15 June 2010 – the Australian Prime Minister’s Task Group on Energy Efficiency wades through the 187 submissions it has received, it would do well to consider discussions in Paris last month about how best to measure and achieve energy efficiency improvements in buildings.

All the peak global bodies looking at sustainable buildings were there, along with the lead author for the building chapter of the International Panel on Climate Change 4th Report, the International Standards Organisation, the Global Reporting Initiative Construction & Real Estate Sector Supplement, and the United Nations Environment Programme Sustainable Buildings & Climate Initiative.

Why the easy option isn’t best
Dr Diana Urge-Vorsatz, the lead author for the building chapter of the IPCC 4th Report presented new research showing that the emission reduction potential in buildings is in fact much higher than was presented in the report. But perhaps more importantly, she provided a compelling case that we need to ensure we maximise the emissions reduction when we retrofit our existing stock or face the “lock-in effect”. This describes how we will be locked into big carbon footprints for up to 20 years if we don’t  insist on the maximum emissions reduction when we refurbish a building. With her sights firmly set on energy performance contractors and Energy Service Companies, Dr Urge-Vorsatz said:  “sub-optimal retrofits should not be supported”.

This has been the basis for our argument that government should not direct funding towards interventions that only deal with incremental improvements in energy efficiency such as upgrading or replacing lighting or fans. Such equipment upgrades are limited to energy savings of approximately 20 per cent when we know that savings of greater than 50 per cent are achievable by allowing more natural light into the building to reduce artificial lighting loads, and removing the need for fans and pumps by installing passive heating and cooling systems.
We must demand maximum emissions reductions and stringent performance-based outcomes only.

Business opportunities
Studies consistently point to investment in energy efficient buildings securing existing jobs in the building sector and driving significant new skills, jobs and innovation growth.

Calling for green refurbishments and not equipment replacements or retrofits will result in business growth opportunities for Australian property companies including the professionals and trades, and will also provide maximum environmental and human health benefits.

Perhaps the most concerning part of the Paris discussions was the sheer number of players all trying to standardise or create methodologies for measuring environmental impacts in the property sector.  We should be aiming to help people make good decisions, not compound the confusion with an ever-increasing volume of different measures and tools.

Enter the Common Carbon Metric project, a joint project of the World Green Building Council, the Sustainable Building Alliance and the United Nations Sustainable Buildings & Climate Initiative. Last month’s discussions affirmed that this work provides a roadmap to unify the various elements, behind which both the property industry and our relevant governments should be part of.

The Common Carbon Metric project has changed the dialogue to one of simplification and distillation. How do we measure things consistently and concisely internationally while providing the ability to localise baselines, inputs and targets? How do we provide the simplified metric in a way that can meet key decision making needs without superfluous information, excess cost or lack of attention to key issues?

The Common Carbon Metric targets three key needs:

  • Baselining and Inventory reporting to allow consistent reporting of operational carbon footprints from buildings both for portfolio reporting and national emissions inventories. It will also allow meaningful comparisons of buildings across cities and countries with the same climatic conditions so, for example, we could compare buildings in Melbourne with those in Paris, Geneva and Wellington.
  • Market Benchmarking to provide a consistent framework for mandatory disclosure and also harmonisation of decision making rating tool metrics. This will provide methodologies for normalising benchmarks for buildings according to building class or type, and year-by-year comparison, with the benchmarks (rather than individual buildings) corrected to isolate externalities such as the intensity of building use by the occupants, annual weather variations and climatic region.
  • Monetisation of greenhouse abatement from energy efficiency, subject to Kyoto compliant methodologies for targeting, monitoring and verification, to facilitate capital allocation.

Ultimately this work will help property companies determine whether their assets are better or worse performers against the city average for that class or type of building. Lend Lease is one of the companies that is participating in a trial of the Common Carbon Metric for Baselines. This work will also be important for organisations that use sustainability performance frameworks such as the Global Reporting Initiative Construction and Real Estate Sector Supplement, which has agreed to work with the United Nations for consistent reporting requirements. And of course it will be an important component of country greenhouse gas emission reduction action plans.

The way forward
Looking to the future, while the focus now is on the sector reporting framework for energy and carbon, the same framework could ultimately be used for other environmental and social indicators, such as water.

But more immediately, it is time for governments to recalibrate their efforts and look at a policy suite for carbon in buildings that complements the simplicity and breadth of the work started by the Common Carbon Metric project. Our property industry is globally connected and it is time for our policy ambition to be part of a global effort.

Ché Wall is managing director, WSP Lincolne Scott

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