by Peter Robinson, Sustainable Urbanism

Enormous bureaucratic obstacles to overcome to meet emissions reduction standards

September 25, 2009 – It’s indisputable that we are going to have to be incredibly busy if we are to reduce our CO2 emissions, or achieve the 20 per cent renewable energy target. And we are going to need some very serious action from governments, at all levels.

 Whatever target we are talking about, each building adds to the task. Even if every building reduces emissions by the 25 per cent target, which is reasonable, this still represents a 75 per cent increase of that building’s emissions to the existing base case, and so we continue to expand our CO2 production.

 Even if each building or urban area reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent  (currently world’s best practice at the large precinct scale), that is still an increase, albeit a small one, on the base case.

 Both Bruce Taper and  Che Wall (Cogeneration via precincts is the way forward say experts) are correct in saying there are enormous bureaucratic obstacles to be overcome to meet any emissions reduction target or increase in renewable energy. Such obstacles are found across most, if not all, levels of government. There are entrenched attitudes in the private sector too, including the energy and development sectors.

 To fundamentally change our economy and society to address the need to reduce CO2, a paradigm shift will be required in how we value the environment, how we conduct business, how we regulate and, most importantly, how we co-operate across government departments and the public-private divide.

 There is much to lose as well as much to gain. Sadly, many players see this as a “glass half-empty” play, rather than keenly observing the opportunities of the half-full glass.

 Both Taper and Wall should have noted that we also need greater transparency in how our governments subsidise much of private sector when it comes to energy, transport, minerals, etc. This is part of the so-called “murky business” going on behind the scenes.

Another part of the equation is that compared with  other countries, Australia generally has a very poor record of commercialising its intellectual property (does the solar industry need to raise its head here?), therefore the comment on our renewables’ industry should be cast in this light. It is no different.

Significant new industries do take quite a bit [of initial investment] to get going. We now have a federal ministry that is meant to be looking at innovation, but is it still looking after the same old dinosaur industries and extending their use-by date? Is this part of the problem?

But what of the role of buildings? Surely there is more than just cogeneration and renewable energy involved? And why should we say one way is correct and another not? It would be more correct to say that we need an enormously diverse suite of measures to either reduce CO2 emissions, reduce energy consumption or look to alternative sources of energy, heating and cooling that are not related to CO2 or other noxious or climate changing gases.  Cogeneration and renewable energy are but two measures.

Another key issue is the labyrinthine set of assessments and rules within effective black-box systems like BASIX. Why not have a simple measure for all buildings of a target of X kilowatt hours a square metre (kWh/sqm) that a building’s energy use can be measured by, or an associated target of Y grams of CO2 emissions per square metre (CO2/sqm) of building?

Why not set a standard for high, medium, low, passive and positive energy buildings?

There is nothing wrong with a building being a power station (a positive energy building) if that is deemed feasible by either the owner, or a co-operative venture, for a demonstration project. How a building achieves the target of either kWh/sqm or CO2/sqm is up to the design team for that building. The critical issue is that we see continuous improvement in how we design buildings, and how we use both natural systems and technology to achieve this.

Nor is there anything wrong with trying to make some buildings zero-carbon, if that is either a way of demonstrating technologies and approaches, or a genuine heart-felt desire of a developer/owner to be a leader. Having been in low-energy buildings, passive buildings and carbon-neutral buildings, it can be said that they were quite comfortable to be in.

Owners and occupiers of these same buildings acknowledge that they are at a leading edge, but they always emphasise they are not sacrificing living or working conditions. In fact, most said conditions had improved.

As for the precinct approach being advocated, if ever there were grounds for disagreement between buildings owners, utility providers and councils, this would be one. Decentralised cogeneration may be a central plank of any strategy, but it is only one of many. What about smart grids and other forms of local energy generation?

Regarding the critique of a building getting 10 per cent of its power from solar energy or other alternative sources, if a building was of a passive standard it would be incredibly simple to generate 10 per cent of its needs with solar. Even a low-energy standard building, depending on its size, could meet this target.

This demonstrates that beyond a simple reduction in CO2 or the deployment of 20 per cent renewable energy, we need a set of energy standards for buildings that are simple enough for our politicians to understand. Either kWh/sqm and/or CO2/sqm would be a good place to start. Then we can start looking at a number of the other issues inherent in energy production, reduction and standards.

However, beyond this, there are developments that produce a substantial proportion of their own energy

Hanover is a good case study. The German city is regarded as a world leader in CO2 reduction, by using a suite of approaches to reduce CO2 and increase energy efficiency. Against a backdrop of population growth (+15,000), economic growth, rising energy/heating use (up by 32 per cent), and greater transport use (air transport is up by 71 per cent), Hanover met its Kyoto obligation and reduced its COemissions by 7.5 per cent in 1990-2005.

This was achieved  using a broad suite of approaches, of which cogeneration was only one (the city has 91 decentralised plants).

Hanover freely acknowledges the limitations of alternative energy and the trouble of dealing with coal-fired power stations in their network when they have banned nuclear power generation.

So while it is acknowledged that co- and tri-generation are important, they must be seen as one part of a much broader suite of measures to meet the challenge of lowering greenhouse gas emissions and cutting energy use from buildings.

Peter Robinson is principal of Sustainable Urbanism