Andrew Petersen

 22 November 2012 — It was a conference that had everyone who was anyone, plus all the interesting companies represented.

The inaugural Australian Sustainability conference and exhibition on 8-9 November in Sydney, included Pooran Desai of BioRegional, UK, Ben Waters from GE’s Ecomanination,  John Hewson, former Liberal leader and now green investment champion, Anita Mitchell, from Barangaroo and Lend Lease, Bernard Carlon, NSW Office of Environment & Heritage, Maria Atkinson, ex Lend Lease, now director of new consultancy XO, John Connor, The Climate Institute and Rosemary Bissett, NAB.

The business case for greening businesses, our cities and nation was made compellingly at the conference and exhibition held by Sustainable Business Australia, but it was a closing session on infrastructure that showed long-term planning for cities is crucial.

Making an opening address as the new chair of SBA was GE Ecomagination director Ben Waters who showed how the clean-tech investment arm of GE had benefitted substantially from focusing on areas such as energy and water-efficiency.

Identifying a mega-trend of increasing resource efficiency, Waters acknowledged businesses had to overcome “inertia” to be successful.

As an 130-year-old company, GE has had to re-invent itself  “again and again” and has evolved from focusing on petroleum-based plastics to solar and wind power.

“It’s the part of our business that’s been the most successful… sustainability is about doing good business,” Waters said.

In the opening plenary on building resilience, BioRegional, UK co-founder Pooran Desai agreed that one of the mega-trends centred on doing more with less.

Desai, whose social enterprise was behind the creation of Britain’s best known sustainable community, Beddington Zero Energy Development, known as BedZED, predicted another trend would be re-localisation as supply chains became more erratic.

Maria Atkinson, immediate past head of sustainability at Lend Lease, and now a director of consultancy XO,  referred to estimates that about 30 per cent of people were committed to sustainability, 30 per cent were sceptics but that it was the 40 per cent in between where efforts should be focused.

In a Solution Spotlight, Solar Switch’s Kevin Ferrari outlined the lighting upgrade of leading printer Ricoh’s head office in Sydney’s Frenchs Forest and other offices and that of other clients, replacing more than 2000 high-energy lights.

As always, the legacy lights were recycled so they would not be re-used and savings projections were made based on current consumption – in this case the investment generated NSW Government Environmental Savings Certificates equivalent to 60 per cent of the project cost and savings amounted to $30,000 annually, with the investment realised in a year.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Ferrari said. “On a small scale we can be doing this at home; we can be doing this everywhere.”

Network manager for the Global Reporting Initiative in Australia, Victoria Whitaker, highlighted the importance of measurement in determining areas that needed improvement.

Supply chains have in the past few years provided impetus for companies to move to independent sustainability reporting, with corporations such as Microsoft, Apple and Wal-Mart using GRI guidelines.

Moderating a panel on procurement, Forestry Stewardship Council chief executive Natalie Reynolds stressed the robustness of the international scheme. She told The Fifth Estate an increasing number of non-food innovative products—such as lignin and even some nanotechnology developments – were used in buildings.

These products can be traced back to trees and some are now being FSC certified.

Although avoiding reputational damage is a motivation, some companies that do best with their sustainability embed it in some form throughout the business and strive to become what creative agency the Republic of Everyone has dubbed a “hero brand” – making a bold statement through action in an area of specialty.

Andrew Ure, managing director of Ogilvy Earth, the sustainability practice of Australia’s largest PR company, warned that although focusing on communication without real action would be uncovered as greenwash, communication was an essential vehicle for reaping the rewards of good work—allowing the organisation to publicise itself with an “authentic voice”.

Change the Conversation director Stephen Hale explained authenticity another way, citing statistics that showed traditional media was falling in significance and only a small proportion of people trusted an advertisement compared to almost nine in 10 who rely on the recommendations of others (including via social media) to assist in decision-making.

With the business case for embracing sustainability established, a closing session on green cities and infrastructure contemplated a more complex issue – improving built environments with infrastructure stock that lasts up to a decade, requiring huge investments going beyond electoral timeframes.

Australian Green Infrastructure Council chief executive officer Antony Sprigg said despite the fact that projects which established sustainability principles had better outcomes, the challenge was often in getting stakeholders on board. “You actually have to have the right questions asked at the right time, in the right way,” the head of the not-for-profit group said.

Forward-looking infrastructure projects generate non-market benefits such as social licence to operate and are not held up by community protests, which can be significant. “When people start to realise that intangibles are tangibles then you start to see that the community can have an impact,” he said.

For local councils earmarked for growth, such as Parramatta, the geographical centre of Greater Sydney, upgrading the substantial stock of old buildings (comprising almost half of all buildings in the Parramatta region) is expected to be an efficient way of improving the built environment, thanks to the visionary approach to financing that is attracting investors and will also be offered in other local government areas, environmental upgrade agreements. (See The Fifth Estate guide to EUAs)

Before embarking on the program, the council did a stocktake of its buildings to determine which ones needed to be prioritised.

Following Melbourne’s lead, the council is the first to take up an EUA which uses energy savings generated by the upgradeto  fund the cost of the retrofits, with repayments made by way of a charge on council rates.

Parramatta council’s manager of environmental outcomes for its city strategy, Helen Papathanasiou, said by 2036 the local government area would be home to 50,000 new jobs and there will also be 100,000 more residents commuting to Sydney’s CBD.

Parramatta has teamed up with other councils in western Sydney to propose a light rail network for the region and will contribute up to $1 million, should the ambitious project – estimated to cost $6.5 billion – get the go-ahead.

A feasibility study commissioned this year is expected to be completed by the middle of next year.

The conference also heard how difficult it was to build in sustainability elements once a tender had been awarded for new construction, according to vice president of the NSW Civil Contractors Federation of Australia Mick Boyle.

The founder and managing director of Abergeldie said an overarching green vision was needed to ensure more sustainable constructions and that construction companies were often constrained by preference for the cheapest offer.

“When you do a construct-only project [rather than design-and-construct] the effect you can have on sustainability is reasonably limited,” he said. Just as occupational health and safety had become mandated and streamlined, with companies having to adhere to standardised metrics, sustainability principles needed to be embedded in construction work, as part of a larger plan for greening cities, he said.

Infrastructure Partnerships Australia chief executive officer Brendan Lyon warned that although there had been substantial progress in the measurement of sustainability at a project level, it was necessary to track the progress of the city as a whole, over time, in order to tackle the costly process of growing and improving Australia’s cities.

To this end, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia in consultation with global consulting firm Arup recently released a report calling for the Productivity Commission to develop a dashboard of transparent performance indicators to measure the effectiveness of public infrastructure spend, which accounts for tens of billions of dollars of government investment into urban Australia each year.

“The efficiency of key infrastructure networks will dictate Australia’s success in meeting sustainability objectives,” Mr Lyon said.  “Progress will ultimately require us to step back from the religion of sustainability and instead develop robust, practical and actionable steps to improve our performance.”

To utilise networks optimally, it was important to develop an integrated approach to the way infrastructure was conceived, funded and regulated, moving from the current “silo” outlook to “city-wide” and “cross-network” collaborative projects incorporating land-use planning.

As well, more effective demand management has the potential to save billions, a CSIRO study has found.

With almost 70 per cent of the national workforce employed in Australia’s major cities, urban centres were a major driver of economic growth and therefore the long-term welfare of cities needed to be linked to the welfare of the nation.

“Just as our cities provide the catalyst for a national transformation, the infrastructure in our cities represents the critical enabler in transitioning our cities onto a greener, more sustainable footing,” Mr Lyon said.

“Australia’s governments must move beyond broad policy ideas towards the seamless integration of infrastructure and land-use planning… This will result in outcomes which respond more effectively to population growth, technological change and sustainable development.”