News from the front desk, Issue 527: The City of Sydney’s net zero targets are hardly a secret. With every new development they’re splashed across our newsfeeds and recent news of a revised 2035 target and proposed reforms to Development Approvals were warmly welcomed. 

Over the past decade we’ve seen city councils cleaning up the carbon emissions of their own operations, but as far as we could tell, applying net zero standards to all new developments was a first. 

Commercial office space, hotels and apartment buildings contribute 68 per cent of the City of Sydney’s total emissions. So with an aim of reaching net zero nationally by 2050 it seemed reasonable to tackle the operations of buildings that will make up the future city skyline. 

It got us thinking, what has given the City of Sydney the confidence to act now, and why aren’t we hearing similar movements from other major city councils? 

According to City of Sydney executive manager of strategic planning, Benjamin Pechey the impetus for their project came several years ago when Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore returned from a C40 conference with renewed vigour for environmental action. 

We can picture a bright-eyed Moore storming into the office with tales of overseas success stories and grand visions for such change in Sydney.

“One of our key things was to look at how we can transition buildings towards net zero,” Mr Pechey said.  

Since then City of Sydney planning program manager for sustainability Clare Donovan embarked on a years-long consultation mission to draft a final strategy that would gel with the many powerful interest groups in the Sydney property industry.

“We went out and got feedback from developers and property industry groups and government,” she said. 

The strategy consists of two steps, requiring new developments and major refurbishments to achieve net zero by 2026 and show an improved standard by 2023. 

To give an idea of how the strategy will work, currently National Construction Code 2019 standards require a 5.5 Star NABERS Energy rating for office building verification. The first step of the new plan will require a 5.5 Star rating, plus 25 per cent, with a range of ways to demonstrate compliance through NABERS Energy intensity or Green Star. 

Similarly, shopping centres and hotels currently require 3.5 Star NABERS Energy rating for approval, which will bump up to 4 Stars under the first step. 

Crucially the standard for offices and shopping centres will only apply to “base building”, which includes common areas, heating and ventilation and cooling and not including the emissions output of tenants.

Whereas for hotels and multi unit residential the standards apply to the whole building, in line with how rating tools operate.    

Offsite generated renewable energy, which is now cheaper than ever and extremely financially viable, is another major part of the plan and already a widely utilised strategy particularly by the larger developers.

Donovan said that encouraging the uptake of renewable energy PPAs and the purchase of LGCs will further drive growth and jobs in the sector, particularly in regional areas. 

“As part of our project all we were doing is identifying the methods you could use to recognise offsite renewables in planning because that hasn’t been done before in Australia.”

She explained the six year timeline for buildings to achieve net zero was the result of extensive “cost-benefit” analysis and developers’ requests for more time to meet the changes.

How much will this change industry? 

Global sustainable design expertise leader at industry advisors, Aurecon Jeff Robinson explained that already many developers were willingly going down the net zero path, which is a requirement for 6 Star Green Star rated buildings and soon will be a requirement for 5 Star and even 4 Star rated buildings too. 

He described the move to net zero buildings as the “next logical shift in the marketplace” which was being guided by ratings agencies such as Green Star and NABERS.

To Robinson, The City of Sydney council’s action plan was less an industry shake up, and more a strategic response to what was already taking place in the market. 

“Government likes to lead but not too far ahead of the pack,” Robinson said, “they tend not to go into these things where it’s not a fairly safe space.”

Most major developers in Australia have made net zero carbon commitments prompting the Green Building Council of Australia, with the agreement of industry, to tighten standards in regards to net zero and Green Star. 

“We have been implementing initiatives across our commercial property portfolio for many years to reduce our emissions and, since 2006, have achieved a 65 per cent reduction in carbon emissions intensity,” Stockland’s chief executive of commercial property Louise Mason said.

Not just in Sydney, but nationwide Stocklands said all of its new developments will be Green Star rated. 

So while Sydney looks to be steaming ahead while other City Council’s are relatively quiet, is it just a case of a Lord Mayor who writes every climate action announcement across the sky like it’s the NYE fireworks? 

Some research revealed that Australia’s other largest metropolises, Brisbane and Melbourne, also have emissions reductions policies in place.

Melbourne

The Melbourne City Council is among those to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency last decade, and has been certified carbon neutral for its operations since 2012, with council’s target for zero emissions for the municipality by 2040.

Early last year the Council’s Future Melbourne Committee identified 10 priority actions to achieve that goal, one of which was to “mandate greening and zero emissions buildings through the Planning Scheme”

The Sustainable Building Design Amendment C376 aims to introduce new environmentally sustainable design standards into the planning scheme and is, to our knowledge, currently being nutted out between government, industry and the community.

As it stands the amendment will require a minimum 5 Star Green Star Design and As Built rating for buildings over 5000 square metres meaning that from 2023 on, all buildings over that size will have to be net zero carbon in operation – three years before Sydney. 

The amendment was voted on and unanimously passed by Melbourne City Council last year but is yet to have been accepted by The Victorian State Government.

For more about Amendment C376 see Jan Arreza’s story.

Brisbane 

Around the same time the Melbourne City Council revealed their plans, Brisbane City Council released its new Green Buildings Incentive Policy, offering reductions of up to 50 per cent for infrastructure charges on specific green and energy-efficient design elements for new developments.

To qualify, buildings need to demonstrate compliance against a range of criteria including holding a 5 Star Green star rating from GBCA, carbon neutral certification, UDIA Envirodevelopment six leaf certification, a minimum green plot ratio and Compliance with the “Buildings that Breathe Design Guide”. 

Jen Williams, who will take over as Queensland executive director at the Property Council in the coming months, said the policy was a great step in incentivising the industry to deliver on green credentials. 

Infrastructure charges vary depending on the size of the development but can range up to hundreds of millions of dollars. 

“For example a three bedroom dwelling would pay $28 thousand dollars per dwelling. So if you’ve got an apartment complex with 100 apartments in it you’re looking at 28 thousand times 100 in infrastructure charges. So if you were to get a 50 per cent reduction on that, it’s quite significant on your development costs.” 

It’s not much of a surprise the property industry has warmed to Brisbane City Council’s offer which puts money back in developers pockets and will no doubt take advantage of the scheme until it wraps up at the end of 2023.

Sorry Sydney

While scratching the surface takes some of the shine off Sydney City Councils net zero advocacy, we still do applaud the efforts of all those involved in getting government and industry moving at least for now in a cohesive direction. 

But with not just other councils, but national ratings agencies and major developers also pushing the puck forward, it seems Sydney will have to settle for leading the nation in unaffordable living and iconic bridges, or step up its game in climate action yet again.

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