Juicy low hanging fruit – let’s get some

The Libs have started kicking again, puffed up by resurgent climate sceptics and their passion to be followers, not leaders, on the carbon pollution reduction scheme.

Eminent climate scientist, the normally upbeat Tim Flannery, is dark blue on our planet’s prospects at Copenhagen and on the CPRS making it anywhere near daylight in a form that is actually useful.

Even the federal government computer that was meant to process the millions of interest free green home loans that would transform our domestic sector has broken down and householders have lost their deposits on equipment that they wanted to install.[ See Lynne Blundell’s interview with Christine Milne ]

Some days your optimism gets stretched way too thin.

After several weeks of good news and excitement in the property industry about all the changes under way, it suddenly seems like the wheels are spinning but they’re not catching.

At times like these You can only hope the outlook is so bleak it will galvanise some real action.

Like in the housing sector. How hard can it be?

Housing is the fastest growing building sector for greenhouse emissions – and one of the easiest to fix. A huge 75 per cent emissions reduction is possible with just efficient design and appliances. And the existing housing sector can be retrofitted for low cost.

To see how easy it would be to turn this mammoth energy guzzling industry into a zero carbon industry, take a look at the impressive report released last week by a coalition of green groups, SeeTowards Climate Safe Homes, the Case for Zero Emissions and Water Saving Homes and Neighbourhoods and covered in our story here.

Huge gains can also be made by the commercial sector.

Time and time again we hear of reports trotted out from a bevvy of consultants such McKinsey & Co that in terms of emissions savings, this industry is replete with cheap, juicy, low hanging fruit.

So what’s stopping progress?

The answer isn’t just the climate sceptics and the big polluters protecting their patch. There is a deep philosophical reluctance in government to regulate. Within Treasury in particular.

Treasury is made up of the people who control the purse strings of the economy and whose job is the uniquely pleasurable one of saying “no” to politicians.

This is not to say that this goes to their head, and that they get together cabal-like to work out policy settings for the country, as some people might suggest. Then again…

The point is that Treasury tends to get what it wants.And what it likes is the free market and price signals because it believes that the market is the most efficient allocator of resources.

Treasury is not looking for the most caring allocator of resources. Nor the most prudent, insightful or scientific.

A major problem with price signals is that sometimes they don’t work. Tobacco for instance. Or energy. Even if energy prices rise 50 per cent, that’s still a fraction of overall input costs for most of us.

Treasury also doesn’t like regulation because it is seen as distorting price signals.

So we still don’t have a “white” certificate trading framework to capture voluntary energy savings. Instead the big polluters will get the benefits by enjoying lower targets than they would have to meet otherwise.

Paul Murfitt, a former Victorian government insider and now chief executive of the influential Moreland Energy Foundation, one of the commissioning groups of the Climate Safe Homes report, and energy experts such as Alan Pears and The Greens say such a scheme is critical.

“Any of these mechanisms where you start to put a value on wasted energy is one that building owners and managers have got to start focusing on.

“We need to pick this up. Time and again and study after study shows the value of this.”

“The Treasury line is that the CPRS is the essential platform,” Murfitt says.

Mechanisms such as mandatory disclosure, and the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme, are also market based, he points out.

“Mandatory disclosure will bring up the bottom of the market,” he says.

“They’re hoping that it will work through a market mechanism again and that people will have the capacity to choose energy efficiency-among other considerations.”

Industry lobby groups also methodically fight regulation, pointing out that it only serves to eliminate worst practice. As if it’s impossible to regulate for high standards.

The other big bulwarks against regulation are the states, which increasingly live in fear of the ferocious lobbying from the building and property industries every time higher  standards are mentioned.

When the housing market went to a five star minimum standard the hysteria from the Housing Industry Association and the Master Builders Association was intense and individuals in the Building Codes Board came under personal attack.

Despite the headlines the cost of going five star has proved surprisingly low, and volume home builders – probably the cleverest and most efficient in the western world – soon worked out how to deliver the new standard for virtually no extra cost.

Still Victoria is stalling on its intention more than a year ago to ramp up housing standards again – which studies show can again be achieved at low cost.

The Climate Safe report points to studies showing that a 7-star house can be delivered for an extra $6000 and produce much lower running costs.

In Perth Think Brick Australia in partnership with the University of Newcastle and the Australian Research Council showed that an 8-Star House can be achieved for the same cost as conventional housing, the report says.

The house uses 76 per cent less energy and 72 per cent less water than average and cost $200,000.

Not long ago the states battled each other to be the bravest and best climate innovators. Victoria claimed it had the best thermal standards for housing and NSW said its BASIX standard was better integrated and meaningful because it mandated lower energy and water consumption.

Now the states are mesmerised by the CPRS and waiting for that to solve all problems.

They are also at a standstill because the federal government is pushing for national frameworks to deal with climate change related issues, which is quite a sensible idea.

The problem is that everything now hangs on the Coalition of Australian Governments reaching agreement. As one wit put it, COAG is only as fast as the slowest ship in the flotilla.