Image from National Parks Association of NSW, Roger Lembit

The year is 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just released its latest Assessment Report AR6 in-time for world leaders to consider its findings before meeting in Glasgow in November for COP26. They will decide what to do next to try to give humanity a survivable future.

The bottom line is that the world has just eight years to radically decarbonise everything globally.  This is worrying enough, but many scientists are criticising the IPCC report for being far too conservative and politically moderated.

Critics include the group of scientists preparing the next, 2022 IPCC report. They have leaked their first draft which says we only have four years before we use up the remaining carbon budget to stop the planet warming by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

This aligns with the IPCC’s AR5 report in 2014 which said we had around 10 years before the carbon budget was used up – so another 3.5 years remaining then!  The “What Lies Beneath” report from Spratt and Dunlop warned us that IPCC scenarios and reports did not take a precautionary approach to reporting and that even in 2018 IPCC results revealed there was already a 10 per cent chance we were headed for an unsurvivable 4-6 degrees Celsius average global warming. 

Next, Professor Sir David King’s (former UK Chief Scientist) Climate Crisis Advisory Group have just released their own report interpreting IPCC science saying that the carbon budget is already used up

Lastly despite the Afghanistan issue and COVID, the news through 2021 has been awash with climate disaster stories – the US drought and bushfires consuming forests all over the northern hemisphere (reminding us of our black summer of 2019/20), the flooding in Belgium, Germany, China, (Louisiana now) the unprecedented polar ice melt, the slowing of the gulf stream and extreme perturbations of the jet stream bringing extreme weather.

These are wake-up calls for us all that climate change is real and happening now and set to get much worse.  What’s more, the scientists that specifically study these disaster events are saying the severity of disasters we see today was not forecast for at least another decade – we are tracking worst case forecasts not the optimistic ones that IPCC AR6 describes. 

What is at stake here is a survivable future for our entire species (and 90 per cent of others) forever, but we are asleep at the wheel of humanity’s destiny.

So that sets the scene for the Australian Building Codes Board calling for second round comments on Volume 2 of the National Construction Code (NCC). Yaaaawwn!

But seriously, this sets the minimum standard that every house in Australia gets built to until the NCC gets revised in another three years time, at which time this issue will likely be ignored again. 

Our buildings contribute about 25 per cent of our emissions and the standard of buildings we build now will be locked in for the life of the buildings – on average over 100 years, likely the timescale that we also go extinct as a species if we continue to ignore the Climate Emergency.  So, isn’t it time we gave ourselves a shake and realised what’s at stake here and used this iteration of the NCC to mandate net zero buildings for 2022 onwards?

Currently the NCC is based around energy efficiency and not around greenhouse gas emissions.  Energy efficiency is essentially an economic driver for regulation, but it is not economics that threatens our future, so our priorities are wrong.  As described, the extent of our ambition for the 2022 update seems to be just to transition from mandating 6 to 7-star energy performance.  Will that give us zero energy and zero emissions buildings?  Not even close!

An average Australian home (236 square metres) will still be consuming 7-75 gigajoules of energy per year (depending on location) and emit on average about 5 tonnes of CO2-e per year.  Australia has one of the highest per capita emissions globally meaning we must do better! 

If we compare 7-star energy performance to harshness of climate (expressed as total heating and cooling degree days) we get a reasonable correlation – better for heating than cooling.  But why are our regulations more lenient for the harshest climates, permitting up to 10 times the energy consumption – this might seem fair to builders, but surely it is in the harshest climates that we also need the regulations to be the harshest, even on economic grounds?  

If we convert this to the equivalent CO2-e emissions performance (based on the emissions intensity of electricity as an approximation), then the apparently rational correlation breaks down.  In 2021 how can we tolerate any emissions from our buildings let alone over 20 tonnes of annual emissions in our harshest climate zone and for buildings that will probably have a 100 year life.

This surely has to change and it has to change now, with the current revision of Volume 2 of the NCC and as soon as possible thereafter for Volume 1 of the NCC (for non-domestic buildings).  It poses challenges for sure, for addressing how to determine a net zero building, for including solar PV provisions, but if not now, when?

If we care about our kids and grandkids futures, how can we make this change happen? – The Australian Building Codes Board is a joint initiative of the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments, together with the building and plumbing industries. It falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources led by Christian Porter MP, Angus Taylor MP, Keith Pitt MP and Jonathan Duniam MP, so I doubt we’ll get much joy there then.  

But State and Territory governments are showing leadership on climate action regardless of the dysfunctional politics federally (from both major parties). 

So, if we want this change to happen then we need to be writing en-masse to our State Planning, Environmental and Climate Change responsible Ministers to demand it.  We also need to flood the ABCB’s call for consultation on the Volume 2 update with the same message!  I hope this strikes a chord with Fifth Estate readers and you can engage in making the radical changes needed to the NCC now!

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

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  1. The emphasis on raising star ratings would have more impact if we were designing houses appropriate for this century and the expected warmer future rather than last century’s climate. Also, the climate data we use for the star ratings is based on averages rather than peaks, and so is not appropriate for the super summers, which are occurring more frequently and will inevitably continue to become more extreme as we progress through the century. The question is how resilient are our houses to prolonged heatwaves and with temperatures over 50degC; this is relevant to both new and existing houses.

  2. If we are serious we need to retrofit existing stock . It’s the existing stock that is the issue . It doesn’t matter how effective we make the new stock as we have a legacy in old stock, there are almost 10 million homes in Australia and we are building around 180000 per annum . Do the maths . So unless we do something about improving the existing stock we are have a minute effect on the problem,

  3. How about limiting the size of our new homes and repurposing and retrofitting existing building stock rather than demolishing to make bigger. Reducing floor area inherently reduces energy consumption (less space to heat, cool and illuminate), enables improved cross ventilation, more effective passive solar design and reduced reliance on active heating and cooling (aircon etc). Every square metre of building equates to a chunk of carbon emissions in manufacture and then ongoing, that extra fabric needs maintenance, cleaning, repainting, repair (all carbon emissions).

  4. I’m sure many builders would balk at 10-stars starting in just a year or two, but realistically this could be done by making incremental improvement: 7-stars in 2022, 8-stars in 2023, 9-stars in 2024, 10-stars in 2025, then review what improvements can be done beyond that.

    Perhaps a petition could help move this agenda forward!

    1. Thanks for commenting and I’m sure you’re right, but we’ve procrastinated for decades within which an orderly transition was feasible and now we’ve run out of time. So what do you think the builders’ kids and grandkids would say to this suggestion and if not now when – just how close to the tipping points do you think its OK to go? It may already be too late according to many experts!