I’ve been fortunate in my career to have benefited from good on-the-job training often in areas (as a scientist) that didn’t seem relevant to me, but it turns out as I’ve progressed from technical to managerial roles they became very relevant. 

One was a great course on negotiation. I went into it thinking this is a waste of time and I should be reasonably good at it: I’d be thoughtful about who I was negotiating with and what they wanted and what I wanted to achieve. I discovered I was nothing like as good as I thought I’d be.  

First, in understanding what mattered to my opponent, not just what they needed and wanted, but also what vulnerabilities they had that could be exploited. Above all, I had not appreciated the importance of opening gambits — the start of the negotiation where both sides lay out their expectations. It was an ah-ha moment for me to learn that 80 per cent of negotiation is over when opening gambits are stated, because the dance of negotiation is certain to end at close to the mid-point between these positions. The majority of the time spent in negotiation involves shadow-boxing on add-ons and concessions which modify the central point of the negotiation.

So, what has this got to do with the National Construction Code updates currently being negotiated?  Well, the opening gambit presented in the public comment draft updates and the Consultation Regulation Impact Statement (CRIS) was between 6-star energy efficiency and 7-star energy efficiency and we were effectively being presented with the choice between no change at all (6-star) and a small improvement (7-star) with the CRIS making a bogus argument that 7-star was not economically justified. A bogus argument because they arbitrarily chose to add up all the additional costs to householders for the 7-star changes but consider the benefits to householders as a loss to energy companies and therefore transactional in the economy as a whole.  

In an economy all costs to one stakeholder are a benefit to another — all costs and benefits are transactional, so to single out benefits to the homeowner as uniquely transactional was roundly criticised. 

The only beneficiaries of the CRIS accounting were the energy suppliers and in particular the fossil fuel industries — presumably a politically motivated decision. 

Section 7 of the CRIS revealed the true story by considering affordability for the householder (that is, the public).  The 7-star change made homes even more affordable because the energy-cost savings exceeded any additions to the mortgage for the improved efficiency measures.  The only beneficiaries of the CRIS accounting were the energy suppliers and in particular the fossil fuel industries — presumably a politically motivated decision. 

Meanwhile, it is now accepted that the main purpose of building regulation is no longer economic (energy efficiency), it is now greenhouse gas emissions that contribute significantly to the existential threat of climate change.

In this case, the opening gambit offered SHOULD have included a third option, the net zero home.  By offering just 6-star and 7-star energy efficiency options as opening gambits, the public consultation was manipulated.  

If the net zero home were included in the options, it proves to be even more affordable for new homeowners from day one than the 7-star energy efficient home in every climate zone (except in Tasmania where the costs/benefits break even).

Regulating net zero emission homes has an overriding important non-financial benefit — it would ensure that no new home built in Australia adds to the emissions that compromise the future for our children and grandchildren. 

It’s impossible to overstate how important and urgent this is.  

Paraphrasing Professor Will Steffen, corroborated by the breakaway group of IPCC scientists and by former UK Chief Scientist, Professor Sir David King and his Cambridge research group (CCAG) we now have a mere handful of years to radically decarbonise globally if we are to avoid triggering the last climate feedback loops that will cause the climate to tip unstoppably to 4-6°C of warming — unsurvivable by our species and 90 per cent of others.  

To ignore this is to either deny climate science, or just not care and be a psychopath toward future generations. 

In the approval of three coal mines, the federal environment minister Sussan Ley has shown contempt for the law by ignoring the judgement that she has a “duty of care” for future generations in a case brought by eight schoolchildren and an octogenarian nun. 

We know where our federal government stands. Just as we have denied COVID health advice to find it all goes horribly wrong, we are now ignoring climate science and it WILL go cataclysmically wrong for our entire species if we don’t change radically and fast.

So where do you think states and territories should be setting the code? The options are:

no change with the 6-star energy efficiency recommended by the CRIS, when Australians already shamefully have the largest per capita emissions globally

  • a small improvement with 7-star energy efficiency – we’d still have the highest emissions per capita!
  • net zero homes, which don’t contribute to trashing our kids’ and grandkids’ survivable futures AND are more affordable for new homeowners from day one

This is surely a no-brainer, but the word on the street is that ABCB is opting for the 7-star energy efficiency option with a “pathway” to net zero. Given that it’s immediately cheaper for net zero homeowners NOW, why the delay? 

Why are our new homeowners being deprived of these mandated benefits? 

Why does there need to be any pathway? When do we reach net zero on this pathway – within a handful of years, by 2030, 2040 or 2050?  

The energy provisions of this code were last updated 13 years ago, so is that the timescale? If so, that’s far too late for a survivable future.  

What is proposed is madness and psychopathy toward our own kids and grandkids. There’s no excuse for anything less than Net Zero Now. If not now, then when?

Nigel Howard founded the Edge Environment Consultancy in Manly and is now sole trading as Clarity Environment.

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  1. I agree energy savings deliver greater impacts than ever increasing star ratings. Early review of NSW draft policy indicates very little movement in energy with all the heavy lifting being done in thermal comfort. I think we are also missing the easy grabs like blower door testing to drive better built outcomes.

  2. This is so true chasing star ratings is not an holistic argument for carbon emissions. In fact LCA may argue against some of the methods of increasing star ratings where materials may impact Life Cycle . Its almost like this path we are on, cannot be changed as those employed by CSIRO and NatHERS do not want contemplate other pathways .

  3. Great article! I was devastated when I realised I missed the NCC consulting period. It is a no-brainer but I know the net-zero option won’t eventuate.

  4. Thank you for writing this piece, Nigel. It is/was exactly the same story in trying to get NCC changes to mandate the Silver level access features as set out in the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. These were written in 2010 with industry promising full implementation by 2020. Of course this did not happen because it wasn’t mandated. So the ABCB went through the same process of cost benefit analysis which did the same thing as you explained. Extra weighting on the costs and not counting all the benefits especially to householders. Although the Building Ministers’ Meeting approved the NCC changes (will be in 2022 edition), each jurisdiction can still choose whether to adopt them in their code. VIC, QLD, TAS, ACT, NT are all systems go, but NSW, SA and WA are dragging their heels saying it will cost too much and damage the economy (contrary to hard evidence).
    In NSW the politicians would rather listen to the anecdotes of the industry than the evidence of benefit and need gathered over 25 years.

  5. This complex report seems to be claiming that “net zero emission homes would ensure that no new home built in Australia adds to the emissions that compromise the future for our children and grandchildren.”
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but this doesn’t account for the embodied emissions of building new net zero homes. The report seems to be entirely about regulating the building of new homes. If we’re “to avoid triggering the last climate feedback loops that will cause the climate to tip unstoppably to 4-6°C of warming — unsurvivable by our species and 90 per cent of others”, we can’t keep expanding the stock of new homes at the rate we are here in Australia. We have a lot of homes already, most of which need retrofitting immediately. Some old ones need to be replaced now and most newer ones will need replacing in the not-too-distant future.
    To avoid climate catastrophe, we also need to ensure full utilization of all existing building stock, which means massive changes in property investment laws, which the current zeitgeist does not support. Nonetheless we should make a start. In Australia, we can reverse the demand for housing by immediately bending the curve in population growth by bringing immigration down to replacement level (same # in as # out = about 70,000) and make contraception fully and freely available to ALL.

  6. As far as I know the 6 Star standard was based on a very dodgy, manipulated CSIRO study. I was shocked by that unprofessional, unscientific work published by an organisation with an outstanding history.
    The report was basically done to support the idea of a sealed box with an airconditioning system.