Big Red takes a drink, Perth

On a Sustainability Salon for Perth and WA

7 November 2013 – On Thursday night, The Fifth Estate will host a salon dinner in Perth. Our guests will be some of the people most influential in shaping a more sustainable future for Perth and Western Australia.

Among them will be people from federal politics, leaders from the City of Perth and the City of Fremantle, the state government, LandCorp, Leighton Properties, Mirvac, Norman Disney & Young, Curtin University and HFM Asset Management.

Our aim has been to find out what drives this fascinating place and why, in the midst of the one of the most rich and yet climatically vulnerable places in the country, there is the most confused messaging and anti-sustainability rhetoric from the state government and barely any incentives to conserve natural resources.

Water in particular.

Perth is a stunningly beautiful city – great and liberal parks peppered with jacaranda trees, statues of Big Red kangaroos relaxing by a pond, free buses, brilliant train lines, the people sophisticated and friendly.

It’s here you see first hand the immense power and wealth of the mining industry.

From the first, on the drive out from the airport you see what side your bread is buttered on in this state: it’s wall to wall mining sector businesses. In the city the big resource names are dramatic and their buildings impressive.

But there’s also great work occurring on sustainability.

The citizens in WA have the highest take up of solar on a per capita basis in Australia, and the world.

Local councils are the local heroes.

There is the City of Perth’s push for light rail and affordable housing driven by Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi; there is the passionate work of the City of Fremantle Mayor Dr Brad Pettitt to create more sustainable eco-diverse neighbourhoods and habitat.

There is outstanding work from the City of Vincent and Joondalup… the list goes on.

Developers too get it. The big developers in town – the locals and nationals such as Leighton Properties, Mirvac and Lend Lease, come with high green standards. Almost unquestionably now.

There’s an active and passionate bunch of emerging new developers such as the Psaros group, which is using life cycle assessment and in some breakthrough projects, putting solar on every apartment unit.

There is a small outfit, Green Gurus, run by a highly motivated Chiara Pacifici, also a consultant to Psaros, who is educating residential real estate agents – more than 400 already – on how to “sell” green housing and how it’s a brilliant new and exciting selling point.

Perhaps pointing out how a $100,000 granite benchtop kitchen might look good but will immediately date and lose value while a solar energy unit and water savings will create value and independence from rising grid prices.

It’s harder in the greenfields. There are no growth boundaries, and the planners insist everyone has to be connected to the grid. (Developers could contact companies such as Flow Systems, which can get water and energy off grid at a fraction of regular infrastructure costs).

Of course, every state and federal government runs scared of the housing and building lobbies if someone dares to suggest more sustainable standards. The pricing argument is a furphy, proved over and over again by the evidence.

But in WA the state government seems to have taken an active position to stop progress in sustainability.

It’s slashed climate change staff almost zero and  dismantled household programs that stimulate behaviour change.

On energy it denigrates and actively tries to dissuade renewable energy, while fossil fuel costs rise 70 per cent in five years, and the cost of solar races towards zero.

Yet the miners themselves push hard with research and investment in renewable energy sources, especially in the outback.

When they sign up for new buildings miners insist on the most sustainable, outstanding green buildings (the new BHP fitout for instance, is “amazing” say those who have peered inside). Likewise their operational practices and their public relations campaign.

There are good reasons to be going green in Perth, but the politicians don’t get it. Or do they?

When the Barnett Government negotiated the massive 25-year lease over its new offices in Mirvac’s Old Treasury Building site under construction, it insisted on a minimum 5 Star Green Star rating.

Why? The business case for green office buildings is clear and unmistakable.

The frugal use of natural resources means more dollars to the bottom line. It’s called productivity: getting more out of less. The people in government who negotiated the lease know that.

On Thursday the Barnett Government announced it would snaffle up the majority of landfill tax previously destined to stop waste and bolster its coffers instead.

Not so long ago it wasted nearly half a billion dollars in a failed attempt to reactivate an old coal mine, forcing a government minister to resign.

And yet… this city and the South West area that is its most productive agricultural land, is in long term drying mode.

Already 30 per cent of the city’s water is from expensive desalination and the call is to increase this. Maybe that’s possible but what do you do about growing the food?

And stunningly, amidst this scenario, the water use ratio is 70 per cent residential: 30 per cent commercial and industrial – the reverse of everywhere else in Australia.

What do the residents use all that water for? Fifty per cent is used on gardens and 15 per cent toilet flushing and washing.

And there are no water restrictions, no programs to educate households into conserving their life support system.

You can book into your mid-range hotel in Perth and shower like it’s 1999. No water efficient fittings here.

Professor Tim Flannery of the Climate Council says Perth will be Australia’s first ghost metropolis.

Is he right?

We hope not. And there are plenty of people who want to make sure he’s not.

The Fifth Estate has gone to Perth to gather up some understanding and some strategies to see how, despite the odds, Perth and WA can have a great future.

We will report our findings in a major ebook coming soon.

4 replies on “News from the front desk: Issue No 167”

  1. As a sustainability consultant, focused on the organisational cultures from which practice and technology arises, I’m convinced a lot has to do with the cultural bias of Perth (WA) as a resources town.

    I say town, not city, as it seems to lack the sophistication of a large modern city. An ex State Governor has described WA as having, or being stuck in, a pioneering or frontier mindset. The ‘wild west’ that needs taming (conquering).

    An ecological mindset isn’t exactly compatible with the orthodox economic raison d’etre of the state. Nor, for that matter, is it generally seen as compatible with business-as-usual in an infinite growth global capitalist society, but that’s the global concern not one unique to Perth.

  2. our attempts at getting a wind farm (yes, commercially viable) built in the industrial context of the Fremantle Port is an interesting case case study into the inertia that can occur when a State has got it too good. Passivity of a government agency is allowed to stifle good initiative.

  3. The point is that we have more fossil fuel capacity than we need and the govt wants us to use it and of course generate revenue at the same time.

    The public are buying solar at a substantial rate (2800 applications a month) and that means lost revenue.

    The Minister for energy suggested that new solar installs be west facing. As if the industry would do that unless they had to.

  4. As a sustainability professional in Perth, it is great to see The Fith Estate actively interested and you are totally right about the situation. The planning of this city, particuarly the urban framework has been built on the 1950’s plans with no stopping the urban fringe development of greenfield sites.

    Minimum standards for energy and water efficiency in residential developments are far from that experienced in the commercial space with Greenstar and NABERS driving change.

    This is particuarly the case as evident given the changing climated and the 70% decrease in rainfall over the past 20 years. What’s more worrying is the Liberal Governments persistence with wasting tax payer money on reigniting an anchient coal fired power plant when there is ample capacity according to recent conversation I have had with an electricity retailer.

    Furthermore the decision to further delay vital light rail infrastructure to drive more sustainable development and infill to the current flat residential landscape of the city. Whether the Liberals will ever deliver on the vital promised and planned transport links at the recent election should be strongly questioned.

    Hopefully a lot comes out of this dinner and I will be eagerly awaiting the e-book for your findings.

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