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


Igor Martek, Deakin University and M. Reza Hosseini, Deakin University

In signing the Paris Climate Agreement, the Australian government committed to a global goal of zero net emissions by 2050. Australia’s promised reductions to 2030, on a per person and emissions intensity basis, exceed even the targets set by the United States, Japan, Canada, South Korea and the European Union.

But are we on the right track to achieve our 2030 target of 26-28% below 2005 levels? With one of the highest population growth rates in the developed world, this represents at least a 50% reduction in emissions per person over the next dozen years.




Read more:
Australia is not on track to reach 2030 Paris target (but the potential is there)


Consider the impact of one sector, the built environment. The construction, operation and maintenance of buildings accounts for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. As Australia’s population grows, to an estimated 31 million in 2030, even more buildings will be needed.

In 2017, around 18,000 dwelling units were approved for construction every month. Melbourne is predicted to need another 720,000 homes by 2031; Sydney, 664,000 new homes within 20 years. Australia will have 10 million residential units by 2020, compared to 6 million in 1990. Ordinary citizens might be too preoccupied with home ownership at any cost to worry about the level of emissions from the built environment and urban development.

What’s being done to reduce these emissions?

The National Construction Code of Australia sets minimal obligatory requirements for energy efficiency. Software developed by the National Housing Rating Scheme (NatHERS) assesses compliance.

Beyond mandatory minimum requirements in Australia are more aspirational voluntary measures. Two major measures are the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) and Green Star.

This combination of obligatory and voluntary performance rating measures makes up the practical totality of our strategy for reducing built environment emissions. Still in its experimentation stage, it is far from adequate.

An effective strategy to cut emissions must encompass the whole lifecycle of planning, designing, constructing, operating and even decommissioning and disposal of buildings. A holistic vision of sustainable building calls for building strategies that are less resource-intensive and pollution-producing. The sustainability of the urban landscape is more than the sum of the sustainability of its component buildings; transport, amenities, social fabric and culture, among other factors, have to be taken into account.

Australia’s emission reduction strategy fails to incorporate the whole range of sustainability factors that impact emissions from the built environment.

There are also much-reported criticisms of existing mandatory and voluntary measures. A large volume of research details the failure of voluntary measures to accurately evaluate energy performance and the granting of misleading ratings based on tokenistic gestures.




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Greenwashing the property market: why ‘green star’ ratings don’t guarantee more sustainable buildings


On top of that, the strategy of using front runners to push boundaries and win over the majority has been proven ineffective, at best. We see compelling evidence in the low level of voluntary measures permeating the Australian building industry. Some major voluntary rating tools have penetration rates of less than 0.5% across the Australian building industry.

As for obligatory tools, NatHERS-endorsed buildings have been shown to underperform against traditional “non-green” houses.

That said, voluntary and obligatory tools are not so much a weak link in our emission reduction strategy as the only link. And therein lies the fundamental problem.

So what do the experts suggest?

We conducted a study involving a cohort of 26 experts drawn from the sustainability profession. We posed the question of what must be done to generate a working strategy to improve Australia’s chances of keeping the carbon-neutral promise by 2050 was posed. Here is what the experts said:

Sustainability transition in Australia is failing because:

  • government lacks commitment to develop effective regulations, audit performance, resolve vested interests (developers), clarify its own vision and, above all, sell that sustainability vision to the community

  • sustainability advocates are stuck in isolated silos of fragmented markets (commercial and residential) and hampered by multiple jurisdictions with varied sustainability regimes

  • most importantly, end users just do not care – nobody has bothered to communicate the Paris Accord promise to Joe and Mary Citizen, let alone explain why it matters to them.

Tweaking the rating tools further would be a good thing. Getting more than a token few buildings rated would be better. But the show-and-tell display of a pageant of beautiful, green-rated headquarters buildings from our socially responsible corporations is not going to save us. Beyond the CBD islands of our major cities lies a sea of suburban sprawl that continues to chew up ever more energy and resources.




Read more:
A task for Australia’s energy ministers: remove barriers to better buildings


It costs between 8% and 30% more than the usual costs of a building to reduce emissions. Someone needs to explain to the struggling home owner why the Paris climate promise is worth it. Given the next election won’t be for a few months, our political parties still have time to formulate their pitch on who exactly is expected to pay.The Conversation

Igor Martek, Lecturer In Construction, Deakin University and M. Reza Hosseini, Lecturer in Construction, Deakin University

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

Scientists are developing greener plastics – the bigger challenge is moving them from lab to market



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Used once and done.
Michael Coghlan, CC BY-SA

Richard Gross, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Synthetic plastics have made many aspect of modern life cheaper, safer and more convenient. However, we have failed to figure out how to get rid of them after we use them.

Unlike other forms of trash, such as food and paper, most synthetic plastics cannot be easily degraded by live microorganisms or through chemical processes. As a result, a growing plastic waste crisis threatens the health of our planet. It is embodied by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a massive zone of floating plastic trash, three times the size of France, stretching between California and Hawaii. Scientists have estimated that if current trends continue, the mass of plastics in the ocean will equal the mass of fish by 2050. Making plastics from petroleum also increases carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

Much of my work has been dedicated to finding sustainable ways to make and break down plastics. My lab and others are making progress on both fronts. But these new alternatives have to compete with synthetic plastics that have established infrastructures and optimized processes. Without supportive government policies, innovative plastic alternatives will have trouble crossing the so-called “valley of death” from the lab to the market.

From wood and silk to nylon and plexiglass

All plastics consist of polymers – large molecules that contain many small units, or monomers, joined together to form long chains, much like strings of beads. The chemical structure of the beads and the bonds that join them together determine polymers’ properties. Some polymers form materials that are hard and tough, like glass and epoxies. Others, such as rubber, can bend and stretch.

A monomer of Teflon, a nonstick synthetic resin (top), and a chain of monomers (bottom).
Chromatos

For centuries humans have made products out of polymers from natural sources, such as silk, cotton, wood and wool. After use, these natural plastics are easily degraded by microorganisms.

Synthetic polymers derived from oil were developed starting in the 1930s, when new material innovations were desperately needed to support Allied troops in World War II. For example, nylon, invented in 1935, replaced silk in parachutes and other gear. And poly(methyl methacrylate), known as Plexiglas, substituted for glass in aircraft windows. At that time, there was little consideration of whether or how these materials would be reused.

Modern synthetic plastics can be grouped into two main families: Thermoplastics, which soften on heating and then harden again on cooling, and thermosets, which never soften once they have been molded. Some of the most common high-volume synthetic polymers include polyethylene, used to make film wraps and plastic bags; polypropylene, used to form reusable containers and packaging; and polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, used in clothes, carpets and clear plastic beverage bottles.

Recycling challenges

Today only about 10 percent of discarded plastic in the United States is recycled. Processors need an input stream of non-contaminated or pure plastic, but waste plastic often contains impurities, such as residual food.

Batches of disposed plastic products also may include multiple resin types, and often are not consistent in color, shape, transparency, weight, density or size. This makes it hard for recycling facilities to sort them by type.

Melting down and reforming mixed plastic wastes creates recycled materials that are inferior in performance to virgin material. For this reason, many people refer to plastic recycling as “downcycling.”

As most consumers know, many plastic goods are stamped with a code that indicates the type of resin they are made from, numbered one through seven, inside a triangle formed by three arrows. These codes were developed in the 1980s by the Society of the Plastics Industry, and are intended to indicate whether and how to recycle those products.


Filtre

However, these logos are highly misleading, since they suggest that all of these goods can be recycled an infinite number of times. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling rates in 2015 ranged from a high of 31 percent for PET (SPI code 1) to 10 percent for high-density polyethylene (SPI code 2) and a few percent at best for other groups.

In my view, single-use plastics should eventually be required to be biodegradable. To make this work, households should have biowaste bins to collect food, paper and biodegradable polymer waste for composting. Germany has such a system in place, and San Francisco composts organic wastes from homes and businesses.

Designing greener polymers

Since modern plastics have many types and uses, multiple strategies are needed to replace them or make them more sustainable. One goal is making polymers from bio-based carbon sources instead of oil. The most readily implementable option is converting carbon from plant cell walls (lignocellulosics) into monomers.

As an example, my lab has developed a yeast catalyst that takes plant-derived oils and converts them to a polyester that has properties similar to polyethylene. But unlike a petroleum-based plastic, it can be fully degraded by microorganisms in composting systems.

It also is imperative to develop new cost-effective routes for decomposing plastics into high-value chemicals that can be reused. This could mean using biological as well as chemical catalysts. One intriguing example is a gut bacterium from mealworms that can digest polystyrene, converting it to carbon dioxide.

Other scientists are developing high-performance vitrimers – a type of thermoset plastic in which the bonds that cross-link chains can form and break, depending on built-in conditions such as temperature or pH. These vitrimers can be used to make hard, molded products that can be converted to flowable materials at the end of their lifetimes so they can be reformed into new products.

It took years of research, development and marketing to optimize synthetic plastics. New green polymers, such as polylactic acid, are just starting to enter the market, mainly in compost bags, food containers, cups and disposable tableware. Manufacturers need support while they work to reduce costs and improve performance. It also is crucial to link academic and industrial efforts, so that new discoveries can be commercialized more quickly.

The ConversationToday the European Union and Canada provides much more government support for discovery and development of bio-based and sustainable plastics than the United States. That must change if America wants to compete in the sustainable polymer revolution.

Richard Gross, Professor of Chemistry, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Working with nature can help us build greener cities instead of urban slums



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Garden roofs (like these in Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province) need maintenance and community involvement.
from shutterstock.com

Paul Osmond, UNSW

As Australian cities grow and transform, we need to ensure we are not building the slums of the future by making buildings so tall and tight they turn our streets into stark canyons. Sydney’s Wolli Creek, where buildings dominate and tower over a transport hub, is an example of where this is happening. It is now considered one of the city’s densest areas.

Dense, high buildings limit the space available for urban greenery and, unfortunately, the current development boom privileges concrete and glass over vegetation. A more strategic approach to urban growth can ensure our cities maintain adequate green space and become low-carbon, efficient and affordable.

It’s also vital the community and individuals are enthusiastic drivers of such change, with shared ownership of it. Imaginative projects – at times described as urban acupuncture – can all play a role. This is where small-scale interventions (like green balconies) are applied to transform the larger urban context, improve the environment and make the city liveable.




Read more:
Higher-density cities need greening to stay healthy and liveable


Going up or out

Whether you go up (higher) or out (more), or both, there are always challenges and opportunities.

The drawback in going out is that we start creeping into our remaining open space, including important biodiversity hotspots.

Sydney’s Wolli Creek is considered one of the city’s densest areas.
from shutterstock.com

Going out can also encroach on agricultural land. Farmers around the Sydney basin produced up to 20% of the area’s fresh food needs in 2011. But researchers have predicted urban sprawl and rising land prices will lead this to drop to 6% by 2031, losing both produce and jobs.

Going up is an approach driven by proximity to transport, utilities and employment, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. Major upward developments, like Wolli Creek, are logically being located around transport nodes. But these then become dense and concentrated areas, putting growing pressure on open space and community facilities.

Community projects

Community consultation is key before any major project and redevelopment, as genuine dialogue supports shared ownership of the outcomes. Existing community projects must be celebrated. Having an engaged and empowered community leads to a healthier, happier population.




Read more:
No garden? Five creative ways city dwellers can still grow their own


In Sydney, new precincts like Waterloo are ambitious and have good intentions. These areas aim to deliver new homes, shops, major transport services, community facilities, parks and open spaces over the next 20 years – and they’re located close to the urban centre.

Waterloo already has three community gardens, which bring together public housing residents through growing and sharing fresh produce. This approach is important to continue and initiate new projects.

Green roofs can become community gardens.
from shutterstock.com

Around the world there have also been successes with city farming where the community grows and sells agricultural produce locally. In skyscraper Singapore, they are farming vertically at Sky Greens, providing an alternative to importing food for this densely peopled city-state.

Green roofs are another alternative where communities can grow flowers and vegetables while providing training and jobs. A good example is the Uncommon Ground rooftop farm in Chicago.




Read more:
Australian cities are lagging behind in greening up their buildings


In Australia, the Grounds is a former pie factory in the industrial heart of Sydney’s Alexandria. In 2012, the site began to metamorphose into a cafe, restaurant, bakery, organic mini-farm and more. This is a successful example of how a little greenery has turned a bleak post-industrial site into an enjoyable destination, where young and old from far and wide come to enjoy the plants, animals and coffee.

The Grounds in Sydney’s Alexandria was transformed from an industrial site into an enjoyable destination.
Herry Lawford/Flickr, CC BY

A domestic garden, a green balcony or a green wall can all play a role – but these need ongoing care and attention, which means individuals and engaged communities must drive the enthusiasm.

Nature in the city

So, for a start, let’s not build fast and furiously without grasping the place as a whole and making the most of what is already there. This means preserving mature trees and shrubs, leaving open space unpaved and protecting areas of deep soil for future planting.

Maintaining, enhancing and creating urban green space not only fulfils the requirements for urban acupuncture, but – to mix medical metaphors – provides a kind of urban vaccination against the emergence of slums, where nothing can grow and depression sets in.

The ConversationWe can combine building development with what Stefan Boeri Architects have described as “vertical densification of nature within the city” to achieve a new kind of urban nature – nature in the city to transform the nature of the city.

Paul Osmond, Senior Lecturer and Director, Sustainable Built Environment program, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.