Climate change threatens property
Image: Thomas Hafeneth

A much-anticipated Senate Inquiry into climate change’s impact on housing, buildings and infrastructure has seen the three major political parties unable to agree on a single recommendation.

Referred to the Environment and Communications References Committee back in May 2017, the inquiry looked into climate change’s current and future impacts on the built environment, taking into account all projected climate scenarios.

Topics investigated included sea level rise, extreme heat, storms, flood, cyclones, coastal inundation, impacts on utility provision, impacts on transport, infrastructure, and impacts on housing, hospitals, schools and public recreation facilities.

The report, which had submissions from a plethora of peak bodies, industry groups, scientists and academics, had been delayed three times before being released on Monday night.

Coalition fails to make any recommendations at all

But on release, more than a year after being referred, the report contained no recommendations from the committee, which was chaired by Greens Senator Janet Rice and also included three Labor senators, and a Liberal and National senator. Instead, each party provided a separate list of recommendations at the end of the report – or, in the case of the Coalition members, no recommendations at all.

Industry largely on the same page, but parties play politics

The report details the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets at risk from climate change, and the losses already experienced from extreme weather events. There wasn’t much we haven’t heard before: extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts and floods are already being super-charged by climate change; we’re not building to withstand potential climate events; land use planning hasn’t caught up with the realities of climate change and insurance costs are expected to rise dramatically.

There should have been a number of areas where consensus was achieved – for example, auditing infrastructure or construction standards to see if they can stand up to future conditions.

A number of submitters called for a national audit on the cost of climate change impacts on Australian infrastructure. Investor Group on Climate Change chief executive Emma Herd said a “whole-of-economy approach” to auditing was needed so that cost-benefit analyses could be made regarding mitigation efforts. The Climate Council’s Professor Lesley Hughes and the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council agreed.

Kirsty Kelly, on behalf of ASBEC, said an audit wouldn’t even necessarily need to test individual assets, rather construction standards could be reviewed to consider “whether those standards are based on the frequency and intensity of weather events that we are seeing now”.

We’re still building in the wrong areas

Others called for better access to data. Local government associations and insurance companies noted that land use planning and zoning requirements were not reflecting the risks of climate change. In other words, we’re still building on areas likely to be flooded or at high risk of bushfire.

On housing the inquiry received evidence that “Australian buildings are generally not well suited to the existing climate, let alone a future further affected by climate change”. For example, Sustainability Victoria found an average NatHERS rating of 1.81 for homes constructed before 2005.

If the grid failed due to excessive use of airconditioning, those in poor quality houses were at great risk of heat stress and even death. If homes were upgraded to 5.4 stars, deaths from a 2009-type heatwave could be reduced from 374 additional deaths to 37.

A large number of submitters argued that minimum standards needed to be raised, and that NatHERS needed to be updated to better account for heat stress.

“Where the building code currently sits, the six-star minimum standard for NatHERS is not sufficient in its ability to address heatwaves in particular,” City of Melbourne’s Gavin Ashley said.

“It’s based on year-round energy use and splits that between your cooling and heating requirements. That doesn’t give a great indication of how your building is going to perform in a heatwave.”

ASBEC and the GBCA both called for a pathway to net zero emissions in buildings by 2050.

Greens and Labor find common ground

Senator Janet Rice said it was “disappointing” that the panel members could not “arrive at consensus conclusions on issues of such importance”.

In a speech to parliament Ms Rice said she had put forward a suite of recommendations she felt “were based very strongly on the evidence that was produced before us”, but which were not supported by the committee.

Instead each party delivered their own set of recommendations, or otherwise in the case of the Coalition.

“The government senators had no recommendations,” Ms Rice said.

“Their additional comments merely note a range of things that the government is already doing. They were not engaging with the serious nature of the evidence that was put before us in this important committee.”

It should be noted, however, that the Greens and Labor senators reached consensus on most issues, though Ms Rice called Labor’s recommendations a “watered down version” of the Greens’.

There was one recommendation only the Greens put forward, which was the establishment of an independent statutory authority to provide information on climate change. And both parties had different views on mechanisms required to transform the electricity sector.

But there was, largely, solidarity on the other 31 recommendations. These included:

  • development of minimum building standards to address heat stress risks
  • mandatory disclosure of residential energy efficiency be legislated at sale or rent
  • that governments consider setting a date for minimum performance standards for all properties
  • federal government committing to a net zero target (2040 for Greens and 2050 for Labor)
  • funding of the preparation of a National Climate Change Risk Assessment that includes assessments of extreme risks and worst-case scenarios for Australia’s built environment
  • funding Infrastructure Australia to lead a national audit of at-risk infrastructure
  • ongoing funding to support the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and bodies like CSIRO
  • identifying options for ensuring that robust post-project reviews of infrastructure projects are conducted
  • outlining a transition to net zero emissions transport sector
  • that water system and sewer design factor in climate projections
  • amending the National Electricity Objective to include decarbonisation of the electricity sector
  • the development of a national climate change and health strategy

“At its core, this report serves as a tally of the risks and the costs of a do-nothing approach to climate change – the still severe but manageable consequences of a world where carbon pollution is rapidly reduced and the options available to government to manage and choose between these alternatives,” Ms Rice said.

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  1. From the list of recommendations above:

    •development of minimum building standards to address heat stress risks
    •mandatory disclosure of residential energy efficiency be legislated at sale or rent.

    Very interesting statements.

    To reduce heat stress, reflection of incoming radiation is required, not radiant heat absorption into fibrous bulk insulations, which is precisely what the insulation standards refuse, yes refuse to address. Aluminium foil insulation repulse radiation, continuously. Bulk does not and cannot.

    Readers might be interested to know that the relevant standards committee handling insulation issues, is right now completing a massive revision of AS/NZS4859.1(2002) and have deleted all reference to “radiation” effects when assessing insulation product R-value performance.

    The word “radiation” doesn’t exist anywhere in the DRAFT, whereas it is referenced extensively in the long standing 2002 edition. Now it’s gone.

    This DRAFT revision could be listed at any time now on the Standards website for Public Comment.

    Adding to this disgraceful situation is that the April 2018 independent “Governance Review” into Standards Australia recommended greatly increased public participation at all stages of the development of standards. In other words, open up the historic closed committees to public scrutiny.

    I cannot fathom why no FIFTH ESTATE readers don’t express support for what I am saying. Closed Committees are a recipe for ‘captured committees’. This is commonly known fact – it’s not some obscure surprising revelation. Even the CEO of Standards Australia has publicly admitted about the risk of ‘committee capture’. I attended the Governance Workshop in Melbourne on 19 April and heard it stated.

    Everybody knows that Industry write standards and that in many cases the ABCB building codes board sit on standards. But the ABCB keeps repeatedly stating that they do not influence Standards. That is patently false, because ABCB holds a Committee VOTE on the insulation committee BD-058.

    I urge the FIFTH ESTATE readers to realise what is at stake here, that insulation materials must be proven to be ‘fit for purpose’, and feel free to please lodge strong critical comments to ensure that discussion about radiation is re-inserted.

    High radiation makes cooling systems run longer. Radiation kills.

    Just look at the northern hemisphere ravaging heatwave news. And it looks like to coming to Australia for 2018-19.

    As I stated in earlier FIFTH ESTATE stories, there is no point implementing mandatory disclosure of residential energy efficiency, if the referenced insulation standards aren’t soundly based, or worse are misleading.