NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK: The concrete boots are off. This week, the Albo government drew a line in the sand by announcing it will mandate a 43 per cent emissions cut by 2030.

That mandate will guide the decisions made by key agencies, including the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and Infrastructure Australia.

It’s a big step forward in the right direction.

But we need to be absolutely crystal clear about something.

Sustainable, climate resilient buildings and good urban design are no longer nice-to-haves. This is now about our survival.

That’s why the feds need to go further, and take control over planning.

And if you’re confused about why, it can be summed up in a single word.

Uninhabitable.

That’s the word that, within the next decade, will describe many of Australia’s coal, gas and oil dependent buildings and suburbs.

The sprawling urban heat islands of dark roofs, roads and asphalt car parks of our suburbs? Uninhabitable.

The towns and housing subdivisions in flood plains? Uninhabitable. (Think of Lismore.)

The suburbs that sprawl right out to the bushfire zones in the hills? Uninhabitable.

The beachfront properties built on the edge of a rising ocean? Uninhabitable. 

No bank will lend out money to buy these properties. No insurer will approve a policy in these towns and suburbs.

Governments at all levels will be stuck picking up the tab for the inevitable disaster recovery and rebuilding packages. 

And – as the recent surge in electricity, gas and fuel prices shows – heaven help anyone who’s left to pay the bills to heat, power or get around these places using fossil fuels.

Only the most marginalised people, who can’t afford to live anywhere else, will try to eke out an existence in these uninsurable disaster zones.

That’s especially important for Labor, because those marginalised people are its traditional working class base.

We’re well beyond the point where we can avoid paying the price of climate failure in the built environment.

The climate clock is ticking down fast, and we’re now five minutes to midnight. 

The starting point is to avoid making the same mistakes of our past with our buildings and urban planning. 

That’s why we urgently need policies such as NSW’s design and place SEPP (state environmental planning policy), a strong national construction code, and a strong Planning and Design Code in South Australia.

But the much bigger job ahead of us will be to retrofit resilience and sustainability to our existing built environment – both at the level of individual buildings and entire suburbs.

Making our existing cities greener, our buildings energy efficient and our built environment resilient to a changing climate will be a mammoth task.

We’ll need to retrofit energy efficiency, including lighter roofs, to millions of existing buildings.

Buildings that rely on toxic methane gas for cooking, heating or hot water – four out of five in Victoria alone – will need to go all electric.

There’s urban waterways to rewild. There’s countless trees to plant in, on, and around our buildings. There’s massive asphalt car parks and concrete storm water drains to open up.

Monoculture suburbs of detached single family homes will need to be transformed into walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods.

Where walkability can’t be retrofitted, our guzzling cars will need to be replaced with electric vehicles, trains, trams and bikes.

Our power grid will need to switch from coal to renewables and grid-scale batteries.

And, where towns and suburbs are in the wrong places (for example, because they were built on a floodplain), we will need to find new places for people to live.

It’s hard to overstate how big the task ahead of us is. After all, it’s taken the New South Wales government five years since the Grenfell disaster in London where a fire started by flammable cladding cost 72 lives, to replace just 40 per cent of the dodgy flammable cladding on the state’s apartment buildings.

Unfortunately, for nearly 10 years, the feds have wasted precious time with delay, denial and deliberate obstruction of progress.

A line in the sand

This week, the new Albanese government’s line in the sand with laws that mandate a 43 per cent emissions cut by 2030 will guide the decisions made by key agencies, including the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and Infrastructure Australia.

Infrastructure Australia is especially important for six key reasons.

  1. building a big infrastructure project can cause a lot of emissions.
  2. there is a lot of embedded carbon in the building materials used in big infrastructure projects
  3. when IA has to choose between – say – building a new train line or a freeway, that decision has long term consequences in operational emissions
  4. different forms of transport infrastructure tend to encourage different forms of development around them. Freeways encourage suburban sprawl, while trains and trams can be used to encourage walkable medium-density mixed use neighbourhoods
  5. governments love to announce big infrastructure projects – especially when there’s an election or a stock market crash looming
  6. most importantly, we’ll need to build a lot of new infrastructure to meet a net zero target by 2050

More work is needed

While the details are yet to be revealed (and the devil is always in the details), this is a big first step in the right direction.

But we’ve got a massive challenge ahead of us, and this is just the first step to fixing our uninhabitable places.

Revisiting the ditched SEPP, a plan for better resilience, would certainly be a wise idea.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet now has just weeks to hand over documents about his government’s controversial decision to drop this vital sustainability policy.

If a rising tide of teal and green isn’t enough to persuade the premier, then it’s time for Mr Albanese to follow in the footsteps of former prime minister Bob Hawke, who stepped over state rights to enact protections for the Franklin River and Fraser Island. 

After all, Albanese won’t want to go down in history as the Labor PM who left his party’s working class base to fend for itself in a society that will break down under crushing environmental pressures.

We can do this!

We have the skills and know how to avoid this scenario. Sadly this has not been well recognised, respected or understood. Landscape designers, strategists and cooling experts have in the past been sidelined in the big burly razzamatazz of property development.

But that’s all starting to change. Dig a little and you will find a plethora of committed people working away on restoring nature. And they’re even more passionate than sustainability aficionados in the built environment.

We went looking for them after our disgust at the ditching of the SEPP… and we found an army!

They’re everywhere, working quietly, determinedly and happily on a job that they see has only upside. 

Now that the rest of us are scarred with fires and flood we’re sidling up to these green gurus and persuading them to share their insights.

Even the big investors are on board.  The nature positive movement will leave even net zero in the dust they say.

We  could not resist but to construct an event to bring a cross section of this talent together, at Urban Greening.

This is an event that’s vital in our unstable climate. It will teach you resilience and how to retrofit uninhabitable places with trees and green public spaces and how to bring joy to our cities. 

But you’ll need to hurry – tickets are selling fast.

Because if we don’t all play our part, then there’s one word to describe the kind of places we’ll all live in. Uninhabitable.

Join the Conversation

5

Your email address will not be published.

  1. This opinion piece (and laughable main photo) is unnecessarily hyperbolic. First of all, much of Australia is already uninhabitable. Secondly, I’m willing to bet my life that the author’s claim — that buildings and suburbs will be uninhabitable “within the next decade” — will turn out to be completely false. Climate change is real, and we need to find pragmatic solutions for adaptation (and mitigation), but fanatical articles like this do more harm than good.

    1. Hi Ricky, thanks for your comment.

      There is a growing body of evidence that shows that climate change is already intensifying the Indian Ocean Dipole and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

      https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/nov/19/global-heating-supercharging-indian-ocean-dipole-climate-system

      https://www.carbonbrief.org/expect-twice-as-many-extreme-la-nina-events-under-climate-change-study-warns/

      In Australia, this is leading to more intense, frequent and prolonged periods of hot or wet weather, which in turn is leading to more frequent and intense droughts, bushfires, floods and cyclones.

      https://www.theislanderonline.com.au/story/7802905/extreme-fire-weather-days-in-australia-have-doubled-csiro/

      https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/27/rapid-heating-of-indian-ocean-worsening-cyclones-say-scientists

      In addition, even without the additional impact of climate change, in some cases we’ve already built cities, towns and suburbs in places where we probably shouldn’t have, including in floodplains and bordering on bushland.

      These disasters absolutely do render buildings uninhabitable. They also render whole towns and suburbs uninhabitable.

      As in “a place unsuitable for living in”.

      Now I’m not sure what definition you have in mind with the word “uninhabitable”, but for me a building that’s on fire or under flood waters is pretty bloody uninhabitable.

      So is a house that’s over 50 degrees celsius without adequate cooling (as happened in parts of Western Sydney in recent years).

      Will there be properties that, due to the risk of disasters, will basically become uninsurable? Where insurers either won’t write policies or the premiums are so high that it’s unaffordable?

      It’s already happening. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s the ACCC: https://www.accc.gov.au/media-release/high-premiums-leading-to-rise-in-uninsured-homes-in-northern-australia

      Governments, at state and federal level, already have policies in place to subsidise insurance costs in parts of the country: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/mar/04/liberal-mp-wants-coalition-to-expand-10bn-scheme-supporting-insurers-to-cover-all-natural-disasters

      https://statements.qld.gov.au/statements/93762

      Likewise, banks adjusting lending criteria in disaster prone areas isn’t a hypothetical:

      https://www.smh.com.au/property/news/cautious-banks-could-change-approach-to-home-loans-in-flood-prone-areas-20220315-p5a4vy.html

      https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/08/natural-disasters-firm-activity-damage-banks/

      I wish we could claim credit for the idea that one in 25 Australian properties will become uninsurable due to climate related disasters within the next 10 years. But it’s not our original idea.

      https://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/more-than-half-a-million-homes-across-australia-will-be-uninsurable-by-2030-due-to-climate-change-report-warns/gtrb60q0q

      https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/uninsurable-nation-australias-most-climate-vulnerable-places/

      If you’re willing to bet your life that no building, or suburb, or town will be rendered uninhabitable due to climate-related disasters in Australia within the next 10 years, then by all means feel free to move to a “suburb that sprawls right out to the bushfire zones in the hills” or to the “towns and housing subdivisions in flood plains”.

      But please don’t say you weren’t warned if that building is left uninhabitable at some point within the next 10 years.

      Now, if you think the photo for the article is hyperbolic, then here’s an actual photo of an actual cow on an actual roof to avoid actual floodwaters in Lismore recently: https://twitter.com/sophie_walsh9/status/1498464361974620160

      Here’s the part where we agree. Climate change is real, and we need to find pragmatic solutions for adaptation and mitigation.

      That means we need to stop building the wrong things, in the wrong places, and get started on the massive retrofitting job ahead of us.

      1. Great response Andrew.
        It seems that we are caught in a dilemma; talk about the risky trajectory we’ve on and the magnitude of the risks we face and risk being dismissed as fanatical doom sayers and ignored, or water down the message so we’re not dismissed as fanatics and risk being ignored because the risks aren’t that serious, yet. Thus, the numb majority, by keeping the reality that we are seriously stuffed out of their consciousness, can manage their panic and prioritise further procrastination.