Making every building count in meeting Australia’s emission targets

While many Australian households have solar power, our very large houses and wasteful use of building space are factors in our very high emissions.
Jen Watson/Shutterstock

Timothy O’Leary, University of Melbourne

Buildings in Australia account for over 50% of electricity use and almost a quarter of our carbon emissions but the failures, frailties and fragmentation of the construction sector have created a major obstacle to long-term reductions. Reducing our carbon footprint plays second fiddle to the multibillion-dollar work of replacing flammable cladding, asbestos and other non-compliant materials and ensuring buildings are structurally sound and can be safely occupied.

Buildings – whether residential, commercial or institutional – do not score well under the nation’s main emissions reduction program, the A$3.5 billion Climate Solutions Package. This is intended to help meet Australia’s 2030 Paris Agreement commitment to cut emissions by 26–28% from 2005 levels.

This climate fund has very successfully generated offsets under the vegetation and waste methods – these projects account for 97% of Australian carbon credit units issued. But built environment abatements have been very disappointing.

Read more:
Buildings produce 25% of Australia’s emissions. What will it take to make them ‘green’ – and who’ll pay?

Australians have very high emissions per person. That’s partly due to how we use our buildings.

Our states and territories control building regulations. This year the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) set ambitious energy-reduction trajectories for buildings out to 2022 and beyond. This was to be achieved through amendments to national codes and implementing energy-efficiency programs.

Making the best use of our buildings

Last month, the Green Building Council and Property Council launched a policy toolkit, called Making Every Building Count. The councils urged governments to adopt practical plans to reduce emissions in the building sector.

The toolkit contains no fewer than 75 recommendations for all tiers of government. These are the result of work done through industry and university research partnerships in places like the Low Carbon Living Collaborative Research Centre – now disbanded after its seven-year funding ended.

Read more:
We have the blueprint for liveable, low-carbon cities. We just need to use it

Most energy-efficiency studies and programs focus solely on the operational aspect of buildings, such as the energy used to heat and cool them. However, various studies have proved that the energy and emissions required to manufacture building products, even energy-saving products such as insulation, can be just as significant.

A more holistic approach is to look at the embodied energy already in our building stock, which then poses a serious question about our consumption. So, besides aspirational codes for net zero-energy buildings, we should be asking: can we meet our needs with fewer new buildings?

Read more:
The other 99%: retrofitting is the key to putting more Australians into eco-homes

In Melbourne, for example, an estimated 60,000 homes are sitting unused. Commercial property has very high vacancy rates – up to one in six premises are unoccupied in parts of the city. This points to a less-than-effective market in valuing our embodied carbon emissions in property.

If we are to get serious about reducing emissions, we need to tackle inefficient space use.

Empowering people to cut emissions

In occupied commercial buildings, some evidence suggests most building managers are grappling with complexity and challenging tenant behaviours. They also don’t get the clear information they need to continually improve their building’s performance beyond a selected benchmark.

In residential property, home energy performance is very much in our own hands. So we need to consider the means, motivations and opportunities of households, which I did in my doctoral study. A major barrier is that most of us don’t even know what we are getting when we buy or rent an ageing stock of more than 9 million homes.

Europe and the United States moved to mandatory residential energy disclosure at point of sale and lease well over a decade ago. If you rent or buy a home in these countries you get an energy performance certificate. It identifies emissions intensity and gives advice on how to operate the home more efficiently and hence with lower emissions.

In Australia, we have just sat on a commitment made by COAG back in 2009 to introduce a nationwide scheme.

Size matters, too. Residential space per person is high by international standards. Although McMansions are on the wane, our apartments are getting a bit bigger. The average size of freestanding houses built in 2018-19 shrank by 1.3% from 2017-18 to a 17-year low of 228.8 square metres.

And we are putting more solar on our roofs as a carbon offset. As of September 30 2019, Australia had more than 2.2 million solar photovoltaic (PV) installations. Their combined capacity was over 13.9 gigawatts.

However, the trend towards high-rise living is not helpful for emissions. Solar for strata apartments is tricky.

I recently worked with colleagues in Australia and overseas in a study of the user experience of PV. We found residents face a range of issues that limit emission reductions. These issues include:

  • initial sizing and commissioning with component failures such as faulty inverters
  • lack of knowledge about solar and expected generation performance
  • regulatory barriers that limit the opportunity to upgrade system size.

Looking to improve regulations and codes and billion-dollar funds may be sensible ways to meet emission targets, but human empowerment is the secret weapon in improving energy performance and lowering emissions. Good low-carbon citizens will help create good low-carbon cities.

Read more:
Cutting cities’ emissions does have economic benefits – and these ultimately outweigh the costs

A set of clear guides on how to use a building is a good starting point. The low-carbon living knowledge hub provides these.

What will make every building count in lowering emissions is the behaviour of occupants, the commitment of owners to make their buildings low-carbon and building managers’ ability to become more adept at reducing building-related emissions.The Conversation

Timothy O’Leary, Lecturer in Construction and Property, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The most important issue facing Australia? New survey sees huge spike in concern over climate change

Nearly half of Australians aged 18-24 view climate change as the biggest problem facing Australia in new national survey.
James Ross/AAP

Andrew Markus, Monash University

While most Australians still view the economy as the most important issue facing the country, a new survey released today shows climate change is rapidly becoming a major concern, as well.

Now in its 12th year, the Scanlon Foundation survey is the largest- and longest-running poll tracking public opinion on social cohesion, immigration, population and other issues in Australia. The 2019 survey was administered by telephone and the internet in July-August to a representative sample of 3,500 respondents. 

The largest change in the survey from 2018 to 2019 came with the open-ended question: “What do you think is the most important problem facing Australia today?”

Both years, the economy ranked as No. 1. But this year, climate change jumped to a clear second with the equal-largest increase from one year to the next, up from 10% to 19% in our telephone-administered survey and from 5% to 17% in the self-completed online survey.

Responses to the most important problem facing Australia in telephone-interview survey.
Author provided

As would be expected, there were major variances in the responses depending on demographics.

Nearly half (43%) of those aged 18-24 viewed climate change as the biggest problem facing Australia, compared to 12% of those aged 35-44 and just 8% of those over the age of 75.

The responses also varied by state – 20% of Victoria residents and 18% of NSW residents said climate change was the biggest problem, compared to 8% in Western Australia.

And there was a stark difference depending on political affiliation, with 54% of Greens voters saying climate change was the most important issue, compared to 21% of Labor, 7% of Coalition and just 3% of One Nation voters.

Read more:
The science of drought is complex but the message on climate change is clear

Less worry about immigration numbers

Last year, immigration was a major political issue in Australia. Several polls, variously worded and with different approaches to sampling, found majority support for a reduction in the numbers of immigrants permitted into Australia each year.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government was listening to the public’s concerns and responded with changes, including a reduction in the annual immigration target.

This year, however, there is evidence of a decline in public concern.

The percentage of people who agreed the immigration intake was too high in the annual Lowy Institute poll fell from 54% in 2018 to 47% in 2019.

And in our poll, the proportion of those who agreed with a reduction in the number of immigrants fell marginally from 43% in 2018 to 41% in 2019 in our interviewer-administered survey and from 44% to 41% in the self-completed version.

Responses to the question about the number of immigrants in Australia in telephone survey.
Author provided

Endorsement of the value of immigration

There is continuing endorsement of the value of immigration by a substantial majority of Australians.

In the self-completed version of this year’s survey, 76% agree that immigration is good for the economy, 78% agree that immigration “improves Australia by bringing new ideas and cultures” and 80% agree that multiculturalism has been good for Australia.

Since 2015, the survey has tested public support for immigration restrictions on the grounds of race, ethnicity or religion, which have been advocated by minor right-wing and populist parties. The consistent finding is that a large majority – 70% to 80% of Australians – do not support such policies.

But concerns remain over the impact of immigration

While public opinion is generally positive with regard to immigration today, many are concerned about the impact of rising immigrant numbers on their daily lives.

Read more:
Australians think immigration should be cut? Well, it depends on how you ask

Seventy percent of respondents said they were concerned about “overcrowding”, 60% by the impact of immigration on housing prices and 58% by the impact on the environment.

A new question in 2019 asked for responses to the proposition that “too many immigrants are not adopting Australian values”. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (67%) agreed with the statement.

Policy towards asylum seekers

In 2018 and 2019, a new question asked respondents “are you personally concerned that Australia is too harsh in its treatment of asylum seekers and refugees?”

Opinion was found to be almost evenly divided. In 2019, 49% said they were “a great deal” or “somewhat” concerned, 50% “only slightly” or “not at all” concerned.

Here, too, there were major variances in viewpoints depending on demographics.

For instance, 87% of Greens voters and 61% of Labor voters were “a great deal” or “somewhat” concerned, compared to just 30% of Coalition voters and 16% of One Nation.

A similar split could also be seen with age, with 70% of those aged 18-24 “a great deal” or “somewhat” concerned, compared to just 39% of those aged 55-64. And with location: 55% of Victoria residents were “a great deal” or “somewhat” concerned, compared to 37% of those in Western Australia.

Social cohesion still relatively stable

On the much broader question of social cohesion, our survey continues to find a large measure of stability in Australia.

One indication is provided by the Scanlon Monash Index (SMI), which aggregates responses to 18 questions and measures attitudes in five areas of social cohesion: belonging, worth, social justice, political participation and acceptance of diversity.

Over the course of our 12 national surveys, the SMI registered the highest level of volatility during 2009-2013, the period of the Rudd and Gillard governments, when it declined by more than 10%. It has been largely stable since 2014.

On the individual factors that comprise the SMI, however, there have been some significant changes. When it comes to sense of belonging, for instance, just 63% said they felt this to a “great extent” in 2019, compared to 77% in 2007.

And on the acceptance of diversity, 19% of respondents said they had experienced discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic origin or religion, which was significantly higher than the 9%-10% from 2007 to 2009.The Conversation

Andrew Markus, Pratt Foundation Research Chair of Jewish Civilisation, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Researchers allege native logging breaches that threaten the water we drink

Researchers have uncovered what appears to be widespread logging of steep slopes in Victoria, which has the potential to damage critical water supplies.
Chris Taylor, Author provided

David Lindenmayer, Australian National University and Chris Taylor, Australian National University

The Victorian government’s logging business is cutting native forests on steep slopes, in an apparent rule breach that threatens water supplies to Melbourne and rural communities.

Our research indicates that across vital water catchments in the Central Highlands of Victoria, state-owned VicForests is logging native forest on slopes steeper than is allowed under the code of practice. Logging also appears to be occurring in other areas supposedly excluded from harvesting.

Logging operations are prohibited from taking trees from slopes steeper than a certain gradient, because it can lead to soil damage which compromises water supplies. There are far better commercial alternatives to this apparent contravention of the rules, which must immediately cease.

A steep slope recently logged measuring 33 degrees on site near Mount Matlock in the Upper Goulburn Catchment.
Chris Taylor

Logging on steep slopes matters

Water catchments are areas where the landscape collects water. They are defined by natural features such as mountain ridgelines and valleys. Rain drains into rivers and streams, which supply water to reservoirs.

Forest cover protects the soil in water catchments by preventing erosion and other damage which can pollute water.

Areas that provide water for drinking, agriculture and irrigation are known in Victoria as special water supply catchments. Under the state’s Code of Forest Practice, logging in these catchments is prohibited on slopes steeper than 30 degrees (or 25 degrees in some catchments). VicForests claims it does not log trees on such slopes.

Sobering evidence

Water in some affected catchments ends up in Melbourne’s drinking water supply.

We analysed slopes across multiple special water supply catchments. We first examined the relationships between slope and logging disturbance using data from the Victorian government, Geoscience Australia, and the European Space Agency. To confirm the results, we visited multiple sites in the Upper Goulburn catchment, which supplies water to Eildon Reservoir, to measure the slopes ourselves.

We found logging in many areas steeper than 30 degrees. In larger catchments such as the Upper Goulburn, around 44% of logged areas contained slopes exceeding this gradient. In many instances, logged slopes were far steeper than 30 degrees and some breaches covered many hectares.

In the Thomson, Melbourne’s largest water supply catchment, 35% of logged areas contained slopes steeper than 30 degrees.

We also found areas that should have been formally excluded from logging but where the forest had been cut. Many of these exclusion zones were around steep slopes. In the Upper Goulburn catchment, nearly 80% of logged areas contained exclusion zones that should not have been cut.

Recently logged areas near Mount Matlock in the Upper Goulburn Water Catchment. The top map shows where we detected slopes exceeding 30 degrees in logged areas (red). The bottom map shows areas designated by the Victorian government as exclusion zones (magenta).
DELWP 2019, ESA 2019, Gallant et al. 2011

Why is this happening?

Last week, VicForests rejected our allegations of slope breaches. VicForests claimed it was complying with a rule under which 10% of an area logged can exceed 30 degrees. This rule applies to general logging areas; our interpretation is this exemption does not apply to the special water supply catchments.

Forest on steep and rugged terrain is economically marginal for wood production because the trees are relatively short and widely spaced. Almost all timber from these areas is pulpwood for making paper.

So why are such areas being logged at the risk of compromising the water catchments that supplies Melbourne and regional Victoria?

We suspect pressure to log steep terrain is tied to the Victorian government’s legal obligation to provide large quantities of pulp logs for making paper until the year 2030 (coincidentally the year the government plans to phase out native forest logging).

This pressure is reflected in recent reductions in log yields. Some commentators have blamed efforts to protect the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum for this trend. However, only 0.17% of the 1.82 million hectares of forest allocated to VicForests for logging has been taken out of production to protect this species.

In our view, other possibilities for declining yields are past over-cutting and bushfires. VicForests failed to take into account the effects of fire on its estimates of sustained timber yield – despite some of Victoria’s forests being some of the world’s most fire-prone environments.

There are alternatives

Pulp logs sourced from native forests is not a commercial necessity; there are viable alternatives. Victorian hardwood plantations produced 3.9 million cubic metres of pulp logs last year. Most of this was exported.

If just some of these logs were processed in Victoria, it would be enough to replace the pulpwood logged from native forests several times over. Plantation wood is better for making paper than native forest logs, and processing the logs in Victoria would boost regional employment.

Degrading soil and water by logging steep terrain is not worth the short-term, marginal gain of meeting log supply commitments, especially when there are viable alternatives. The Victorian government must halt the widespread breaches of its own rules.

In a statement, VicForests said it “strongly rejects” the allegations raised by the authors.

In addition to the refutations included in this article, the company said:

  • Any concerns about its practices should be referred to the Office of the Conservation Regulator

  • VicForests does very little harvesting in catchments, where restrictions are in place

  • In the Thompson catchment, VicForests only harvests on average 150ha a year out of about 44,000ha in the catchment – which is 0.3%, or around 3 trees in 1000

  • VicForests only asks contractors to harvest on slopes if it complies with regulation.The Conversation

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Chris Taylor, Research Fellow, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.