green stars green building

November will see the launch of three radical new innovation challenges in Green Star ratings that will hopefully create the incentive for the building sector to outperform on carbon emission reduction. They go well beyond a simple offsetting approach, instead tapping the purchasing power of the property industry to encourage decarbonising Australia’s electricity grid and engaging with the supply chain to reduce emissions from materials used in construction.

Buildings use over half of Australia’s electricity and much of this comes from burning fossil fuels, primarily coal. Energy consumption in buildings is responsible for almost one quarter of Australia’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (and more if you include the embodied carbon in materials).

Making buildings slightly less bad is just not good enough anymore. We need a step change if we are to try to keep global warming below the Paris target of 2°C, and an even bigger step to achieve the aspirational target of 1.5°C.

I hope that 2017 will be remembered as the year that Australia truly started on the path to deliver zero carbon buildings. And I’m not referring to the government’s new Carbon Offset Standard for Buildings, which allows you to plant trees overseas to offset GHG emissions from Australia’s dirty coal power stations.

November sees the launch of three new innovation challenges in Green Star, which will recognise developers and building owners who invest in new renewable electricity, eliminate fossil fuels on site, reduce embodied carbon, select carbon neutral products, offset all GHG emissions, engage with tenants to reduce their emissions, and commit to reporting energy and emissions performance over a number of years.

The challenges are compatible with the Carbon Offset Standard but go well beyond a simple annual offsetting approach, using the purchasing power of the property industry to encourage decarbonising Australia’s electricity grid and engaging with the supply chain to reduce emissions from materials used in construction.

Why do we need these challenges?

The federal government has set the following annual GHG emissions targets:

  • 2020: 522 MtCO2e (based on five per cent below 2000 levels)
  • 2030: 440 to 452 MtCO2e (based on 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels)

However, in order to contribute our fair share towards keeping global temperature rise to less than 2°C the Climate Change Authority has proposed the following targets:

  • 2020: 445 MtCO2e
  • 2030: 220 to 330 MtCO2e

These are substantially lower than the government’s targets and are based on staying within an overall carbon budget of 10,100 MtCO2e between 2013 and 2050. In 2015 Australia’s GHG emissions were 527 MtCO2e. From 2016 onwards we have 8520 MtCO2e of the budget left. At current emission rates this means our entire carbon budget will be used up by 2036. We have even less budget and time remaining to meet the 1.5°C aspiration.

So how does this affect buildings? In 2015 electricity consumption in buildings accounted for 105 MtCO2e, which is 20 per cent of Australia’s total GHG emissions.

On top of that buildings produced a further 16 MtCO2e of emissions due to direct combustion of fossil fuels such as gas for heating. In total energy consumption in buildings accounted for almost one quarter of Australia’s GHG emissions. Over 60 per cent of Australia’s electricity comes from coal fired power stations. We really need to shift away from using fossil fuels to power our buildings.

Then there is the embodied carbon due to the production, transportation and installation of materials and products used in the construction, maintenance and fit-out of buildings. Depending on the type of building and frequency of refurbishments this can be equivalent to 10-30 per cent of the operational GHG emissions over the life of the building.

Some of these emissions will be produced in Australia and some will be incurred overseas in the manufacture of the materials and products we import. There are currently no regulations or targets in Australia related to embodied carbon.

Having spent a number of years researching the whole carbon footprint of buildings (energy, embodied and transport), I am pleased to see Green Star taking steps to engage with and incentivise the material supply chain to reduce GHG emissions.

There is much talk of zero carbon buildings by 2050 but all the science tells us we can’t wait that long. We have already exceeded 1°C and the consequences of that are being seen today in coral bleaching and more extreme and record-breaking weather events.

We are now in a period of dangerous climate change and this will only get worse unless we act decisively now. The pledges made in Paris in 2015 have no realistic chance of keeping warming below 2°C and only a two-thirds probability of staying below 3°C. With so much at stake, these are not great odds.

New and refurbished buildings therefore need to transition rapidly to zero carbon now. And because we have so many existing buildings, new buildings should really be carbon positive. While this might sound daunting, the good news is we already have most of the skills and products to achieve this – we simply lack the motivation and political will.

The energy revolution is coming

It is clear we are on the cusp of an energy revolution in Australia, but one that is being primarily led by the private sector and not the federal government.

We have the unedifying sight of politicians tossing coal around in parliament, failing to set a clean energy target, seeking to make coal eligible for clean energy funding, offering taxpayers money to help finance giant new coal mines, and pressuring energy companies to keep open 50-year-old inefficient and highly polluting power stations beyond their useful life. The coal lobby evidently throws more lavish parties in Canberra than the climate scientists and energy advisers do.

Fortunately, many businesses and some branches of government recognise that climate change is real and its impact should be costed; that energy prices, although unpredictable, are not going down anytime soon; and that security of energy supply is critical to business continuity.

The upshot of the federal government’s failure to have a coherent national energy strategy is that high energy prices are likely to move us quickly to renewables anyway. So as the politicians fiddle while coal burns, others are leading us towards a clean energy future, one of energy efficiency, distributed renewable generation, energy storage and smart grid demand management.

Buildings, as both energy consumers and generators, have a key role to play in the energy revolution. The purchasing power of the property sector can be a major catalyst to a low carbon future, based on energy security and price certainty not altruism. But a nudge is sometimes needed to break from conservative thinking, and leaders in the property sector have a role to play by showing what it is possible to achieve today. The new Green Star innovation challenges are part of that nudge.

If Gupta’s steel mills can use all renewables, so can buildings

This week (October 30) the British steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta committed to sourcing the majority of energy for his three recently purchased steel mills in Australia from a combination of wind, solar, pumped hydro storage (by converting disused mines), batteries and cogeneration using waste gases.

This is not about green ideology. As one of Australia’s largest energy consumers his business needs reliable energy and price certainty. He recognises the national energy system is broken and is taking steps to ensure the future success of his business is not at the whim of politicians and fossil fuel lobbyists.

If steel mills can use renewable energy then so can buildings.

But, due to the complex nature of the property sector, the return on investment path is not always straightforward. Developers often don’t own the buildings they deliver, so have no direct financial incentive from energy cost savings. Landlords often pass on the energy costs directly to the tenants so again may have little incentive. Tenants don’t own their buildings and so can’t invest in them.

Only those who own and operate their buildings can see a direct return on investment in energy generation. We need to create incentives to act – and rating tools like Green Star have a role to play in this.

Why we need labels

Green Star has undoubtedly helped shaped the property sector. While no rating system can ever be perfect, it does provide a third-party industry recognised label of a project’s sustainability credentials, which can be used for marketing and corporate reporting, to comply with customer requirements and to demonstrate compliance with planning, investment and grant criteria. It has a value.

Green Star has also influenced the supply chain by creating a demand for greener products and has educated designers and contractors about sustainable design and construction, both of which have a ripple effect through the entire market. Green Star therefore plays a much bigger role in our industry than ticking boxes on major projects.

Fifteen years ago my team was fortunate enough to be commissioned by the GBCA to write the first version of Green Star, based on an Australian version of BREEAM I was developing. In 2003 there was nothing else available in Australia and there was no guarantee that the property sector would embrace Green Star when it launched. But embrace it they did.

When I delivered the first acredited professional training course in a conference room in Stadium Australia nearly every sustainability guru in the country was there (about 50). Today you could probably fill a stadium with all of Australia’s sustainability professionals. Green Star has clearly made a positive difference.

Since then Green Star has gone through a number of iterations and improvements, and expanded beyond office design to cover the design, construction and operation of all types of buildings and developments. A lot of smart, passionate people have overseen its evolution.

Time to step up

But we are now facing a global climate change crisis that requires revolution not evolution. In 2003 “world leadership” looked very different to the leadership needed today. Green Star needs to respond to this and establish much tougher benchmarks, particularly for carbon. The new innovation challenges show a way forward.

Green Star’s success is built on industry engagement but this also brings challenges. To make relatively minor upgrades to the tool can take up to two years, with lots of industry consultation, working sessions and governance processes. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of time when it comes to tackling climate change. That is why I am very proud to have been involved in developing the new innovation challenges to be launched in November. It shows we can act quickly.

Take the challenge

The innovation challenges establish “world leadership” benchmarks in Green Star for energy and carbon. They don’t change the current credit criteria so if you don’t want to aim this high you don’t have to – you can still get a 6 Star rating in the normal way.

The challenges apply to Design & As-Built, Interiors and Performance (operational) ratings. A summary of the new challenges are:

Powered by Renewables

  • Obtain all your energy from new renewable energy sources (on-site or off site)
  • Use no fossil fuels (with any very minor exceptions [less than one per cent] offset by new renewable electricity generation certificates)
  • Achieve a minimum level of energy efficiency performance
  • Commit to reporting GHG performance annually for six years using Green Star Performance (energy credit only)
  • Additional points for more on-site renewables and/or energy storage

Responsible Carbon Impact

  • Reduce embodied carbon by 10 per cent
  • Offset all embodied carbon using NCOS offsets
  • Additional points for 20 per cent reduction and/or the use of carbon neutral certified products

Carbon Positive

  • Achieve the “Powered By Renewables” challenge
  • Achieve the “Responsible Carbon Impact” challenge
  • Offset all remaining Scope 1 and 3 emissions using NCOS offsets
  • Offset an additional 10 per cent of embodied carbon (110 per cent in total)
  • Register the whole building under the Carbon Neutral Standard for Buildings and maintain for six years (with tenants also required to participate)

For further details go to A Green Star Communities version is also under development.

Step Up

Lots of companies seek to associate their brand with a credible sustainability label such as Green Star. And Australians love competition. We love being the first or the biggest (and not just in the Southern Hemisphere). It is no surprise that Australian companies lead in the international sustainability reporting schemes such as GRESB and the Dow Jones Index for Sustainability. It shows that we are playing on the world stage. And this despite having amongst the world’s dirtiest electricity.

But after this month can you really consider your next 6 Star Green Star building to be a world leader if you haven’t met the carbon positive challenge? Who is going to get there first? Ladies and gentlemen, start your – renewably generated electric powered and autonomously driven – engines.

David Clark is a partner with Cundall and wrote the first version of Green Star in 2003. He has worked as an engineer and sustainability consultant on a wide variety of buildings in Australia and UK for over 25 years.

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  1. Thanks David,

    A great article. The scope of these new Green Star Innovation Challenges to lead the way in decarbonisation in Australia is to be commended.

    BTW – research by Andrew Carre of RMIT in 2009 found embodied carbon of building materials in residential housing can be over 50% of total life cycle carbon emissions in mild climates such as Brisbane and Sydney. See

  2. True, buildings do contribute a great deal to emissions. This article and the innovation challenges exclude a huge contributor: existing residential housing.
    It costs at least $20k to make a typical Australian house energy efficient. $4k heat pump hot water, $3k R32 air-conditioner, $3-6k ceiling fans (yes these are that expensive with installation), $3k ceiling insulation (wool not plastic), passive window shading. White roof painting. Updated refrigerator with high MEPS.
    It’s just a simple fact that energy efficiency costs a lot of money and these houses are a massive contributor who are left out, can’t afford it, no idea where to start. Commercial buildings can’t get us to net zero alone.
    I don’t know how to solve this puzzle. I don’t think GBCA can do it either. Government’s aren’t going to hand out $20k per household (because pink batts). It will take a ridiculously long time to get there without stringent NCC upgrades and only a 2% building turnover.

  3. 7 years ago the GBCA chair advised at a ‘Green Cities’ conference “anyone not building to 6 Star standard is building redundancy”. Today, 4 Star is entertained as a ‘sustainable’ ‘green’ building standard. ‘Sustainable’ & ‘green’ have lesser meanings, outside the marketing & trading of buildings.
    Time to stop wallpapering certifications over the ‘green building’ cracks?

    New labels: Accountability, Transparency, Proper Governance for starters.