The power of small things

6 November 2009 – Former NSW Premier Bob Carr wants local councils to use development conditions to ban trans fats in food outlets.

New York and California already do so, and effectively, so does Kogarah Council in Sydney, by making a ban on the fats a condition of development consent.

At Manly, also in Sydney, the local council gave Stockland and Abigroup a furiously hard time at the Totem shopping centre development by trying to ban plastic shopping bags and bottles in the centre.

The council eventually lost, after Stockland appealed three times to the NSW Land and Environment Court , on behalf of its lead supermarket tenant, of course.

In May the Manly Daily reported that a Coles’ spokesman had applauded the decision for being “sensible” and because the plastic ban would have placed the company at a “competitive disadvantage”.

The council’s general manager, Henry Wong, was extremely disappointed with the court’s decision. “Hopefully the legislation across Australia will catch up with the likes of Coles and the others,’’ Mr Wong told the paper.

It looks like Carr needn’t bother. The Australian Financial Review on 6 November revealed that Coles and Woolies will become their own developers because conventional developers are finding the job just too difficult.

For the word “difficult” you can substitute “sustainable”. Or “healthy”, in the case of trans fats. So while the Federal Government gets hammered by the coal industry and state governments dither in committees to plan for national frameworks on all climate change and sustainability issues, local councils have just been getting on with it, bringing on their own revolutions.

The reality is that developers don’t really care. They can build shoddy cheap buildings or grand high-quality buildings. They are simply supplying a service, much like a builder who gives you what you pay for.

The real driver of change is demand –  and that’s a mix of the end user, the community and the law.For the developer of course it’s the short term demand that counts – today’s buyer. Which is why developer lobbies such as the Urban Development Institute of Australia NSW office would “prefer the adoption of the 2050 benchmark” for hazard lines on coastal development in NSW, instead of the proposed 2100 benchmark. Maybe  they think 40 years of enjoying your building is good enough.

So congratulations to the community that has agitated tirelessly, in endless resident action groups, to bend the ear of local councillors their way  and away from those who care only about “sensible” financially sound decisions that tell only half the story.

The writing is on the wall and the developers are acting by moving out of dangerous territory. Good on them.

The lessons are tough: At the Sunshine Coast the local council overnight ruled that a whole swathe of land bought for millions of dollars was now undevelopable because a new sea-level risk assessment said it would be a future swamp.

How’s that for “competitive disadvantage”? Developable one day. Not developable the next.

Sustainability has too long been in the domain of the optional extra. The Federal Government’s emerging set of rules and frameworks (other than for setting minimum renewable energy targets, way too feeble as they be) have relied on the market to make the settings.

As if the market can act rationally when it comes to climate change! It hasn’t a clue how to factor in a degraded natural environment. But it’s getting the picture now, very quickly.

Even the economists are starting to get it, which can be unnerving.

In the past fortnight there’s been plethora of dire warnings from unlikely lips: The House of Representatives’ committee on sea-level rises (see Lynne Blundell’s lead story on this); the Prime Minister on how to do sustainable urban planning (no, we still don’t like you Mr Rudd, not until you listen to your own chief scientist); and, most forcefully of all, from the Treasury head himself, Ken Henry, warning that climate change and population growth will cause massive disruption to where we can live in this arid country, and how.

For good measure even Fairfax economics writer Ross Gittins –  usually the master of sanguine riposte, so calming in crisis –  admitted he was so disturbed by Dr Henry that it made him glad he was old and wouldn’t see most of the changes. Don’t be so sure, Ross.

The scientists who recently briefed climate campaigner Clive Hamilton, now standing for the Greens in the Federal seat of Higgins (see our interview), are in despair, says Hamilton, not just for their children but for themselves. Age shall not provide the easy exit card.

What’s missing from all these scenarios is the cause. Hamilton says coal is the single biggest threat to the planet – forget the rest. If we don’t stop burning coal, any amount of sustainable building work won’t matter. It’s the elephant in the room, because while government shifts the focus onto how to deal with the consequences of climate change, very few people are trying to actually shut down coal production.

Yet maybe it’s not such a big stretch to stop burning coal. NSW Premier Nathan Rees has already flagged that the next power plant will likely be gas-, not coal-fired. And the word is that the banks have lost faith in that industry, so maybe it’s not such a big stretch.

(Of course this proves the markets can eventually kick in. The big question, is do we have the time?)

Instead of saying how hard it is to change our system, it might be much cleverer to make a plan – and set a deadline.

If we stopped burning coal it would require a massive reordering of the books: new energy sources, huge refits of our buildings, helping China become the clean-technology leader it wants to be. In the end it’s about restructuring the numbers and business. It can be done. The global financial crisis showed us how.

Climate change is different. When it kicks in there will be no amount of deft accounting tricks or political argument to make a difference.

Let’s get really sensible.