Singapore Housing and Development Board's Cheong Koon Hean.

The annual Green Cities conference held in Sydney at the Hilton this week took “disruption” as its theme, which was obvious from the very start thanks to a conspicuously large proportion of the audience standing at the back of the theatre. Whether this was because the place was packed out or because people were taking advantage of the new “stand-up zone” (sitting is the new smoking, remember) was unclear.

Packed stand-up zone at #GREENCITIES conference. #disruptseating

— Jorge Chapa (@jochapa) March 22, 2016

Australian cities boast the highest liveability in the world, but what is becoming increasingly evident is that this is despite current policy settings, not due to anything particularly groundbreaking we’re doing. Unfortunately, how far behind Australian cities could become was on clear display from the innovative international presenters.

In the first session on Wednesday, on “disruptive densification”, NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, Greater Sydney Commission chief Lucy Turnbull, C40 executive director Mark Watts and Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation town planning head Steve Yiu gave their thoughts on disruptive trends.

These included greater government and community collaboration, transport-oriented development, limiting sprawl and encouraging cycling and diversity of housing choices including “micro-housing” – things actively pursued internationally, but which seem to be an ongoing challenge here.

In a panel discussion, the Lord Mayor was frank in exposing how non-disruptive some of the suggestions were, particularly around affordable housing, and public and active transport.

“It’s not revolutionary,” Ms Moore said. “It’s what all the other cities are doing. But here it’s considered disruptive. It’s not. We should learn from those other cities. It would enable us to become sustainable future cities, not backward-looking cities.”

Why regulating existing buildings is the disruption we need

In the next session on Asia’s green growth, we heard about great innovation out of Singapore and Japan.

The progress there was so rapid that emcee Amanda Steele told the audience that Australia was at risk of losing its sustainability crown.

“Mark my words, in the GRESB survey next year Australian companies should be very nervous,” she said.

Of great interest to the audience was chief executive of Singapore’s Housing and Development Board Dr Cheong Koon Hean, responsible for housing 82 per cent of Singapore’s residents.

Dr Cheong told the audience how sustainable development guidelines had been integrated into everything the body does.

“You can imagine that housing 82 per cent of the population, if we can be a responsible developer for sustainable development then straight away Singapore is pretty sustainable,” she said.

Dr Cheong said new buildings, which now had to meet high sustainability standards, weren’t the only focus. One million existing buildings were subject to an ongoing “green print” upgrade program, a process she described as “painstaking” but necessary.

While as a public housing authority, there’s considerably more ease in instigating a large-scale retrofit program, Singapore is also clamping down on existing commercial buildings.

In its Green Building Master Plan, Singapore has legislated that existing commercial buildings undergoing HVAC upgrades need to meet a Green Mark Standard (Singapore’s version of Green Star). Building owners also must carry out periodic energy efficiency audits and submit building information and energy consumption data annually.

Along with this stick, though, comes a lot of carrots to incentivise upgrades, including a scheme to co-fund upgrades and a financing scheme to overcome upfront costs, as well as outreach and guidance programs.

Moderator Peter Verwer, ex-Property Council chief and now chief of the Asia Pacific Real Estate Association, summed up the importance of this strategy.

“In Singapore, Green Mark is mandated,” he said. “But the flip side of that is that the government has very, very clear programs that provide incentives. So the carrot is clear. The stick is clear – in a way in which no country on the planet is managing to achieve.”

Over to Tokyo, we learned the government had placed 1300 of the most carbon polluting buildings under a cap and trade system to reduce emissions. This had come after years of engagement with building owners and facilities managers, Tokyo Metropolitan Government planner Yuko Nishida told the audience. And there was a clear trajectory of where these buildings needed to go to help the city with its goal to reduce carbon emissions by 25 per cent of 2000 levels by 2020.

In light of these innovative and, yes, disruptive approaches, it was disappointing at the end of the day’s “greener pastures for old buildings” session to hear CBRE senior director project management Geoff Warren tell the crowd that building owners should be able to do whatever they like with their buildings, otherwise it would be an imposition on property rights.

You can’t legislate against someone’s right to own property and treat it anyway they see fit – Geoff Warren @CBRE #GREENCITIES

— Green Cities (@GreenCitiesConf) March 23, 2016

In response to a question on connecting with “the scary number” of disengaged single property owners with extremely poorly performing buildings, and the suggestion of regulation – a question posed to ClimateWorks chief executive Anna Skarbek and’s Blair Palese – moderator Ken Morrison, current Property Council chief, instead decided to throw it to Mr Warren for a “non-regulatory response”.

Mr Warren said: “It’s a right to own property in this country… The ownership structure says those people can do what they like with that property, provided it’s safe enough, provided it’s clean enough, and provided that no one gets hurt going there…

“I don’t think you can legislate against somebody’s right to own property and treat it any way they see fit.”

Here in Australia it’s all carrot, no stick.

But as Mr Warren himself eluded to in his answer, the unfettered property rights excuse is a bit of a furphy, as there’s already regulations that have been imposed on existing buildings around elements such as workplace health and safety, including fire sensors and alarms, fire stairs and signage. And rightly so, as it saves people’s lives. But is it so much of a stretch that we also get people to ensure buildings aren’t belching carbon?

As the World Green Building Council’s Tai Lee Siang told the audience, Asian countries are acting on sustainability challenges because for them it’s a “matter of survival”. So with scientists in the last few weeks shocked by average temperatures already heading to the 2°C threshold, and news today of potential sea level rises much higher than expected, it is not such a disruptive idea to suggest that existing building owners should have some obligation to their tenants and the planet to be efficient and healthy. As the green building sector likes to say, we’re one of the biggest opportunities for climate action.

And minimum standards are happening in places. For resi, in many countries – and on the cards for Australia too – we make sure tenants aren’t being housed in buildings that are so energy inefficient they can’t afford their bills or have to deal with potentially lethal cold snaps and heat waves.

What’s needed in the commercial sector is for our political leaders – and our industry – to acknowledge the very real threat climate change poses, and to act accordingly.

Poor performance – alarming really

Richard Palmer from WSP hit the nail on the head when asking for clarification on what he termed “alarming” figures from an upcoming report by ClimateWorks and the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.

Commercial building energy intensity had improved just two per cent over the period of 2005-2015, the conference learned.

“We’ve been at this game and at this conference for a decade talking about green buildings and opportunities in the existing building sector… and we’re at two per cent and plateaued [for the commercial sector] and five per cent and going in the wrong direction [for residential]. Am I reading it wrong or is it that bad?” he asked.

The verdict?

“You’re reading it right,” ClimateWorks chief executive Anna Skarbek said.

“The market leaders, who are largely represented in this room, have done a fantastic job of lifting their own performance and moving the frontier forward. But what hasn’t happened is that the rump of the market – which by volume is greater – has come with it at that pace,” she said.

“So the big question for existing buildings… is how do you take the best practice with the higher rated buildings and make that universal across the lower-rated buildings?”

An audience member pointed out: “The rump is going to kill us.”

The Fifth Estate reached out to Ms Skarbek and Ms Palese to answer the question on regulation initially posed to them.

Ms Skarbek confirmed that the upcoming report with ASBEC would provide detail on how current incentives could be improved, and how engagement could be increased.

So no stick?

“There hasn’t been a practice of regulation on existing buildings for environmental reasons yet,” she said.

However, with the Paris agreement still being digested by nations, she said it could be on the cards.

“The Paris agreement is a very strong one and could well be the basis for that sort of action in the future,” she said.

But can we really wait around? ClimateWorks’ own report found that existing buildings represented the best avenue for cutting carbon emissions from now until 2030 – less than 14 years.

Can you leave it to the market? 

Ms Palese told The Fifth Estate that if we wanted change across the board, regulation was usually the only thing that could deliver.

The countries moving the fastest were those that had imposed regulation on their buildings sector, she said. Think Europe and Scandinavian countries.

“If you leave it to the market, some will lead, and the bulk may or may not follow.”

In property we’ve seen that the bulk definitely has not followed.

“If you want the kind of change necessary at the speed we need, we can’t wait around for the market,” she said.

We need disruption.

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