Tony Arnel: signed major deals with China and Singapore for the World Green Building Council

By Tina Perinotto…

For a man who knows how to carefully tread the complex ground between politics and the forces of change it’s a surprise to learn that Green Building Council chair, Tony Arnel was first inspired by the building unions’ most famous activist, Jack Mundey.

Mundey,who headed the Builders Labourers Federation in its most radical days of the early 70s, made his name by initiating the famed Green Bans that prevented demolition of historic buildings in Sydney and later of natural bushland in Sydney’s Hunters Hill, known as Kelly’s Bush.

Mundey went to jail for his trouble.(Decades later, ironically, he was lauded more by conservative property and business groups for saving Sydney’s precious Rocks district and most of Woolloomooloo, than by activists – but that’s another story.)

At the time of this stirring activity Arnel was ensconced at Deakin and Melbourne Universities studying architecture, after a background in quiet Victorian countryside around Ararat and Ballarat.

When ABC Four Corners revealed the passions around those earliest of “greenies” Arnel was captivated.

“The first time I heard about this I got pretty motivated and paid attention,” Arnel recalls.

“Jack Mundey was the first person I heard use the word green, but it was in connection with the green bans; he was attempting to save heritage buildings.”

Almost immediately Arnel switched his studies to heritage and the preservation of old buildings.

So did Arnel become a radical activist? Not quite.

“Activists in the sense that we had a lot of fun stirring things up around campus.  Architectural students were good at that!  They were not political groups, (that we joined) not really. I can’t recall many political groups being around in the world of architecture and town planning.”

But the awakening had nevertheless occurred. The built environment became a passion.

Arnel completed a master of town planning and post graduate work at Oxford University, working later as an architect and in various government departments eventually becoming Director of City Planning at the City of Melbourne.

Today, Arnel holds multiple roles, each revealing those early years of commitment to the value and potential of the built environment.

As well as the GBC, Arnel is chair of the World Green Building Council and Victorian Building and Plumbing Industry Commissioner.

In his World GBC role he returned earlier this year from China and Singapore where he made significant headway for both countries to commit to a Green Building Council status.

The deal with China involved the signing of a memorandum of understanding and was a “major coup because until now it’s not been possible to get the government ministers and officials into the GBC space,” Arnel says.

What helped was a “significant” amount of funding that the GBC negotiated from AusAID designed to assist emerging GBCs in the Asia Pacific region.

In Singapore the government agency Building and Construction Authority is facilitating a move to emerging GBC status. “It has recently appointed a private sector-led board and that’s been the missing link for some time,” Arnel says.

At home Arnel needs to negotiate the tensions between improvement in standards in the built environment and the industry resistance.

In recent months there have been far more harrowing commitments, connected to the need for him to give evidence into the Royal Commission on the Victorian bushfires which touched his family deeply when his daughter’s parents in law lost all their possessions and home of 35 years at Wandong.

It’s a lot on anyone’s shoulders.

But for Arnel, the calm, interested and conciliatory manner never seems to waver.

He credits his personal commitment for the energy.

“I was keen to make a difference in what I do. And I’ve pursued that in my career; that’s been my objective, what motivates me.”

Today, that interest is still the built environment but in the context of climate change and its urgent demands.

“There’s an elephant in the room called climate change and we have to be seen to be doing more to reduce emissions, to reduce global warming. That’s my passion.”

“We talk about climate change and we talk about the global financial crisis every day, and one thing history tells us is that financial crises come and go but my current line is that climate change isn’t going anywhere,” he says.

And for Arnel the threat is real and current. Not just with the bushfires.

“A number of government projects have looked at what could happen to the Victorian coastline and Port Phillip Bay. My colleague Tom Roper [former Victorian politician and now president of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council] says there could be a much bigger Bay frontage.

“The feeling is that some of the bayside properties will be severely impacted. Some areas along the west and south coast of Victoria are severely exposed. Climate change is real and people need to be thinking about it.”

I am absolutely convinced that climate change has caused 15 years of drought in Victoria and drought and the extreme temperatures that Victoria achieved in January and February are very much in my view a result of climate change –  Tony Arnel

According to Arnel the built environment can contribute significantly to lowering emissions and it’s this belief that underpins his work.

He says that if the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is not enacted, there will be more reason to focus on the built environment, where studies such as from McKinsey &Co show cheap fast emissions reductions.

“If the scheme does not make it you need to go back to where you can get results.”

For Arnel that’s the built environment and there is an “enormous opportunity with the Green Building Council members to accelerate market transformation with buildings. Buildings really are part of the solution and politicians are starting to see it.”

“I’m an advocate for balanced use of different policy instruments. At one end it’s about the market leading and market incentives to achieve that but partly it’s about regulatory instruments to eliminate worst practice.

“Also important is knowledge and education and communication – the three legs of the stool.”

In his view there is no doubt that the middle and top end of the market is transforming itself in relation to new buildings.

“We’re seeing a very obvious response in terms of the Green Building Council but I still maintain there is a low end response that is not happening.”

The way Arnel sees it is that while the market may be engaged in market transformation, government regulations are necessary to limit worst practice.

In terms of regulation there’s plenty of action on the horizon: higher energy standards for houses with the Coalition of Australian Governments’ decision this year to raise energy standards of new housing from 5 to 6 stars from 2011; and mandatory disclosure for commercial buildings.

Arnel says the methods for achieving the aims will vary but the aims should not.

“It’s important we have mandatory disclosure.

“The important thing is that whatever tool you use [for housing energy ratings or commercial building] there is transparency and there is a message to the market of how buildings are performing.”

As far as he’s concerned mandatory disclosure can be brought in as soon as possible.

In the UK it has revealed some embarrassing truths about buildings that had claimed huge green credits.

All for the good and the result of the “greenwash phenomenon,” he says.

“The single most important issue to me is the environment.”

Change is happening but perhaps not fast enough, he says.

“I think we are taking positive steps forward but the urgency factor doesn’t seem sufficient.”

In Arnel’s view the bushfires in Victoria In February were a direct result of climate change.

“I am absolutely convinced that climate change has caused 15 years of drought in Victoria and drought and the extreme temperatures that Victoria achieved in January and February are very much in my view a result of climate change.”

His testimony to the Royal Commission on the fires will form part of the Commission’s interim report on 17 August, in time to advise the state government on policy for the coming summer.

The weather predictions he says are for another dry winter and in six months time there could be the same threats.

Big changes will be on the cards – in terms of housing design, insurance issues, even settlement patterns, he says.

Despite all the uncertainty, Arnel is sure of one thing: “The reality is that things are going to change and the more climate continues to change the more we have to change.”
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