Tony Arnel

28 January 2011 – Green Building Council of Australia and World Green Building Council chair Tony Arnel this week told the G’Day USA conference in Boston that the business case for green buildings was increasingly compelling but that several myths needed to be busted in order to realise the sector’s full potential.

Among the myths were that green buildings cost too much and that high rise buildings are more environmentally friendly than the suburban home.

In newspaper reports this week  Mr Arnel scotched these ideas and using results found by Allen Consulting in a report for the Victorian Building Commission (Mr Arnel is also Victorian Building Commissioner) said that there was “no conclusive evidence that vertical living was more sustainable than conventional homes.

“In contrast, the study suggested buildings above three storeys began to use more energy due to the need for lighting in common areas, lifts, security and the lifestyle of residents,” The Australian Financial Review reported of comments Mr Arnel made at the conference.

Following is the text of Mr Arnel’s prepared speaking notes for the G’Day USA Boston conference:

Cities account for much of the environmental stress we face – including more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. This makes the built environment the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions – far more than the more obvious industries such transport and manufacturing, which attract most of the attention.

It is not only the largest source of greenhouse emissions but is also the fastest growing, driven by the hyper-urbanisation taking place in the developing world, especially Asia.

To stop this trend we need to do two things:

  • Explore and challenge the myths that have emerged as barriers that stop us reducing the carbon footprint of our built environment. Myths such as green buildings cost too much money and that high-rise buildings are more environmentally friendly than the suburban home; and
  • Use new information to create cities that offer people a better life – one that is happy, healthy and sustainable and reduce the carbon footprint per capita.

The myth of cost
Numerous studies, including by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have shown that the potential of the built environment to deliver cost effective, global carbon emission reductions is unrivalled. Improving the environmental performance of buildings can more than pay for itself in energy and other resource savings.
Green buildings generate even more value through improving the health, comfort and environmental amenity they deliver to the building occupants. This makes green building one of the most powerful and cost effective mechanisms for improving environmental outcomes at both a local and global level.
In Australia, we seem to be having once in a 100 year weather events with such frequency that they will soon be re-casting the frequency statistics. The economic and environmental risks we are running make inaction an absurd response.
So, where should the focus of our action be?

There are three areas on which both the US and Australia should be focused and in which there is rich potential for collaboration.

The first is:

  • Retrofitting of our existing buildings. New buildings in the US and Australia account for only 1-2 per cent of the total building stock each year. We cannot wait for this natural process of building and re-building to achieve the improved environmental performance we need from the built environment. We need to capitalise quickly on the energy savings, reduction of carbon emissions and increased property values that are possible through retrofitting.

The US$120 million retrofit of New York’s Empire State Building, including US$13.2 million for specific green features are expected to save US$4.4 million of energy costs per year, repaying the green investment in around three years.
Melbourne’s retrofits

This strong economic, social and environmental business case has led my home town of Melbourne to target two thirds of the city’s commercial buildings to receive sustainability retrofits with the ambitious ‘1200 Buildings’ program.  Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said it would bring a ‘green gold rush’ by generating around $1.3 billion in economic activity and around 800 green jobs. Such green jobs have enormous appeal at a time of continuing economic uncertainty in the US and Europe.
According to United Nations Environment Program projections, more than 4.5 million green jobs will be needed across the EU, USA,Canada and India by 2030 to meet energy-efficiency requirements in building construction and maintenance.
Improving the environmental performance of buildings has more benefits than just emission reduction and savings in energy costs. Of even greater significance are the health and productivity gains from improving the quality of the indoor environment of buildings.

Numerous studies, both in the US and Australia, have shown that a better indoor environment reduces sick leave and improves worker productivity and health. Typically these gains vary between two and 10  per cent per worker. A study we undertook that extrapolated these gains on the 1200 buildings program in Melbourne, found that the productivity gain could be as much as $1 billion per year, dwarfing the projected value of the energy savings. This value shows that going green is not just a cost – it can be a driver of economic growth.

Environmental friendly neighbourhoods

The second priority area is:

  • Environmental friendly neighbourhoods .  We need to start thinking about how neighbourhoods can be designed not only to achieve better environmental outcomes but also for economic productivity, community health and social amenity.

Studies are also showing that neighbourhoods that encourage physical exercise and offer contact with nature reserves and parks have a strong preventative health benefit – both physical and mental. They also support higher creativity and innovation in industry, education and community welfare and lead to higher property values.

Melbourne’s Docklands is a good example. The site is now has the greatest concentration of 6 Green Star buildings in Australia and is one of the world’s greenest neighbourhoods. The re-development is an environmental restoration – eliminating over 200 years of neglect as a working port and creating a new and liveable community.

Sustainable cities

The third area is:

  • Sustainable cities.  The imperatives of sustainability come into stark relief in the mega-cities of Asia and South America. The World Health Organisation estimates the health costs of air pollution at over $200 million per annum in each mega-city. The costs of inadequate sanitation and water supply on public health would be at least as much again, if not greater.

Imagine if we could re-design these cities to cut these costs. It would mean industries would be more productive and efficient, the poisoning of our environment would diminish, and the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people would be dramatically improved.

Such a re-design will not be easy. But the gains from success are immense and that is why the World Green Building Council is developing a program of action to help these cities. It will have a strong focus on Asia, where the lion’s share of the world’s new urban development is taking place.

The US Green Building Council was the world’s first and remains the largest green building council in the world.  There are currently more than 28,000 commercial projects participating in the US GBC’s LEED certification system, comprising over 7.1 billion square feet of construction space.

The Green Building Council of Australia, which I chair, has enjoyed similar success. Despite our comparatively small market, we are the second biggest GBC in the world and our Green Star tool has helped drive Australia’s green property revolution, with a high Green Star rating now regarded by the industry as an essential to attract tenants and preserve the value of the office.
More than 80 countries now have GBCs affiliated with the World GBC, up from less than 20 only three years ago.

We need continued co-operation between the US and Australia, both to improve our own cities and to help the developing world to shift its massive urban growth onto a sustainable basis. Together, we can create a world in which our buildings support human endeavour without undermining the environment in which they operate.

editorial@thefifthestate.com.au