Al Gore and Clive Palmer

On Clive Palmer, saving the planet, and a quick two-step backwards; the edifice complex and Perth

26 June 2014 — Did we mention how fast the world can spin on its axis these days?

Last week we had the sustainability blues. Earlier this week a survey by the Climate Institute backed a Lowy Institute poll early in the month that found support for climate change action was surging back, with a 10 point lift.

By Wednesday Clive Palmer turned the world on its head and made some announcements that the sustainability world had relegated to the fantasy closet.

Taking the media by storm Palmer paired with long time climate campaigner Al Gore to say that his Palmer United Party would not vote to get rid of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Climate Change Authority, nor the Renewable Energy Target.

Yes, they would actually vote to get rid of the carbon tax but only if the emissions trading scheme, due to kick in next year, was retained at zero dollar cost per tonne of carbon, and brought into life when sufficient trading platforms around the world got up and running.

Phew.

But that was Wednesday.

But Thursday all that had changed.

Greens Leader Christine Milne was first to call Palmer on his confusing announcement.

The Greens were “extremely sceptical” about Palmer’s “vague support” for an emissions trading scheme, Milne said.

After a breakfast with the PM on Thursday whatever got slipped into Palmer’s tea was working and Palmer confirmed the ETS part of the good news was history. He agreed he and his little mates would support the carbon tax repeal with only one condition – that the savings would be passed onto the dear consumer, so they could use up more of his coal, we presume. Anyone’s coal.

So no carbon tax, no ETS, and judging by former commitments from Palmer no Direct Action Policy either.

We can bet the Abbott government won’t spend much anguish on the loss of DA. And this won’t surprise the more sceptical people in the property industry who have engaged with the government to try to shape up how the Emissions Reduction Fund portion of DA could work for buildings, but found the plan ill thought out and more political than practical.

None of this takes away from how good the news is to retain three pillars of clean, the CEFC, the RET and the Climate Change Authority. The Australian Renewable Energy Target is another agency that needs to be fought for.

But what we are left with on greenhouse emissions is business as usual.

The world has shifted on its axis, but not far enough.

The edifice complex

We’ve been fascinated by the big push on big buildings lately. What’s going on? You get a bit of a spike in the housing market and suddenly everyone develops an edifice complex.

Sydney did a big tall buildings gig a while back, led by the NSW Urban Task Force, and not long after the new minister Pru Goward endorsed the sentiment with an exhortation to get bigger and bolder. The Urban Task Force on Thursday followed through with a note of another impending gig to promote the big beasts with a talk by architect Chris Wilkinson of the UK’s Wilkinson Eyre in the UK, which designed James Packer’s new gambling den at Barangaroo.

Meanwhile Melbourne, not to be outdone, has announced approval for another three skyscrapers including one that will be bigger than anything in Sydney – and the rest of the southern hemisphere to boot.

Australia 108 at 70 Southbank Boulevard is designed by Nonda Katsalidis who spoke to Willow Aliento on Thursday afternoon to answer a few of our questions on sustainability.

As you can imagine it’s quite tough getting big sustainability ticks from something that will be 318 metres tall – and that’s the scaled back version in order not to interfere with airspace.

Yes higher densities are good – more people, less infrastructure, more efficiencies. And planning minister Matthew Guy made sure he made that pitch clearly. But how these buildings are designed, how much it is possible to extract in efficiencies, is a story we want to keep poking and prodding.

Some of this prodding is in Willow’s interview with Dr Robert Crawford senior lecturer in construction and environmental assessment at The University of Melbourne.

Interesting to see that the City of Melbourne recently released a report that questions why there is nothing to compel apartments to meet much beyond the building code.

Why not? Oh, that’s right, no long term tenants (as in commercial buildings) and a flick-it-and-run business model.

Western Australia

Poor Western Australia. There it is with a pretty committed property and sustainability sector, championed by the some great local government leaders, and the Property Council itself, with its good works on energy efficiency, water efficiency and the transport and medium density plan it did with the Greens and Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

Many of the Property Council’s members are keen to upgrade their energy guzzling buildings, save money and save the environment (same thing really). So what does the state government do?

Make redundant about half a dozen people within the Public Utilities Office who are looking after NABERS ratings in the state and energy and water savings programs.

That raises some interesting questions since NABERS is a rating program mandated by law, for larger commercial premises sold or leased. So who is now enabling the NABERS program? What happens if property owners don’t comply?

What action the Feds might take to make sure property owners obey the law is unknown. Property Council chief executive Joe Lenzo was nonplussed. He was even more nonplussed when he approached the state government to ask what would happen to the range of water and energy programs now abandoned, only to be told perhaps his organisation could take on the roles.

Interesting.

Damien Moran of HFM Asset Management (who attended our Perth and WA salon) and whose company has mapped big swathes of the city’s B and C grade buildings for their sustainability upgrade potential said some consultants were plainly frustrated as they had put in so much time and effort into supporting some of the programs.

We thought conservative state governments loved the property sector?

Certainly in NSW we’ve witnessed quite unseemly public demonstrations of this love affair at Property Council lunches between the NSW government members and industry – stopping just sort of air kisses.

We assumed it was the same in WA and Victoria.

One such program that Moran’s firm was involved in was to capture the data around mechanical airconditioning, a national program run through the Council of Australian Governments, but driven by Sustainability Victoria, he says.

Moran was working with one WA government staffer in particular but a few weeks ago the “phone’s gone blank”, he says.

It’s true these programs might be resumed when good sense returns, but in the meantime a lot of good work is lost. “The whole momentum is cut,” he said.

To get things back will take a “massive mount of energy and cost, and the problem is not going away.

“It’s like deferral of tax, not tax minimisation. You still have to pay your tax sometime.”

But still there is some good news. Possibly it’s the story of someone picking up on the vacuum left behind by others.

In this case it’s the City of Perth, which is pushing along with some options on environmental upgrade agreement finance.

Meanwhile the council amalgamations fiasco has descended on Perth as it has on Sydney.

Victoria solved that problem many years ago when the hardnosed Jeff Kennett took over the premiership reins and under cover of a state on its knees was able to wield the axe quickly, sharply and with such deft effect that most potential objectors hardly had time to notice.

Victoria now has bigger councils. We’re not sure if this means they are more efficient.

In Perth the concern is that there are 32 councils but with boundaries that were drawn up 100 years ago and now there are some, with an activity area under the control of three separate councils.

Another big challenge for Perth was losing the light rail thanks to a federal government doing another foot-stomp on funding agreed by the other guys.

And that’s another whack for a sector looking for love in all the wrong places.