You’ve heard of the rent trap, the debt trap and the poverty trap. But there’s another trap which plays a part in all of these: the energy trap.

Too many Australians are caught, paying much more than necessary for energy to heat, cool or light their homes, because they live in a poorly performing building. At a time of increasing temperatures and rising energy prices, the energy trap is tightening around us – but there is a way out.

The energy trap takes different forms for different Australians. Those who rent their home have little power to upgrade it to be more energy efficient – any decisions about the building structure, such as installing better insulation or a solar hot water system, are in the hands of the landlord. Those who rent are four times more likely to live in homes with poor energy efficiency. Renters may also find that, due to the budgetary pressures of running an expensive-to-rent, energy-hungry home, they end up with the cheapest appliances. These often prove ruinously expensive to operate, due to their poor energy efficiency – locking themselves into the energy trap even more securely.

The energy trap doesn’t just cost money. It can cost lives. We know that high temperatures can kill, with 2009’s devastating heat wave causing an estimated 374 deaths. But remarkably, Australia also has twice the rate of deaths from cold as Switzerland. A devastating report in Victoria showed that 87% of elderly people admitted to hospital for hypothermia were found at home. This is the pensioner version of the energy trap. Pensioner households tend to be smaller, with just one or two members, but the same space to heat. Rising energy costs make them reluctant to switch on the heating at all when temperatures plunge – leading to illness and death.

The good news is that there is an obvious way out of the energy trap. All new homes and major renovations are governed by the minimum standards in the National Construction Code. Australian Governments have committed to a ‘Trajectory for Low Energy Buildings’, which is now being progressed by the Australian Building Code Board in the form of an energy efficiency scoping study for the 2022 National Construction Code (NCC).

Built to Perform, a report put together by the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) and Climateworks Australia, shows how we can ambitiously and cost-effectively strengthen the minimum energy performance standards for new homes in the NCC – giving us the keys to escape the energy trap once and for all.

Half the buildings that will be standing in 2050 have yet to be built. We’re going to build them anyway, to accommodate our growing population. And we already have the technology, from insulation to rooftop solar, and market-leading companies are already building net zero housing in some developments. So it’s not a huge shift to include the top quality energy efficiency measures that will spring open the energy trap across the board.

Built to Perform demonstrates that increasing the current 6-star energy efficiency standard for new homes could cut energy bills by up to $900 a year for every household, as well as creating comfortable, resilient homes that can withstand temperature extremes more easily.

Today’s era of policy uncertainty, together with the cost of replacing ageing infrastructure, has driven energy prices sky high. A successful and affordable transition to renewable energy sources must be underpinned by the most efficient use of our energy to reduce the cost of generation, storage and network infrastructure. So any action we take now to help spring the energy trap and lower the amount of energy our homes need will have better and better results over time. By the same token, failing to act on energy efficient homes will cause more and more problems over time.

Right now, the energy trap has the strongest grip on the poorest and least powerful in our society. We simply can’t ask pensioners and low income Australians to keep taking the brunt of the poor energy performance of their homes.

We’re caught in an energy trap, but governments and the building sector have the keys in their hands. If they can use the National Construction Code to help spring the energy trap, we’ll all be healthier and wealthier.