News from the front desk – Issue No 399: We appear to have a gambling problem that extends way beyond poker machine habits and flutters on the fillies. It’s a runaway risk appetite for maintaining things as close to the status quo as possible in the face of the reality of climate change and its impacts on all humans.
In the past week, we’ve seen Greater Sydney among the regions declared as being in the NSW Department of Industry’s most severe drought category – Intense Drought – due to an intense and prolonged rainfall deficit.
In fact, the entire state is now in varying degrees of drought, with the worst-hit areas including vast swathes of western NSW, the central tablelands, south eastern NSW, the northern tablelands and the Hunter region. A traveller on the train from Yass to Wagga Wagga recently told The Fifth Estate there were heart-breaking numbers of dead stock to be seen in the paddocks they passed.
DPI is tipping there could be worse to come in terms of localised intensity.
Meanwhile, Sweden has had wildfires including within the Arctic part of the country due to high temperatures and months without rain. Japan saw more than 36,000 people end up in hospital emergency departments and more than 60 people dead from heatwave impacts. Greece experienced its worst and most deadly wildfires in recent history. California is having another horrific fire season, and in Quebec, a heatwave resulted in numerous deaths.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau notes that the majority of the deaths were older people, living in apartments in Montreal that lacked adequate cooling.
That’s something that should have the Australian high density development sector sitting up and taking notice.
But even though it is well-established that our buildings need to provide a refuge in the event of extreme heat or cold, most of the industry appears to be waiting for regulations to drive appropriate design, engineering and construction outcomes.
The scandalous level of non-compliance with minimum standards and a disregard for best practice are not just threatening for reputations, they will actually threaten lives.
As University of Wollongong’s Professor Paul Cooper points out, validating that a building is well-sealed, and validating that insulation has been installed correctly are fundamental when it comes to ensuring dwellings are fit for purpose when the mercury soars.
But we are still not seeing the majority of the industry step up and deliver the good stuff. Lack of enforcement, lack of oversight and lack of consequence have effectively rigged the game in the favour of poor practice.
We are also seeing this lack of risk-management thinking in regulations such as Victoria’s new tenancy reforms. Yes, it is enshrining minimum standards, but they are around things like doors that lock properly, a working stove, and the safety of electrical systems. It’s almost shocking that this requires legislating, as surely these are things that are fundamental to having some sense of duty of care.
However, despite all evidence that minimum energy efficiency standards and thermal comfort standards would deliver multiple benefits in terms of health, bill savings and occupant health and wellbeing, this has not been among the reforms.
This seems particularly odd given Victoria’s tough talk on reducing the state’s emissions and the evidence that addressing the performance of existing dwellings can really contribute to kicking those goals.
Alternative Technology Association senior energy advisor, Dean Lombard, says it is a great example of siloed policy.
Another puzzling aspect of the reforms is that while they will mandate that heating be provided, there is no requirement around cooling.
Lombard says he assumes cooling got left out as it is “considered a luxury”.
“But it isn’t – especially in poorly performing houses.”
He points out that there are many tax incentives for owning investment properties and renting them out.
The government should be pointing out that there are good returns to be made from owning a rental property and presenting good rules for playing the game.
One of the complications is the player substitution manoeuvre built into policy around rentals. While the Commonwealth is responsible for the tax rules around rental properties, the states have responsibility for the regulations that cover renting.
And at the state level it’s not simple – in Victoria five different ministers have responsibility for variousaspects of rental regulations.
Regardless of the nuances of who holds the ball and when, Lombard says government needs to make the hard calls.
“That is what government is for, to do the difficult stuff for the good of people.”
A similar situation exists with energy. It is a no-brainer that reducing the pollution caused by generating and supplying energy is a good thing for all of humanity and the web of life that we belong to. But our federal government keeps pushing a different idea of what’s good at us with the National Energy Guarantee. It’s the easy option – business mostly as usual – with a few solar panels and wind turbines on the side.
While Victoria and the ACT have been outspoken on their criticisms, there is no consensus from the states that it simply isn’t good enough.
The scientific fraternity, however, is calling the toss loud and clear.
President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, Professor Hugh Bradlow says government’s proposed target lacks ambition and will almost be achieved before the mechanism is in place.
“As a result the NEG is expected to slow investment in demand and supply-side low-emissions solutions in the electricity sector,” he says.
“This would limit the potential for both emissions and cost reductions, making the transition to a lower emissions electricity sector costlier and more disruptive in the long run.
He says the Academy also considers a “transparent, market-based, and whole-of-economy emissions reduction mechanism such as a carbon price or an emissions trading scheme would be the most efficient and effective option for climate change mitigation.
“However, the NEG’s emissions guarantee could be a workable mechanism to drive emission reductions if a more ambitious emissions reduction target is adopted.”
ATSE Fellow Professor Graeme Pearman, professorial fellow of Melbourne University’s Energy and Climate Council says that the federal government is continuing to deny the impacts of climate change are occurring.
It likes to use the phrase “climate variability”, which is something we have always had. But the evidence shows the frequency of both droughts and flooding rains is increasing – and they will become more frequent heading into the future unless we get things under control.
He was recently in the Northern Territory discussing climate change impacts..
The basic biological fact, he told The Fifth Estate, is the human body needs to dissipate heat, and perspiration and evaporation are the ways our bodies do it. But there are thresholds in terms of temperature and humidity at which this doesn’t work – and the body begins to shut down.
“Large parts of Northern Australia are already close [to those thresholds],” he says.
Looking at events in the northern hemisphere during this recent heatwave should be a wakeup call – rising temperatures are real, and they are killing people.
He points out that here in Australia our standard mitigation for high temperatures is to use more airconditioning.
“But if that is powered by brown coal, we are just exacerbating the problem. We need an energy future that is not doing that.”
He says the overall difficulty is that policy is made on a short-term basis. The NEG for example, is about the lead-up to the next election.
What is needed is a strategic process that looks at the 10, 20 and 30 year views and takes into account the social, environmental and economic aspects of policy so the “things we do are consistent with each other.”
“The fundamental problem with neoliberalism is it is about short-term returns, we need to look at holistic returns.”
There is also a need for multi-disciplinary thinking, as most of the problems we face are multi-disciplinary. That means bringing together experts from social sciences, engineering, physical science and even medicine to put together policies and practices that are holistic enough to really tick all the required social, environmental and economic boxes on both the short and long term.
It’s the equivalent of the kind of team-building seen in designing and delivering a WELL-rated building.
“At the end of the day climate change is all about assessing risk,” he says.
It’s a probability thing, but “most people have difficulty with weighing probabilities.”
So how do we load the dice in the favour of our survival as a species and as a society?
We stop backing the long-shot that everything will be fine with a business more-or-less as usual scenario, that’s how.
Pearman gives the example of the complex ecosystems of the eastern Victorian rainforest. Scientists have no clear idea of exactly what will happen if we “poke” those ecosystems with higher temperatures and higher humidity.
“But why would you do it if you don’t know the outcome?”
The same is true of our cities, those complex human-driven ecosystems that are the web of life for the property sector.
Why do we take the risk of poking those ecosystems with soaring temperatures and more frequent extreme weather?
Pearman says it is a question that is hugely important and that we need to respond to.