News from the front desk, issue 510: If you’re a greenwash spin-cycle merchant of high order and you think 2020 was hard on the bones, get set for an even tougher year ahead.

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From what we can tell from the tea leaves shaping up at the end of the year from hell (for most of us), 2021 will be the year that patience, excuses and moderation will be thrown out the window or at the very least made to perch precariously on a ledge at great altitude.

At close of year, we had one of the most admired sustainability architects on the planet, Norman Foster, forced to uncouple his studio from Architects Declare. The studio was a founding signatory.

The shock waves of this, from the agitation of younger radical architects forming a sub set or breakaway from the official AD, is a neat summation of what’s going on here.

Like the biography of Jim Morrison (The Doors) says “No-one gets out of here alive.”

There is no excuse. If we don’t pull out fingers out, we will end up with Morrison in a Parisian graveyard, dead from causes not quite specified.

This is serious.

It’s the young people talking and quite frankly they don’t care about the convenience or uniquity of our travel bug. They don’t care about glamour or position or prestige or tradition. They just want to have a life, preferably one as close as possible to that of the older folk now defending their past habits of indulgence with a touch of indignant affront.

If it’s starting to look like the #MeToo moment for architecture and development, you might be right.

There are a thousand reasons to love and defend the work of Foster + Partners. And it’s not really about that studio at all.

This is about all of us and the decisions we each need to make. As the Australian arm of AD said, it’s about a journey we all need to take together and a conversation. As the British AD said, it’s not about berating anyone. We need to talk about sustainability.

In a recent survey of companies in the Asia Pacific, Sandpiper Communications and PublicAffairsAsia found a massive 74 per cent of corporate reputation managers face internal pressure to “overpromote sustainability and ESG achievements”, placing them at risk of mispresenting how sustainable they are.

Don’t for a minute think that the greenwash police won’t be watching closely.

The big global picture

Like most of us, Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility director of climate & environment Dan Gocher is happy to see the back end of 2020.

But from a government climate action perspective, it’s hard not to see momentum coming from the international commitments out of Japan, China, South Korea and now the US under President-elect Joe Biden’s ambitious climate regime.

Gocher suspects resistance from the Australian government on a net zero target won’t last much longer given these external pressures.

On the corporate side, there’s been a wealth of companies committing to net zero, including the “usual suspects” such as Santos and Origin Energy. This is a promising development but the absence of short-term commitments to reduce emissions is a problem.

Many companies have “declared where the finishing line is” but not offered details about how they might iteratively get there.

From investors, Gocher expects more major investors to follow the lead of AwareSuper by divesting from carbon intensive companies. The unique move by the super giant last month slashed its emission by 40 per cent overnight by divesting from 60-odd companies.

“I think you’ll see more of that from bigger investors. We’ve already seen that from smaller funds, Future Super and the like, but [AwareSuper] is the first genuinely large investor.”

Avoiding thermogeddon

But what exactly are our plans for avoiding temperatures so high it will be hard for humans to survive? In some tropical climates, for instance, even at moderate temperatures, high humidity can stop the human body from self-cooling by perspiration. Some wit in the New Scientist named this “thermogeddon”.

According to Rod Simpson who recently completed his term at the Greater Sydney Commission and is now running Simpson + Wilson architects, focused on work in Western Sydney, there are great plans for more trees to cool the vast districts, but we need to go further.

Trees might lower ambient temperatures by around 2 degrees, but in an area that experienced 50 degrees last summer at Penrith and 47 degrees last month in November at Badgerys Creek, that won’t exactly turn the tide.

It’s the impact on people’s health and on liveability that concerns Simpson most.

We already know about the food deserts in the sprawling western suburbs where there is take away food at one end, a megalithic shopping centre at the other, and pretty much nothing in between.

There needs to be a resilience plan, Simpson says. Does your building have battery backup if the grid fails? We need human emergency response plans to help vulnerable people.

Is there a cool refuge within walking distance, as in some countries, if your house fails to protect you? Maybe a pool.

There’s also the need for better insulated houses. So many vulnerable people live in houses built in the 60s that have poor insulation and are expensive to heat and cool.

Landcom earlier in the year brought out an encouraging and creative guide for cooling cities, covered in this article, Landcom’s patterns for cooling the commons in Western Sydney. Among a range of ideas was the notion that outdoor activities could be refocused around cooler evening hours.

Commercial buildings and cities

On the commercial front, Craig Roussac from Buildings Alive has been saying during the year and again this week that while the ambition from property companies to set net zero targets is impressive, clear pathways is what we need now.

He’s keen to see buildings and cities themselves to become part of the grid scale solution. That is using buildings to use most of their energy precisely when the sun is shining.

The role of tenants in property

Point Advisory NSW managing director Alan Dayeh says 2021 will be the year where property companies might start taking a long cool look at their tenants and their connection to carbon intensive sectors.

How might this risk might affect rental streams and returns?

Dayeh reckons leaders will keep nudging into the tenant space to manage emissions profiles, which has not traditionally been an easy source of emissions to control.

Something else that will be watching with interest is how climate-ready asset portfolios will be valued going forward. His bet is a growing appetite to buy climate ready or resilient assets.

Another big watch factor is how property will contribute to the circular economy.

“The sector has done well to ensure that construction waste is not going to land fill, that has been really good, the next frontier is the operational base, and how property companies are helping with that part of the puzzle.

“Can we get material near to where we construct developments? Can we get waste materials used in road base? Can we use remanufactured materials for developments?”

He also expects to see more businesses finding ways to make recycling and reuse a financially savvy option.

Land clearing

Matt Kean, fresh from his pinup status in the TFE offices for his great work on energy as the NSW energy and environment minister, has now been redeployed to lend some brand reconstruction to LNP stablemate John Barilaro, leader of the NSW Nationals.

The job seems to be to cobble up a koala rescue package along the lines that farmers will be paid to not chop down trees that these cuddly things need to survive (and hopefully to not shoot any more environmental officers trying to stop land clearing).

But what if the farmers soon decide that they will chop down all the trees unless paid not to? It’s these kind of twist to a well meaning idea that we need to be careful of.

The alternative is to simply stop people chopping down trees.

But where would this leave a political agenda that refuses to impose any rules on anything unless it’s to stop the banks avoiding fossil fuel investments?

Building Quality

This kind of dilemma is not one faced by NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler, who says that for now he’s posting photos of shoddy work he comes across in his inspections online.

Next year, he will publish the names.

Chandler, in case you’ve been asleep for a few years, is the man who’s single handedly starting to reverse the shoddy building practices that have plagued consumers since they removed council building inspectors and allowed the cowboys of the industry to self-regulate.

We say single handedly because any number of previous government inquiries or ministers or government officials have failed to shift the dial even a fraction on this issue. And Chandler is starting to have real impact.

In a recent social media post, Chandler pinged what should be unpingable – people’s toilets. Yes, he did folks. He went into a site in eastern suburbs sanctuary for the elite Bellevue Hill to photograph site toilets and dumpsters. Why? Because it tells him so much about the attitude of the builders.

“Builders who do not care about their workforce are unlikely to care about compliance with design and Australian Standards,” he says.

“Readers should be in no doubt about how forcefully I expressed my dissatisfaction with the amenities present on this site. All were paraded through both portaloos I inspected. Most wonder why I go straight to site amenities and rubbish dumpsters to form my initial and mostly, lasting impression of a site. When site facilities are offered in this condition – guess?

“In this instance there was no water for hand washing, and in the other toilet the waste tank was full.”

Was it unseemly or unfair to point out one bad site among many?

“Get used to it,” says our next contender for the pinup board.

Green Building Council

At the Green Building Council of Australia there’s a positive expansionary mood afoot.

Davina Rooney who took the reins as CEO in June 2019 is well on the way to throwing open the doors of sustainability to housing and the consumer market. A big focus is making tools easier to access and when we spoke to her last week she’d just concluded a partnership agreement with Microsoft to “digitalise the back end of Green Star”.

During the year, she said there was “demand for more urgent action on climate change and if we want to grow at scale, we need to take everyone with us.”

The big questions are how to broaden things and make offerings “more relatable.”

Especially in a time when so many people are talking about healthy buildings. It’s about reaching the consumer through the broad scale housing mark and Rooney for one is “excited to be involved in the consumer side of sustainability.” Which essentially means taking the friction out of participation and making things easier for everyone, she says.

Children and schools will be a bigger focus. “Can we expect better homes and better schools when people spend 90 per cent of their time indoors?

“We should be setting up a future where things are better,” Rooney says.

In the new year this will include a television show, which will clearly make green buildings even more aspirational.

If you read the “global tea leaves”, the big question is where is sustainability going globally and how does that relate to Australian pathways?

Personally, we’re looking at you, PM Scott Morrison.

More on business

ClimateWorks Australia’s CEO Anna Skarbek is another keen observer who’s finishing the year more upbeat than she expected.

There’s good momentum in the finance sector, she says, after sitting on the steering committee for the Australian Sustainable Finance Initiative, which delivered the Australian Sustainable Finance Roadmap last month.

This includes great recommendations such as transforming remuneration to align with sustainable long-term outcomes, implementing product design principles and improving climate risk disclosure.

It will be useful resource that follows the lead of other jurisdictions around the globe, Skarbek says.

She’s also hopeful about decarbonisation given every sector has the technology it needs to get to net zero, including the built environment

What technology needs is a bit of market momentum and then it can keep going.

“There’s already consumer sentiment, where they do prefer a carbon neutral option, and the there’s a net zero emission option in every sector.

“So the task now is to normalise it, and make it widespread. That will take some proactive buyer and policy settings in the coming few years.”

She might be optimistic but she’s still realistic about the scale and urgency of the challenge.

“If we miss this moment, we’ve really locked in more emissions than is safe, so if we can get that moment converted into serious momentum, I’m actually quite optimistic.”

The cost, the cost

To those who point to the cost of saving the planet, we say this. After the financial tsunami of losses caused by the pandemic on the earth’s inhabitants and that of the GFC, you are hereby silenced.

What was the impact? Not much. We learned to print money and woke up to the magic (it must be said) of modern monetary theory (MMT) and wondered why no-one thought of it earlier.

Just make sure you’re printing the money yourself, not borrowing from some pugilistic nation with lots of guns, make sure you have a robust central bank with firm control of the interest rate levers to stem inflation if it should rear its ugly head. And make sure you control the script writers of the hieroglyphics of debt formulae.

As one economist told The Fifth Estate on the eve of the GFC, debt, in theory, can be extrapolated out to hundreds of years if not infinity.

Think about it: what’s stopping us doing that, if people – lender and borrower – can each live, be housed, clothed and fed, and can then be free to spend the bulk of their energy and creativity defending the planet.

Santa, all we want for Christmas is some MMT.

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  1. Net zero should be a prerequisite of ALL Green Building Rating Systems and a requirement of ALL developers of design teams from now on. We really need to be at net zero in everything we do by 2030, not 2050 or later, because if we aren’t we cross the last 6 climate feedback thresholds and the climate runs away to 4 – 6DegC of warming – probably unsurvivable by future generations. UK Breeam and US LEED experience has been that GBCA will not succeed in extending GS beyond the BIG end of town or for homes or schools unless they change their approach. GS must be much simpler, cheaper and more focussed on key critical issues not trying to address a gazillion items of relative trivia to Global Warming and Ecological collapse. They will also need to change the business model and have the right backing by governments and the biggest homebuilders.