Let's keep this beauty for our future

We’re back for what promises to be a big year for built environment sustainability. Of course, while we were away a host of big news broke. The Christmas break period is, unfortunately for us, typically the time when the juiciest of gossip and most controversial of news comes out, as governments attempt to minimise coverage and any associated backlash.

But while soaking  away the stresses of 2015, we didn’t take our finger off the pulse entirely, so here’s a round-up of the most important things to have happened over the Christmas break.

Jamie Briggs loses Cities ministry

Having occurred in October but left until Christmas for the reasons stated above, it was disappointing to hear the allegations about the just-appointed and now ex-Cities and Built Environment Minister Jamie Briggs, which lost him his portfolio after just three months in the job. Now we hadn’t always seen eye-to-eye with Mr Briggs, who, as former assistant infrastructure minister in 2014, ensured us the Abbott government was committed to investing in public transport because buses drove on roads (pull the other one).

But it would have been good to see some stability in what is set to become an increasingly important portfolio. Environment Minister Greg Hunt is currently acting Cities Minister for now, but perhaps it is a good time to shift the portfolio back to the Department of Infrastructure where it belongs, with the urban policy skill of the Planning Analysis Branch.

New cities focus for CEFC

A better-received surprise revealed on Christmas Eve was a new investment mandate for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, providing it direction to focus on “emerging and innovative renewable technologies and energy efficiency, such as large-scale solar, storage associated with large- and small-scale solar, offshore wind technologies, and energy efficiency technologies for cities and the built environment”.

It’s nice to see that post COP-21, the government is taking seriously the potential of cities and the built environment to reduce carbon emissions.

“The CEFC welcomes the new investment mandate and looks forward to addressing the new investment focus as part of its investment activities,” a CEFC statement said.

“With the new investment focus outlined in our investment mandate, the CEFC will direct an increased level of attention towards businesses and projects that involve emerging and innovative renewable technologies, energy efficiency and clean energy technologies including those that support the Australian Government’s agenda around cities and the built environment.”

2015 world’s hottest on record

The year 2015 was the world’s hottest on record.

For Australia it was the fifth-hottest year on record, thanks to a combination of El Nino and climate change, according to the Bureau of Meteorology’s Annual Climate Statement.

“The national mean temperature was 0.83°C above average, with a number of notable heatwaves during the year and record-breaking temperatures from October to December,” BoM acting assistant director for climate information services Dr Scott Power said.

Further drought was a noticeable trend, with long-term drought in Queensland continuing after three successive poor wet-seasons, and a slow start to the 2015–16 wet season. Drought areas also increased through Victoria, South Australia and southwest Western Australia throughout 2015.

Other 2015 climate trends included:

  • Rainfall five per cent below the national average for the year, at 443.7 mm
  • January was wetter than average for large areas, but it was drier than average across the country for most of the year, with a notably warm and dry end to the year
  • September 2015 was the third-driest September on record nationally
  • Seven tropical cyclones occurred during 2015: Lam, Marcia, Olwyn, Nathan, Ikola, Quang, and Racquel. Cyclone Marcia was the strongest at landfall (as category 5, near Yeppoon, on 20 February)
  • Severe thunderstorms caused widespread damage in Melbourne on 28 February
  • A record autumn hot spell occurred across large parts of northern and central Australia during March
  • An East Coast Low between 20 and 23 April caused severe weather and flooding throughout the Sydney, Hunter and Central Coast regions of New South Wales
  • A significant cold outbreak occurred over south-eastern Australia between 11 and 17 July, with snow falling on the Great Dividing Range in southern Queensland
  • Significant bushfires occurred in Sampson Flat (SA) in January, Lancefield (Vic) and Port Lincoln (SA) in October, Esperance (WA) in mid-November, Pinery (SA) in late November, and near Lorne (Vic) in late December.
  • A tornado caused significant damage in the southern suburbs of Sydney on 16 December

Dr Sophie Lewis, a research fellow at The Australian National University and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, said the Annual Climate Statement confirmed that 2015 was yet another hot year for Australia,

“Spring temperatures in 2013, 2014 and now 2015 are the hottest ever recorded,” Dr Lewis said. “Since 2002, Australia has seen eight of its 10 hottest years. Our research from 2015 shows that record-breaking hot temperatures over the last 15 years outnumber new cold records by a factor of 12 to 1.

“This dramatic increase in hot records in recent years is not random; it is linked to human-caused climate change. Combined with strong El Nino conditions, we should be prepared for hot conditions to continue in Australia in 2016.”

Fires rage across the state

As noted above, it’s been another terrible bushfire season, with out-of-control fires seen across the country.

Further, in Western Australia, a bushfire started by a lightning strike on 6 January engulfed the town of Yarloop, destroying at least 128 homes and 41 other buildings, and has now burnt through  177,000 acres. It is also confirmed to have killed two people.

In Victoria on Christmas, a fire that may have been strengthened by back burning operations around Wye River and Separation Creek led to the loss of 116 houses, and the evacuation of Lorne.

As we publish, South Australia is on high alert as a stretch of unprecedented hot weather meets with windy conditions.

Fixing the NCC steps up a gear

Just before Christmas, Phase 2 of the National Energy Efficient Building Project was released. Whereas Phase 1 found widespread non-compliance rife across the industry leading to poor energy efficiency outcomes – particularly in residential construction – Phase 2 involved pilot projects attempting to help remedy some of the myriad problems found in Phase 1, focusing on the resi sector.

Pilot projects around an “as built” certification and developing an electronic building passport were implemented and, following their completion, came recommendations that Australia moves towards making them mandatory components in the National Construction Code.

The calls for changes to the NCC were soon followed up by CSIRO, releasing a report uncovering poor air tightness in new builds in capital cities across Australia, with a host of frankly unacceptable results. The body recommended that consideration be given to setting specific air tightness requirements in the NCC, so Australia can play catch-up with what’s going on in similar developed countries.

Don’t believe air tightness is important? The have a read of Sean Maxwell’s latest piece, which is also calling for the NCC to begin the journey towards specified air tightness requirements.

With COP21 putting the built environment in focus for its huge climate mitigation potential, and a renewed federal focus on cities, momentum is well and truly building for big changes to how energy efficiency is treated in the built environment. Let’s hope this momentum continues.