January 2021 marked a major change of direction for the US.

The inauguration of Joe Biden as President put an end to the Trump era and signalled a swing to more progressive domestic policies. With Democrats taking a slim majority in the US House of Representatives and Senate, it’s very likely that many of Biden’s policies will be enacted.

But the changes that will be brought about by the move to a Biden administration are not limited to the US.  Biden’s ambitious plan for a clean energy revolution and environmental justice will have a global impact, including for Australia. And our building sector is one of the areas that could be impacted. This new direction represents change to which we must adapt, and also new opportunities – if we can seize them.

Donald Trump removed the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, under which all countries pledge to reduce their emissions in an attempt to keep global heating to well below 2 C. With the US responsible for 15% of global emissions, second only to China, the withdrawal of the US put the brakes on global efforts to reduce emissions.

But one of Biden’s first acts as President was to sign an executive order for the US to re-join the Paris Agreement. And a key ambition of the new administration is to create a net zero carbon emissions US by 2050, run on 100% green energy. When it comes to per capita emissions, Australia out-emits the US, so there will be added impetus to reduce our emissions as quickly as possible if we are not to find ourselves on the wrong side of our most powerful ally.

Biden also states an ambition to “pursue strong new measures to stop other countries from cheating on their climate commitments. We can no longer separate trade policy from our climate objectives.” Clear signals that Australia is reducing emissions will become increasingly important to maintain our longstanding trade and diplomatic links with the US.

Biden also wants to use the US position as a global power to “rally the rest of the world” to act on climate. This means encouraging every nation to go far beyond their Paris targets. Beyond our relationship with the US specifically, we’ll increasingly be trading with countries who are also on a fast track to zero emissions. A cross-sector approach will be essential, with the building sector playing a major part.

Australia’s buildings contribute to almost a quarter of our emissions – just through their operation.  So improving building energy performance is paramount.  Happily, we already have the technology to build to net zero right now. Our property market leaders have the demonstrated capability to deliver rapid improvements in building energy performance: Australian property companies have notched up an impressive ten year run at the top of the GRESB Real Estate Assessment ranking.  And we can deliver this more broadly across the sector, providing significant reductions in Australia’s emissions over a short period of time, through a comprehensive series of industry-backed measures, including:

  • A clear plan for net zero buildings
  • Acceleration of the shift to high performance buildings through targeted incentives
  • Stronger minimum standards for energy performance of new builds
  • Reform of our energy markets to unlock the potential of distributed energy
  • Strong leadership from governments on their own leased and own buildings
  • Robust ratings tools so that end purchasers can compare like with like
  • Transforming Australia’s market to be a global leader in high performance building products

Australia’s state and federal governments have already aligned themselves with these measures, setting a Trajectory for Low Energy Buildings.  The ‘Trajectory’ provides unambiguous pathways to reduce built environment emissions by improving the minimum energy performance of new builds and renovations, and progressing a broad range of measures to address the energy efficiency of existing buildings.  This is an essential and timely effort that is strongly supported by a great number of industry stakeholders.

The Biden administration brings new opportunities for exchanging skills, knowledge and products that support a net zero trajectory. This includes advancing innovation in reducing embodied emissions for building materials we export. The US is a big market for Australian aluminium, so if we can act fast to deliver low carbon aluminium products, we can take advantage of this burgeoning opportunity. Australia also imports heavy machinery from the US for our mining and building sectors, so now’s the time to advance our capacities for new carbon friendly machinery and technology.

Jobs in the US will also change under Biden, with the new administration focused on “putting millions of people to work” by building “modern, sustainable infrastructure and an equitable clean energy future”. A shift to a more sustainable built environment is a proven job creator. As one of Australia’s largest employers, and a key contributor to GDP, a the building sector is positioned to be a crucial part of post-COVID economic recovery, as outlined in Building Efficiency for Jobs and Growth, released by ASBEC, Green Building Council of Australia, Property Council of Australia and the Energy Efficiency Council.

In the coming years, the US will pioneer ways to achieve change at scale. This will give us excellent examples to learn from. The state of California, for example, is already leading the way in terms of an excellent green building code and Australia stands ready to implement many of its innovations ourselves, with our own good work on advancing energy efficiency standards in the National Construction Code.

Whatever you might think of the new administration in the US, the fact is that things have changed and these changes will have long term ramifications for Australia’s building sector. If we can increase our commitments on climate and demonstrate we’re on track to slash emissions and redouble our efforts on advancing new green technology, we can take full advantage of the new opportunities on offer. We can build a better Australia, while being part of a worldwide movement on climate.