with the confidence to underpin new investment. Energy market reform, increased support for sustainable finance and funding and improving government buildings are all ways to see this realised.

Cities provide a clear challenge and target for Australia to enhance its livability and sustainability, and this is our third vision for the nation.

With Australia’s population expected to grow to 36 million people over the next three decades – and three-quarters of that set to occur in cities – we need to get the infrastructure, housing, affordability and sustainability in place to support this growth challenge.

There are already solutions to achieve this. The Building Up and Moving Out report, tabling findings from the 2017 Parliamentary Inquiry into the Australian Government’s role in the development of cities provides a comprehensive blueprint of where we can use cohesive planning to deliver better outcomes.

Growing the value of our infrastructure is another consideration for the GBCA ahead of the May election. Federal government leadership for strategic outcomes in social infrastructure – including certification and independent assurances – can assist to achieve environment and sustainable benefits in the rollout of these important projects.

Finally, the GBCA has voiced its support for a strategic national social and affordable housing strategy.

We believe housing for Australians has a critical and ongoing impact on people’s quality of life and social advantage.

An Australia-wide strategy should plan for housing diversity and choice, alongside infrastructure and sustainability. In order to be effective, this coordinated plan should also address the whole-of-life costs of new housing through sustainable development.

This month’s election is an opportunity to set in train initiatives that will benefit Australia’s future prosperity in the face of growth and climate-related challenges.

The past decade of indecision and partisan politics on climate change must now come to an end. We know what policy and regulatory settings are required.

It’s time for our political parties to demonstrate their leadership, and our buildings are the best place to start.