If Australia is to achieve the carbon milestones it agreed to in Paris, it needs a plan to make its buildings greener.
This past June, the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) released its Carbon Positive Roadmap for the built environment.
The draft report outlines steps that GBCA experts believe Australia must take to reach a target of zero emissions in the built environment by 2050. It covers commercial, institutional and government buildings. GBCA plans to produce another Roadmap for the residential and precinct sector in 2019.
The Australian Government is committed to the Paris climate change agreement and has pledged to reduce national emissions by 26 to 28 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030. Ministers have also endorsed the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which require action to combat climate change and move towards a low-carbon future.
To achieve this, changes in the built environment are essential. Globally, almost 40 per cent of energy-related greenhouse emissions come from buildings, according to the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), of which the GBCA is a member.
In 2015, the WorldGBC announced that 82 per cent of final energy consumption in buildings was supplied by fossil fuels. To meet the Paris Agreement, this must become 0 per cent.
The GBCA recommends that all new buildings and fit-outs should be emissions-neutral in operations by 2030, with existing buildings to follow by 2050. It also says the building sector should decarbonise earlier than other sectors in the economy, because there are more, and cheaper, opportunities for it to do so.
On releasing the roadmap, GBCA Chief Executive Romilly Madew said a more sustainable built environment in Australia would need upgrades to energy efficiency requirements in the national construction code and an expansion of requirements for the mandatory disclosure of energy efficiency in buildings and fit-outs.
Madew added that Australia needed broader reforms in the energy sector to reach its targets, with practical incentives to support building upgrades.
To provide one such incentive, GBCA has updated its Green Star rating. Green Star is the GBCA’s national voluntary rating and certification system for sustainable design, construction and operation of buildings, fit-outs and communities.
The path ahead
From 2020, to get a Green Star rating, owners of new buildings will have to reduce embodied carbon by 10 per cent. For a six-star rating, the new building will have to use 100 per cent renewable energy and be 40 to 50 per cent more energy efficient than today’s building code requirements. From 2026, these criteria will apply to all buildings.
To achieve a permanent transition to buildings and fit-outs with no greenhouse gas emissions, the GBCA recommends that stakeholders build, operate or occupy low-energy-intensive buildings and fit-outs. They should also adopt net zero-carbon products, materials and services and support a transition to electric vehicles.
The GBCA Roadmap also suggests that energy demand in buildings can be reduced by prioritising passive design, demand control and efficient systems. Another option is to replace refrigerants that have a high global warming potential.
“A zero-carbon built environment is no longer optional,” said Jorge Chapa, Head of Market Transformation at the GBCA and the Roadmap’s lead author.
“Clients will be asking for this. It’s something we must address. We need clear targets for all buildings, whatever the size.”
And it’s not just Green Building Councils that are saying so.
In 2016, the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) published a report outlining the need for policies that promote net zero emissions in the built environment. An Australian National University report, put out this past February, says that Australia can create a carbon-neutral economy by 2050 using technologies that are already available or in development and without adversely affecting economic growth.
Adam Beck, the Executive Director of the Smart Cities Council Australia and New Zealand, thinks the GBCA Roadmap will give the property and construction industry and their clients more incentives to select products and services that reduce emissions.
Beck predicts a future with unprecedented demand for smart meters, Internet of Things devices, renewable energy solutions, battery storage systems and other technologies that promote grid decarbonisation, along with energy-efficient systems and electric vehicles.
Phil Wilkinson, a member of the ASBEC executive committee, said that the Australian built environment sector can contribute to other national priorities, such as improving energy productivity, making efficient use of current and future infrastructure, and creating healthier, more liveable cities.
Committing to the future
However, Integral Group’s Managing Director, Australia, Andrew Mather thinks that achieving Australia’s emissions goals will require more commitment to this vision from more developers.
“Ten years ago, Australia was leading in green building. After the global financial crisis, developers dug their heels in and went backwards in relation to green buildings and sustainability commitments,” he said.
“Momentum is coming back, but some developers are still putting up low-cost high-rises quickly and cheaply and are not interested in sustainable housing.”
A better supply chain will be needed, Chapa said, particularly in the renewable sector. Involving building owners and tenants in discussions about the future more efficiently will also be required.
Mather believes that the industry will need to do more than just design new technology that uses less energy.
“We’ll also need to change the supply to include more renewables,” he said, adding that Australia has fewer renewables in its national grid than, for instance, California, the United Kingdom and many European countries.
“But there’s one national grid [in Australia], so any change will require cooperation between government at various levels and companies,” he said.
While the Australian building and construction industry is being asked to work towards 2050 targets, the WorldGBC has challenged the global building sector to eliminate operational carbon emissions from building use sooner — by 2030.
Mather said that the industry needs regulations, but also incentives to build sustainably. Wilkinson thinks that it’s time for local, state and federal governments to send clear signals about policy and regulation.
Chapa said political solutions are important, but also wants to see new technologies and better procuring systems.
“It’s time for engineers to use their creativity, skill, capacity and experience to take this on,” he said.