Why we’re expecting buildings to be central to the future we need now

It’s the week before COP 21 in Paris. Momentum is building, and expectations are high an agreement to limit global warming to 2°C will be made.

For this to happen there’s a broad expectation that Australia, among other countries, will lift its currently paltry climate targets. And the built environment is looking like a hot favourite to help reach new (hopefully) ambitious targets. Indeed, this is the first year a COP will host a dedicated Building Day, on 3 December, which we will be covering, and which will be accompanied by our new ebook on sustainable finance and green bonds, which has come out of our recent London Salon.

One person who isn’t understating the importance of the built environment’s role in tackling climate change is Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, whose speech about the City of Sydney’s sustainability achievements at her annual Christmas function on Wednesday night was continually punctuated by loud cheers and applause from those in attendance.

Ms Moore, who is soon to head off to COP, will have a busy schedule once there.

First an event on jumpstarting resilience in urban areas, then on to a World Green Building Council mayors’ panel (part of Buildings Day) to talk about the council’s work leading the C40 Private Building Efficiency Network. The C40 awards will then be on, where the city is in the running for its Residential Apartments Sustainability Plan. Next a summit for local leaders, and then to cap it off an event on ecomobility and the International Renewable Energy Agency “Energising the Future” conference.

Speaking to The Fifth Estate on Thursday, Ms Moore said she had high hopes for COP 21.

“I’m hopeful our national leaders appreciate the gravity of this incredibly significant meeting and are ready to negotiate,” she said.

“I will be joining other city leaders from around the world to encourage national leaders to commit to action to keep global warming at 2°C.”

There are some positive signs. Ms Moore said she was “excited and inspired” about what new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minster for Cities Jamie Briggs have said regarding cities, and that there had been a “change of tone on climate change”.

“Most Australians live in our cities so it’s fantastic to have them back on the national agenda, and a great opportunity to work with the federal government on making our cities better,” she said. “Along with the other capital city Lord Mayors, I’ve raised the issues our community wants action on transport, affordable housing, climate change and economic growth.

“I’m strongly advocating for a formal partnership between federal, state and local governments to ensure long-term planning and bipartisan support for the projects our cities need to keep growing in a sustainable way.”

One program Ms Moore is excited about is the C40 Private Buildings Efficiency Network, which the City of Sydney is co-leading with Tokyo.

“For most if not all cities, a key measure of success [regarding climate change action] will be improving the energy efficiency of buildings.

“Many cities have significant data on building energy performance, which can be used to evaluate existing policies and to develop new strategies for reducing emissions. However this data can often be complex and difficult to manage and there is enormous variance in the quality and types of data collected. As a network we’re exploring ways to accelerate and inform best practice by conducting an international review – once complete we’ll make the results available.”

Architects on board for the built environment revolution

Chief executive of the Australian Institute of Architects David Parken told The Fifth Estate that top of his wish list for COP21 was that the building sector gets recognised as offering the most significant opportunities for abatement and adaptation to the climate change challenge.

“Adaptation has to be addressed,” he said. “We’re locked in [to climate change] now.

“There is a lot that has to be done to address those locked-in impacts.”

He said we didn’t need to debate the science – the effects were here and obvious, including the increased frequency of severe storms. These are already causing damage to lives and property, and the health and safety of people needs to be seen as a number one priority.

“Buildings can be an asset to support the community’s way of life.”

Adaptation also meant the need for retrofitting of existing building stock, he said.

But the adaptation challenge does not mean looking to “pie in the sky technologies”.

“There is enough proven technology and knowledge to act now.”

Carbon neutral buildings and housing were also something happening now, he said.

Solar, too, is more within reach than ever, and the cost curve will continue to decrease as demand increases.

These things in combination are making the idea of carbon neutral shift from being a possibility to a real and present opportunity.

“It is within our grasp; it is achievable. We just need to get the policy levers right.”

Mr Parken said that when a lifecycle approach is taken, carbon neutral approaches make sense.

COP 21, he said was probably a “game-changer” opportunity for societies and countries to embark on the delivery of a low carbon economy.

“Therefore, I say to our leaders, be bold! There are industry CEOs who are encouraging ambitious targets.”

Nations, like industries, thrive on competition, he said. And that’s a good thing in terms of addressing the adaptation and abatement challenge.

“These things generate economic activity and sustainable jobs. It’s a win-win situation, the same as the energy efficiency and abatement scenario that can reduce costs for households is a win-win.

“And the more [sustainable] materials are used, the more affordable they will become.”

The first world economies, he said, can move faster than less developed nations and achieve significant gains over the next decade because we “have the technology and the know-how”.

“It’s not like we’re asking for support for unproven technology like carbon capture and storage for coal mines.”

Mr Parken said the AIA is among the architecture bodies from 120 nations that are members of the International Union of Architects and signed the Durban Declaration in 2014, committing to achieving carbon neutral buildings across the globe by 2050.

“The architects have taken a stand.”

Engineers join call for strong action

Engineers Australia 2015 National President Dr David Cruickshanks-Boyd told The Fifth Estate that the peak body, too, wanted to see “leaders approaching the COP 21 meeting with an ambitious outlook and a vision oriented toward not only the best possible climate outcome, but also the opportunities presented by the necessity to respond to a carbon constrained future”.

“Australia has a particular vulnerability to climate change and as such we believe Australia should take a position consistent with its fair share of the global abatement effort at COP 21,” he said.

“Engineers Australia understands the adoption of strong domestic abatement targets will necessitate substantial structural change to areas of Australian industry. However, we believe there will be opportunities for positive outcomes in new low emissions industries such as large scale solar and wind energy, energy efficiency, transport electrification and innovative building design.”

Global director of sustainability for engineering consultant NDY Tony Arnel, who is also Energy Efficiency Council president, told The Fifth Estate the next few years were crucial in addressing climate change.

“We know that global decarbonisation has begun,” he said. “Governments and corporations are investing in low emission technologies and emission reduction strategies.”

The areas of priority he would like tackled at COP 21 include:

  • Energy efficiency financing, which he said needed to be scaled-up globally to control demand and reduce the need for supply side investment
  • a global policy focus on low-carbon electricity (particularly renewables) across the buildings industry and transport sectors
  • the built environment, which he said remained an obvious sector to yield energy emission reductions through improved energy efficiency, increased use of low carbon fuels and scaling up to focus on precincts and not just individuals buildings

Climate rallies will be held across the country this weekend in support of ambitious action. There is an air of hope that world leaders will finally come to an agreement strong enough to temper the worst effects of climate change. Let’s hope we are not let down. We’ll leave the last word, or song, to 1 Million Women, who’ve released a “musical celebration” calling on world leaders for strong action on climate change.