COMMENT: Victoria has leapt out in front on climate change. Again. This time with an infrastructure plan of action that leaves similar agencies and jurisdictions lolling in the shade.

While on Thursday infrastructure advisory bodies representing Australia and NSW made calls for climate change to be considered in submissions for funding, it’s disappointing in the extreme that their choice of mechanism for such consideration was voluntary – that same tired old word that’s driven ideology in this country and in the face of galloping climate change is now completely redundant. Apparently, councils and engineers can still choose at this stage not to protect our most expensive assets from rising sea levels and storms. Maybe they get to wait until we’ve had a few more natural disasters before this need is mandated.

And this, just days after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told us we would soon be on fire (as many places already are).

By contrast Victoria has come bolting out of the stalls – their passions on fire instead. No such weasel words from Dan the Man’s crowd.

The report from Infrastructure Victoria, tabled in parliament on Thursday, was an update on the state’s 2016 strategy for infrastructure for the next 30 years.

It didn’t hold back.

Included in a panoply 94 recommendations for how the state should grow and shape shift to accommodate climate change in the way it builds its most significant infrastructure assets includes some no-nonsense range of measures that might make more delicate neoliberals peers shrivel with trepidation.

Many of the requirements are mandatory. No ifs, no buts.

For instance, there’s: 30 per cent canopy cover for all new residential estates and if there are no trees there developers will be required to plant out the canopy; there’s no registration of new internal combustion engines – petrol or diesel – by 2035; (finally) 7 star minimum NatHERS energy standards for new houses by 2022 and 8 stars by 2025.

On social housing, which IV recognised as infrastructure in its first report in 2016, also mandates disclosure of energy ratings for all homes at the time of sale, bringing the Victorians into line with the Australian Capital Territory on that score.

There’s also urgings to ramp up social housing until it’s 4.5 per cent of all housing. This, in the wake of the state government’s relatively new commitment to invest an impressive $5.3 billion in the sector. Not nearly enough is the verdict.

And there’s lots on transport.

Jonathan Spear deputy chief executive officer for IV stressed in an interview with The Fifth Estate on Thursday that this is not a blueprint that the government must adopt. But then again the government did pick up 90 per cent of the agency’s recommendations in 2016.

Spear also suggested this report’s got buy-in, judging at least by the extensive public consultation over three months based on the draft version released in December last year including from business and the usual lobby groups.

He said it’s an open document for all parties to see, so that everyone knows the direction and thinking the state is heading and can plan their polices and actions in accordance with the broad direction. And it includes financial assumptions and other data included.

“We publish all our evidence and modelling that underpins that.”

Spear claims there were no fierce objections from the various industry bodies, such as the Housing Industry Association, the Property Council of Australia, the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the Master Builders Association who all took part in the feedback. [We’ve yet to ask them direct but the latter of course has been a perennial bugbear in the attempt to improve the energy efficiency of housing, white-anting reforms either in full view or in more recent years behind closed doors, all the while maintaining a wholesome green public spin cycle]. But no, Spear said, the biggest concern from these advocates of the built environment was that there be sufficient time allowed for the transitions.

So, one year to get to 7 star minimum and three and a bit years to get to 8 stars? Things much be changing fast indeed. As well they should of course.

(The caveat to that burst of optimism is that no amount of legal requirements in this country is a guarantee of compliance, but that’s another story.)

The greening requirements for new housing estates is particularly compelling story. “With 30 per cent canopy cover it will be as good or better than the leafy eastern suburbs of Melbourne,” Spear pointed out. It would add much needed amenity for future communities.

The Fifth Estate immediately pictured the endless miles of treeless, farmlands stretching up past Mernda to the north and west to Geelong suddenly filled with plane trees and tweeting birdsong.

Also, apparently, aquatic centres and libraries, which the agency included in response to community feedback.

And yes, the canopy cover would be mandatory. Councils and developers will need to comply and plant trees where none exist now. Probably a first for Australia as far as Spears is aware.

Spear said climate change – mitigation and adaptation ­– were front and centre of many other parts of the recommendations that his team has delivered.

“We consider schools and green open space.”

“And that’s directly related to both the amenity of how people live and adapt and respond to climate change, so reducing the urban heat island.”

The report covers energy, water and IT. He thinks the treatment of social housing as infrastructure is probably a first for government agencies that he knows of in the country.

Reducing emissions in transport with the banning of new combustion engines by 2035, is another big step. But not earth-shattering given the pace of change elsewhere around the globe.

“What we’re seeing in other jurisdictions around the world is [a target date of] somewhere between 2030 and 2035.”

Still, it’s not bad given Australia’s low take up of zero emissions cars so far.

“It’s the kind of target other jurisdictions could consider doing at a state level given that we’re not seeing the level of urgency from the federal government.”

Some states though are already doing good work on electric vehicles through subsidies and charging infrastructure, Spear says.

“And that’s something we recommend the Victorian government does as well including government buses moving to zero emissions vehicles in the next five years.”

Existing homes and social housing

While new homes will have to lift their game, at least notionally and existing homes will need to disclose energy ratings at the point of sale, the mandates around rental housing are a little more fluffy. Their owners will need to improve energy efficiency, by way of general recommendations on appliances for instance or overall energy assessments.

On social housing there’s not nearly enough, Spears says, despite the more than $5 billion already committed.

“Our recommendation is we need to keep going with that level of investment for some time, as well as renewing some of the existing social housing we’ve got and building new social housing whether in Melbourne or the regions.”

The target is 4.5 per cent social or affordable housing. “We’ve got a fair way to go to reach that target.”

It’s important too, he says, that with these investments the locations are well served by transport and other basic amenities.

At the grid scale there are recommendations to co-ordinate development of renewable energy zones and augmenting the electricity network.

Gas is a big issue in Victoria thanks to the giant bequests of the fossil fuel laden Bass Strait but the future needs to be gas free and electric, climate advocates say.

Spear says a path forward needs to be worked out, including reducing Victorians’ reliance on gas, so that the state reaches net zero emissions by 2050.

Which the state needs to do to meet its legal obligation. There’s now also an interim target of 45–50 per cent reductions below 2005 levels by the end of 2030.

Will the gas industry fight the moves with the same vehemence as the coal industry?

Not likely Spear says. “The gas industry is clearly engaging with the change. In public statements and submissions and various inquiries it’s clear the gas industry understands that change is going to happen to reach net zero. The question is, what does that change look like?”

On sea level rises there are recommendations to protect coastal area such as the Great Ocean Road through a variety of measures that might be appropriate for each location.

The funding

Finance for these big picture items is not ignored. Spear says the agency advises on strategic level costing for the major items over time and “in every case we would expect the government to do a detailed business case at each level, so we know a ballpark figure.”

The recommendations include funding mechanisms for some items, for instance a value capture mechanism, which the state government has in fact recently implemented.  

Climate change doesn’t run on voluntary time

The headline in one media release around the report was “Climate the biggest challenge in Victoria’s 30-year infrastructure.”

As it is for everyone in this country and on the planet. Perhaps it’s time to stop with that voluntary word like we have with Covid and lockdowns and adopt that other word we need for our survival: mandatory.

Only governments can do that.

It’s time they stepped up. It’s a timing issue. We don’t have 50 years to stroll our way to resilience, and what’s left of our mitigation possibilities.

Australia is already at 1.4 degrees warming. We have 9.25 years left. Notionally.

Read the full report here Victoria’s infrastructure strategy 2021-2051,

At a glance

  • Accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles with a commitment “to no longer registering new petrol and diesel vehicles in Victoria by 2035 at the latest”
  • Require all new government vehicles to be zero emissions within five years
  • Require new homes to be 7-star energy-rated by 2022
  • Increase minimum energy efficiency standards in rental homes in the next three years
  • Build a circular economy for waste and recycling
  • Target 30 per cent tree canopy in Melbourne’s growth areas
  • Encourage people to take public transport through permanent off-peak discounts and reduced tram and bus fares
  • Trial full-scale traffic congestion pricing in inner Melbourne
  • Boost cycling in Melbourne and major regional cities with high-quality, safer cycling corridors
  • Create climate-adapted facilities for rural communities
  • Amend planning regulations so new housing developments are not forced to connect to the gas network

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  1. Covid is highlighting the importance of air filtration and air exchange, especially in schools and public buildings. What are the challenges in creating a 7 star energy rating, where a building design goal is that it is hermatically sealed?

  2. Good news, well done Victoria but not great news.
    A reality check – IPCC AR6 says we have to be getting close to net zero globally by 2030 for our kids to have a chance at a survivable future. The buildings we are designing and approving now will on last on average for probably 100years. We NEED zero emission buildings mandated NOW.
    A NatHERS 7 Star rated building will STILL consume between 25 and 278MJ/m2 of energy (depending where it’s built) – with approx 3 times as much electricity consumed as gas. So this is equivalent to between 500 to 5,500 tonnes of CO2-e per year for our housing. (All very approximate).
    By what logic is 7 star providing a survivable future for our kids and grandkids – ONLY zero emission buildings can now be permitted.