By Tina Perinotto

-Welcome to 2010, and to our readers, our contributors and to our wonderful supporters and sponsors. Get ready for a rough ride in the year ahead.

After so many great signs last year on climate change action, a late and powerful swing to the sceptics halted the emissions trading scheme at the national level, and in Copenhagen China stunned observers with its willful obstruction of any meaningful agreement. (See what Mark Lynas had to say on this in the Guardian ) Now we have to endure a national procession of climate sceptics such as Ian Plimer and Lord Monckton urging us to do nothing; they may as well be urging us to play Russian roulette.

On the positive side, absolutely none of this matters to the property industry. The indications are that jobs growth in the sector will rocket along this year, propelled by entrenchment of the notion that we all need to become more sustainable – and the ebbing of the financial crisis.

This industry gets better and better at sustainability and has no intention of stepping backwards, regardless of the politics and grandstanding elsewhere.

The good news this week confirmed what many people already knew –  that Australian really is leading the world in sustainable property. In the inaugural Environmental Real Estate Index study conducted by the highly respected academic Nils Kok of  Maastricht University, GPT has been named the world’s most sustainable property company in a field of more than 600 companies. Stockland came third; Commonwealth Property Office Fund came fifth; CFS Retail came seventh, and Valad 13th.

Stockland’s Siobhan Toohill, general manager corporate responsibility and sustainability, certainly has no doubts that there will be plenty of  forward movement this year.

The big driver ill be energy efficiency, she says, and  Rowan Griffin, head of sustainability, property for Colonial First State Global Asset Management thinks the same. “This is an exceptionally important year for energy efficiency, right through the industry,” Griffin says.

The big challenge, according to Toohill, is the issue of split incentives, whereby the owner of the building gets to spend all the capital expenditure on energy improvement measures, and the tenant gets to reap the rewards of lower energy bills.

In shopping centres, where Stockland and Colonial are big investors, this is a major issue since the energy guzzling retail sector consumes about 50 per cent of commercial energy.

“We need something to incentivise the efficiency of our centres,” Toohill says. “We need to find smarter ways to share the burden with the tenants.” She says it could mean changes to state legislation that governs the way capital works’ costs are passed on.

The other big driver this year, Toohill says, is the shift to a broader notion of sustainability to encompass community and social issues. You can tell the industry is ready for this, she says, pointing to the 18 January appointment by GPT of Rosemary Kirkby as head of communities and a similar shift in focus by British peers such as British Land and Hammerson.

Kirkby made big waves in the property industry more than a decade ago when she reworked MLC’s offices in North Sydney to include Australia’s first iteration of the open-plan office, complete with breakout spaces and “Zen den”. The new premises repositioned MLC from staid financial behemoth to employer of choice.

Later she worked with GPT and Lend Lease to deliver the National@Docklands buildings in Melbourne. Essentially Kirkby helped unlock the powerful productive potential of workplaces focused on people (instead of systems or processes) and workplace communities.

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GPT chief executive officer and managing director Michael Cameron confirmed the new focus on community and social sustainability when he said that Kirkby’s new role, which will oversee GPT’s corporate responsibility vision and objectives, was in line with the company’s strategy announcement in August 2009 to “refine the group’s management team and strengthen relationships with customers and communities”.

Toohill says her team at Stockland has been “resourcing” in this space for some time, appointing new staff such as Margot Black in community development; Amanda Steele, as national sustainability manager, commercial, and Ramana James, who came aboard 12 months ago from Vodafone, bringing with him a strong community engagement background.

“I think there is a general growing awareness of the need to engage with customers,” Toohill says. “There is a strong focus on community dimensions of sustainability … a rebalance.”

Will this take the focus away somewhat from environmental issues? Toohill doesn’t think so. “We have social responsibility and we have environmental responsibility.”

On neurosurgery and the wisdom of a “balanced” debate

“Last night I was reading a few blogs on neurosurgery. I reckon I got a fairly good grasp of the major concepts and now I would like to practice some. Besides, I reckon I’ve got a much broader perspective than neurosurgeons because they are so heavily influence by their own profession. Any takers?”

This – more or less – is how climate scientist Andy Pitman of the University of NSW opened his recent address to the Sydney Institute. Not surprisingly no one took up his offer.

Pitman went on to point out that to do some plumbing around the house you need to be certified. To change a light switch? Same. But anyone at all, even if they have not read any of the literature, can influence government and world policy on climate science.

Think of Christopher Monckton (currently on a lecture tour of Australia), who is not a climate scientist but whose grasp of mathematics is apparently enough to qualify him for definitive analysis on climate change, judging by Miranda Devine’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Never mind what 2400 climate scientists say in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Listen only to a mathematician, Devine urges.

There’s enough to be fearful of with the climate without the some sections of the media adding fuel to the fire.