Live anthrax has been released from decades old reindeer thawed due to melting permafrost.

If zombie Anthrax escaping from beneath melting permafrost wasn’t a strong enough image to scare the world into climate action, we’re not sure what it’s going to take.

George Monbiot this week said what many of us already know: the climate crisis is already here.

We need to act now.

As the property industry often likes to say, the built environment is one of the key battlegrounds, and holds one of the greatest potentials for carbon reduction action.

Zero carbon buildings are on the horizon. But it’s going to take a lot more than business as usual to get there.

With the severity of the situation in mind, it was unfortunate on Wednesday to see an editorial from the Property Council of Australia that incorrectly stated the success of Australia’s property industry in tackling emissions.

“Analysis by ClimateWorks in the Low Carbon, High Performance report undertaken for the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (which includes the Property Council) delivers a striking finding,” it said. “Emissions from commercial property actually fell two per cent over the last decade, despite the big growth in the stock of real estate over this period.

“That’s right – more growth, fewer emissions.”

The two per cent figure might have been worthy of some celebration if it were true. But it wasn’t.

The figure referred to energy intensity. There was a two per cent reduction over the past 10 years in energy per square metre of floor space in the commercial sector. But as floor space has increased by 19 per cent, these savings in energy intensity haven’t led to a decrease in emissions.

Indeed, as you can see by the chart from ASBEC’s report, carbon emissions more or less follow the increase in floor space, rising by about 14 per cent.

More growth, fewer emissions? Not so much.

This news was presented by ClimateWorks at Green Cities, which caused consternation with the audience, and in particular WSP’s Rich Palmer.

“We’ve been at this game and at this conference for a decade talking about green buildings and opportunities in the existing building sector… and we’re at two per cent and plateaued [for the commercial sector] and five per cent and going in the wrong direction [for residential]. Am I reading it wrong or is it that bad?” he asked.

It is that bad.

A presentation by Mr Palmer, citing the same figures, was one of the top stories on The Fifth Estate recently, where the blame was put squarely at the feet of the mid tier and below, who make up the great majority of the property sector.

The top of the market had failed to motivate any change in the rest of the market.

“This time frame,” Palmer said, “includes almost every single project certified under Green Star, the entirety of projects constructed since the Building Code of Australia introduced mandatory energy regulations and the vast majority of residential since NatHERS, and it includes almost all of the NABERS operationally rated buildings.”

It’s a sorry state of affairs that demands action.

Though to be clear, the editorial did say some very positive, welcome things.

[The PCA also reached out to us to say, yes, the figures they had quoted were incorrect.

“We are an industry that is seeking to champion energy efficiency and the innovations which drive it,” a spokesperson said. “We are also seeking to work with government to ensure the right policies are put in place to support increased performance across the broader industry. We see this industry as one that can be solution focused.”]

The country, the PCA said, would need the innovation it has shown and more, to meet commitments to decarbonise the economy towards the end of the century (we’re thinking mid-century).

It pointed to the NSW PCA’s Five Good Ideas for a Sustainable Future report, which we talked about last week.

This recommends transforming energy and water regulation, which most people bar incumbents can get onboard with. On transforming the built environment it wants Environmental Upgrade Agreement policy revised to make it more attractive, and wants sustainability incentivised through height and density bonuses and the waiving of development fees for projects demonstrating excellent sustainability standards.

All carrot no stick

However, it seems to be all carrot, no stick when it comes to the issue of raising performance at the bottom-end, a point we seem to have to make again and again.

As Mr Palmer’s presentation made clear, there’s an overwhelming number of developers who will just do bare minimum, which we think necessitates changing what bare minimum is.

As’s Blair Palese told us, if you want large-scale, rapid change, which is what we desperately need, you need regulation.

“If you leave it to the market, some will lead, and the bulk may or may not follow,” she said. “If you want the kind of change necessary at the speed we need, we can’t wait around for the market.”

Even former chief executive of the PCA Peter Verwer recognised this when he spoke at Green Cities.

He talked about Singapore’s Green Mark system that was mandated for all buildings, which had had very strong sustainability outcomes.

“But the flip side of that is that the government has very, very clear programs that provide incentives. So the carrot is clear. The stick is clear.”

That’s what we need here. Sure, incentivise developers to outperform on sustainability, and incentivise retrofitting. But have a baseline that takes into account the pressing need to limit greenhouse gases, and the lack of action that has occurred in the space to date.

We’ve had 10 years of star rating systems and partial mandatory disclosure and what we’ve got is a two per cent reduction in emissions intensity and a 14 per cent increase in overall emissions. It’s not good enough.

The world is now unfortunately experiencing climate disasters in growing frequency, so we are advocating for the raising of minimum standards for a reason. It’s not red tape. It’s life support.

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  1. Great article. What we need is Governments at all levels to have a backbone and make the hard decisions that will bring real change. Benchmarking the environment decisions against the electoral cycle is just Dickensian and shows a real “pull up the ladder I’m ok” attitude.
    For retrofitting follow the “Eurofit” efforts in the EU.