Jane Fitzgerald has been in the job as executive director of the Property Council’s NSW division just four months, enough to agree this is one of the most exciting industries you can work in if you want to generate important and relevant change in the way we do business. Including sustainability.

In a telephone chat on Thursday about what she thought of the industry so far Fitzgerald was unequivocal: “fantastic”, she said.

“It is a really broad range of interesting issues that are relevant and exiting. And it’s interesting to find I’ve joined an organisation just at the right time with [chief executive] Ken Morrison who has a clear vision and agenda around what he wants to achieve with a one-culture company.

“It suits me and my personal style,” she said.

She particularly likes the focus on diversity and the leadership of the new PCA president Louise Mason who is also chief operating officer at AMP Capital.

Fitzgerald is also impressed at the level of commitment to sustainability from property leaders and confesses it wasn’t something she was aware of before she arrived in the job.

Her background in government, including as chief executive of the Trade Union Royal Commission, and as head of the national classifications system for film and computer games means she understands how to treat complex issues around change and regulation.

So we asked what she thought about supporting a move to mandate minimum energy performance for existing buildings – those not in the top tier of the property industry, the so-called laggards who “don’t know, don’t care”.

It seemed the right time to ask.

The Property Council this week released a new publication 5 Good Ideas for a Sustainable Future, the work of the organisation’s sustainable development committee, chaired by Jon Collinge of Lendlease.

The document was launched with some fanfare by NSW environment minister Mark Speakman and it identifies ways to tackle future sustainability challenges of the built environment.

Key are the opportunities for recycled water, (currently under threat by new price structures mooted by IPART), gaining “buy-in” from the mid-tier building sector, and creating city-shaping developments which are both dense and liveable.

How to get “buy-in” is clearly a question whose time has come.

There are so many people in the sustainability industry who are increasingly asking how they can reach out beyond the “choir” to others in business and the community.

This issue was core to a presentation that Rich Palmer from WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff made recently at a private sustainability leaders lunch. Palmer pointed out that since 2005 the net reduction in carbon reduction were pathetically low, just 2 per cent for the commercial sector and 5 per cent for the resi sector, at the same time that the top tier had made stellar achievements. His point? The trickle down effect wasn’t working.

It’s been a long standing bug-bear for energy consultants, admittedly battling a hostile government at federal and some state levels for years, and for the cities of Melbourne and Sydney that have put huge effort into the challenge but, with no little to no result.

It’s the elephant in the room and when you think about it, and something vaguely unfair that with all this voluntary energy – and not insignificant public funding support – the broader industry hasn’t budged much.

Ken Morrison for his part objects to this negative view and points out that the relative gains have been huge. He supplied the following comments in response to our story on Palmer.

Based on analysis by the Federal Government Office of the Chief Economist, we’ve shown how much energy would have been consumed by residential and non-residential buildings with growth in number of households and non-residential floor space if no energy efficiency improvements had been undertaken. (Figures 13-17 on pages 33-36 in full report)

The graphs indicate that energy efficiency improvements have delivered a 15 per cent reduction in energy use across residential buildings compared to what would have been used if no efficiency improvement had been achieved, and 9 per cent across nonresidential buildings. This equates to a total of more than 100 PJ in energy savings across all buildings, equivalent to 8 per cent of total annual energy demand in 2014. This improvement also resulted in avoided emissions of 186 MtCO2e of greenhouse gases since 2005.

Clearly we’d be a lot worse off without the hard work of the top tier. We know that, however, you cut the numbers. But the sad thing is that Mother Nature really doesn’t care.  What matters is the total carbon in the atmosphere.

And when you think that buildings produce 23 per cent of carbon greenhouse gas emissions and cities a whacking 70 per cent then this looming climate disaster is clearly happening on our patch.

But there is much good will and a sense that most people at the top of the corporate and political tree get the story and are deeply committed on a personal basis to doing the best they can.

So at what point do those private beliefs spill over into public communal action? As they did at the top end of the property sector when it pretty much all went green?

According to a very interesting observer we spoke to this week it’s a bit chicken and egg, but a magical moment can happen when the someone calls out the emperor with no clothes and it’s then plain stupid and embarrassing to deny it.

Are we there yet?

Close we reckon.

We haven’t met Fitzgerald personally but her style is definitely interesting, open. And it’s good to hear her view of the property industry on sustainability: she’s impressed with the quality of leadership, she says.

“As a mother of teenage children it’s really heartening to know that the biggest corporates are focusing attention not just on dollars, not just on fantastic buildings but on buildings that are sustainable,” she told us.

Fitzgerald says the work of the Australian Sustainable Building Environment Council is on the right track with a national and co-ordinated plan, but that in achieving our collective aims the big question is how you do this.

“The question you have to ask is what is the best way? Is it stick or carrot?

“I think that being a proponent of trickle down anything is a risk but I do think that that change in this space has to be ultimately community driven and corporate driven.

“It’s when people started demanding certain things in the houses they live in and the offices they work in that will drive demand.

“That is not a quick process, for sure, but I think that with sustainable workplaces and sustainable homes there will always be a cohort in the community who don’t prioritise that and having worked as regulator for a long time I’m not convinced that a big stick will deal with the recalcitrants any more efficiently than trying to incentives behaviour change”.

At the same time Fitzgerald says she can definitely perceive a shift in terms of expectations that people have – “not everyone in every market, but I think we’re certainly finding that sustainable buildings are in much more in demand.”

Let’s all fast track that.

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