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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
New Zealand’s long-awaited zero carbon bill will create sweeping changes to the management of emissions, setting a global benchmark with ambitious reduction targets for all major greenhouse gases.
The bill includes two separate targets – one for the long-lived greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, and another target specifically for biogenic methane, produced by livestock and landfill waste.
Launching the bill, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said:
Carbon dioxide is the most important thing we need to tackle – that’s why we’ve taken a net zero carbon approach. Agriculture is incredibly important to New Zealand, but it also needs to be part of the solution. That is why we have listened to the science and also heard the industry and created a specific target for biogenic methane.
Preparing the bill has been a lengthy process. The government was committed to working with its coalition partners and also with the opposition National Party, to ensure the bill’s long-term viability. A consultation process in 2018 yielded 15,000 submissions, more than 90% of which asked for an advisory, independent climate commission, provision for adapting to the effects of climate change and a target of net zero by 2050 for all gasses.
Throughout this period there has been discussion of the role and responsibility of agriculture, which contributes 48% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions. This is an important issue not just for New Zealand and all agricultural nations, but for world food supply.
Another critical question involved forestry. Pathways to net zero involve planting a lot of trees, but this is a short-term solution with only partly understood consequences. Recently, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment suggested an approach in which forestry could offset only agricultural, non-fossil emissions.
Now we know how the government has threaded its way between these difficult choices.
In signing the Paris Agreement, New Zealand agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C and to make efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. The bill is guided by the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which details three pathways to limit warming to 1.5°C. All of them involve significant reductions in agricultural methane (by 23%-69% by 2050).
Farmers will be pleased with the “two baskets” approach, in which biogenic methane is treated differently from other gasses. But the bill does require total biogenic emissions to fall. They cannot be offset by planting trees. The climate commission, once established, and the minister will have to come up with policies that actually reduce emissions.
In the short term, that will likely involve decisions about livestock stocking rates: retiring the least profitable sheep and beef farms, and improving efficiency in the dairy industry with fewer animals but increased productivity on the remaining land. Longer term options include methane inhibitors, selective breeding, and a possible methane vaccine.
Net zero by 2050 on all other gasses, including offsetting by forestry, is still an ambitious target. New Zealand’s emissions rose sharply in 2017 and effective mechanisms to phase out fossil fuels are not yet in place. It is likely that with protests in Auckland over a local 10 cents a litre fuel tax – albeit brought in to fund public transport and not as a carbon tax per se – the government may be feeling they have to tread delicately here.
But the bill requires real action. The first carbon budget will cover 2022-2025. Work to strengthen New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme is already underway and will likely involve a falling cap on emissions that will raise the carbon price, currently capped at NZ$25.
In initial reaction to the bill, the National Party welcomed all aspects of it except the 24-47% reduction target for methane, which they believe should have been left to the climate commission. Coalition partner New Zealand First is talking up their contribution and how they had the agriculture sector’s interests at heart.
While climate activist groups welcomed the bill, Greenpeace criticised the bill for not being legally enforceable and described the 10% cut in methane as “miserly”. The youth action group Generation Zero, one of the first to call for zero carbon legislation, is understandably delighted. Even so, they say the law does not match the urgency of the crisis. And it’s true that since the bill was first mooted, we have seen a stronger sense of urgency, from the Extinction Rebellion to Greta Thunberg to the UK parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency.
New Zealand’s bill is a pioneering effort to respond in detail to the 1.5ºC target and to base a national plan around the science reported by the IPCC.
Many other countries are in the process of setting and strengthening targets. Ireland’s Parliamentary Joint Committee on Climate recently recommended adopting a target of net zero for all gasses by 2050. Scotland will strengthen its target to net zero carbon dioxide and methane by 2040 and net zero all gasses by 2045. Less than a week after this announcement, the Scottish government dropped plans to cut air departure fees (currently £13 for short and £78 for long flights, and double for business class).
One country that has set a specific goals for agricultural methane is Uruguay, with a target of reducing emissions per kilogram of beef by 33%-46% by 2030. In the countries mentioned above, not so different from New Zealand, agriculture produces 35%, 23%, and 55% of emissions, respectively.
New Zealand has learned from processes that have worked elsewhere, notably the UK’s Climate Change Commission, which attempts to balance science, public involvement and the sovereignty of parliament. Perhaps our present experience in balancing the demands of different interest groups and economic sectors, with diverse mitigation opportunities and costs, can now help others.
Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, University of Newcastle; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, CQUniversity Australia
Australia’s high rates of forest loss and weakening land clearing laws are increasing bushfire risk, and undermining our ability to meet national targets aimed at curbing climate change.
This dire situation is why we are among the more than 300 scientists and practitioners who have signed a declaration calling for governments to restore, or better strengthen regulations to protect native vegetation.
Land clearing laws have been contentious in several states for years. New South Wales relaxed its land clearing controls in 2017, triggering concerns over irreversible environmental damage. Although it is too early to know the impact of those changes, a recent analysis found that land clearing has increased sharply in some areas since the laws changed.
The Queensland Labor government’s 2018 strengthening of land clearing laws came after years of systematic weakening of these protections. Yet the issue has remained politically divisive. While discussing a federal inquiry into the impact of these policies on farmers, federal agriculture minister David Littleproud suggested that the strenthening of regulations may have worsened Queensland’s December bushfires.
We argue such an assertion is at odds with scientific evidence. And, while the conservation issues associated with widespread land clearing are generally well understood by the public, the consequences for farmers and fire risks are much less so.
During December’s heatwave in northern Queensland, some regions were at “catastrophic” bushfire risk for the first time since ratings began. Even normally wet rainforests, such as at Eungella National Park inland from Mackay, sustained burns in some areas during “unprecedented” fire conditions.
There is no evidence to support the suggestion that 2018’s land clearing law changes contributed to the fires. No changes were made to how vegetation can be managed to reduce fire risk. This is governed under separate laws, which remained unaltered.
In fact, shortly after the fires, Queensland’s land clearing figures were released. They showed that in the three years to June 2018, an area equivalent to roughly 570,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds (1,138,000 hectares) of bushland was cleared, including 284,000 hectares of remnant (old-growth) ecosystems.
Tree clearing can worsen fire risk in several ways. It can affect the regional climate. In parts of eastern Australia, tree cover reductions are estimated to have increased summer surface temperatures by up to 2℃ and southwest Western Australia by 0.4–0.8℃, reduced rainfall in southeast Australia, and made droughts hotter and longer.
Removing forest vegetation depletes soil moisture. Large, intact areas of forest typically have cooler, wetter microclimates buffered from extreme temperatures. Over time, some forest types can even become fire-resistant, but smaller patches of trees are typically drier and more flammable.
Trees also form a natural windbreak that can slow the spread of bushfires. An analysis of the 2005 Wangary fire in South Australia found that fires spread most rapidly through paddocks, rather than through areas lined with native trees.
Extensive tree clearing also leads to problems for farmers, including rising salinity, reduced water quality, and soil erosion. Governments and rural communities spend significant money and labour redressing the aftermath of excessive clearing.
Sensible regulation of native vegetation removal does not restrict existing agriculture, but rather seeks to support sustainable production. Retained trees can help deal with many environmental risks that hamper agricultural productivity, including animal health, long-term pasture productivity, risks to the water cycle, pest control, and human well-being.
Rampant tree clearing is undoing climate policy too. Much of the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund has gone towards tree planting. But it would take almost this entire sum just to replace the trees cleared in Queensland since 2012.
In 2019, Australians might reasonably expect that our relatively wealthy and well-educated country has moved beyond a frontier-style reliance on continued deforestation, and we would do well to better acknowledge and learn lessons from Indigenous Australians with respect to their land management practices.
Yet the periodic weakening of land clearing laws in many parts of Australia has accelerated the problem. The negative impacts on industry, society and wildlife are numerous and well established. They should not be ignored.
Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Newcastle; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia
Malcolm Turnbull’s government has been wrestling with the prospect of a clean energy target ever since Chief Scientist Alan Finkel recommended it in his review of Australia’s energy system. But economist Ross Garnaut has proposed a path out of the political quagmire: two clean energy targets instead of one.
Garnaut’s proposal is essentially a flexible emissions target that can be adapted to conditions in the electricity market. If electricity prices fail to fall as expected, a more lenient emissions trajectory would likely be pursued.
This proposal is an exercise in political pragmatism. If it can reassure both those who fear that rapid decarbonisation will increase energy prices, and those who argue we must reduce emissions at all costs, it represents a substantial improvement over the current state of deadlock.
At a recent Melbourne Economic Forum, Finkel pointed out that investors do not require absolute certainty to invest. After all, it is for accepting risks that they earn returns. If there was no risk to accept there would be no legitimate right to a return.
But Finkel also pointed out that investors value policy certainty and predictability. Without it, they require more handsome returns to compensate for the higher policy risks they have to absorb.
At first sight, having two possible emissions targets introduces yet another uncertainty (the emissions trajectory). But is that really the case? The industry is keenly aware of the political pressures that affect emissions reduction policy. If heavy reductions cause prices to rise further, there will be pressure to soften the trajectory.
Garnaut’s suggested approach anticipates this political reality and codifies it in a mechanism to determine how emissions trajectories will adjust to future prices. Contrary to first impressions, it increases policy certainty by providing clarity on how emissions policy should respond to conditions in the electricity market. This will promote the sort of policy certainty that the Finkel Review has sought to engender.
Speaking of political realities, could this double target possibly accrue bipartisan support in a hopelessly divided parliament? Given Tony Abbott’s recent threat to cross the floor to vote against a clean energy target (bringing an unknown number of friends with him), the Coalition government has a strong incentive to find a compromise that both major parties can live with.
Turnbull and his energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, who we understand are keen to see Finkel’s proposals taken up, could do worse than put this new idea on the table. They have to negotiate with parliamentary colleagues whose primary concern is the impact of household electricity bills on voters, as well as those who won’t accept winding back our emissions targets.
Reassuringly, the government can point to some precedent. Garnaut’s proposal is novel in Australia’s climate policy debate, but is reasonably similar to excise taxes on fuel, which in some countries vary as a function of fuel prices. If fuel prices decline, excise taxes rise, and vice versa. In this way, governments can achieve policy objectives while protecting consumers from the price impacts of those objectives.
Of course, even without the various ideologies and vested interests in this debate, many details would remain to be worked out. How should baseline prices be established? What is the hurdle to justify a more rapid carbon-reduction trajectory? What if prices tick up again, after a more rapid decarbonisation trajectory has been adopted? And what if prices don’t decline from current levels: are we locking ourselves into a low-carbon-reduction trajectory?
These issues will need to be worked through progressively, but there is no obvious flaw that should deter further consideration. The fundamental idea is attractive, and it looks capable of ameliorating concerns that rapid cuts in emissions will lock in higher electricity prices.
For mine, I would not be at all surprised if prices decline sharply as we begin to decarbonise, such is the staggering rate of technology development and cost reductions in renewable energy. But I may of course be wrong. Garnaut’s proposal provides a mechanism to protect consumers if this turns out to be the case.
The federal Labor Party has sought to simplify its climate change policy. Any suggestion of expanding the Renewable Energy Target has been dropped. But there is debate over whether the new policy is actually any more straightforward as a result.
One thing Labor did confirm is its support for an emissions intensity scheme (EIS) as its central climate change policy for the electricity sector. This adds clarity to the position the party took to the 2016 election and could conceivably remove the need for a prescribed renewable energy target anyway.
An EIS effectively gives electricity generators a limit on how much carbon dioxide they can emit for each unit of electricity they produce. Power stations that exceed the baseline have to buy permits for the extra CO₂ they emit. Power stations with emissions intensities below the baseline create permits that they can sell.
An EIS increases the cost of producing electricity from emissions-intensive sources such as coal generation, while reducing the relative cost of less polluting energy sources such as renewables. The theory is that this cost differential will help to drive a switch from high-emission to low-emission sources of electricity.
The pros and cons of an EIS, compared with other forms of carbon pricing, have been debated for years. But two things are clear.
First, an EIS with bipartisan support would provide the stable carbon policy that the electricity sector needs. The sector would be able to invest with more confidence, thus contributing to security of supply into the future.
Second, an EIS would limit the upward pressure on electricity prices, for the time being at least.
These reasons explain why there was a brief groundswell of bipartisan support for an EIS in 2016, until the Turnbull government explicitly ruled it out in December.
Another consideration is whether, with the right policy, there will be any need for firm renewable energy targets. This may help to explain Labor’s decision to rule out enlarging the existing scheme or extending it beyond 2020.
If we had a clear policy to reduce emissions at lowest cost, whether in the form of an EIS or some other scheme, renewable energy would naturally increase to whatever level is most economically efficient under those policy settings. Whether this reaches 50% or any other level would be determined by the overall emissions-reduction target and the relative costs of various green energy technologies.
In this scenario, a separately mandated renewable energy target would be simply unnecessary and would probably just add costs with no extra environmental benefit. Note that this reasoning would apply to state-based renewable energy policies, which have become a political football amid South Australia’s recent tribulations over energy security.
An EIS is also “technology agnostic”: power companies would be free to pursue whatever technology makes the most economic sense to them. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull explicitly endorsed this idea earlier this month.
Finally, an EIS would integrate well with the National Electricity Market, a priority endorsed by the COAG Energy Council of federal, state and territory energy ministers. State and territory governments may find this an attractive, nationally consistent alternative that they could support.
A 2016 Grattan Institute report found that an EIS could be a practical step on a pathway from the current policy mess towards a credible energy policy. Yet an EIS has its weaknesses, and some of Labor’s reported claims for such a scheme will be tested.
In the short term, electricity prices would indeed rise, although not as much as under a cap-and-trade carbon scheme. It is naive to expect that any emissions-reduction target (either the Coalition’s 26-28% or Labor’s 45%) can be met without higher electricity costs.
Another difficulty Labor will have to confront is that setting the initial emission intensity baseline and future reductions would be tricky. The verdict of the Finkel Review, which is assessing the security of the national electricity market under climate change policies, will also be crucial.
Despite media reports to the contrary, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel and his panel have not recommended an EIS. Their preliminary report drew on earlier reports noting the advantages of an EIS over an extended renewable energy target or regulated closure of fossil-fuelled power stations, but also the fact that cap-and-trade would be cheaper to implement.
Labor has this week moved towards a credible climate change policy, although it still has work to do and its 45% emissions-reduction target will still be criticised as too ambitious. Meanwhile, we’re unlikely to know the Coalition government’s full policy until after it completes the 2017 Climate Change Policy Review and receives the Finkel Review’s final report.
Australians can only hope that we are starting to see the beginnings of the common policy ground that investors and electricity consumers alike so urgently need.
The government’s Clean Energy Regulator yesterday announced the results of the second “reverse auction”. It spent A$557 million to buy emissions cuts of some 45 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Australia needs to cut its CO₂ emissions by 236 million tonnes to meet its current 2020 mitigation target of -5% below 2000 levels. The Direct Action Plan and its Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) is the Turnbull government’s major program for doing so.
The first auction, in April this year, spent A$660 million for 47.3 million tonnes.
So far, then, almost half of the A$2.55 billion allocated to the ERF has been used and some 92.8 million tonnes of emissions reduction “bought” at an average rate of almost A$13.12 per tonne of CO₂. The ERF will also form part of efforts to achieve Australia’s 2030 climate target.
The latest round of UN climate negotiations begins in Paris in three weeks’ time. These talks aim to produce tougher national greenhouse targets for the decade to 2030. Ironically, the focus on Paris is drawing attention away from the urgency of emissions cuts that need to be delivered beforehand.
In Australia, the Paris talks encourage us to accept as given our 2020 target of -5% below 2000 emissions levels, although it is among the weakest of national mitigation efforts for that period.
They encourage us to ignore the fact that – according to criteria accepted by both Labor and Coalitions governments and now met because of the rising ambitions and efforts of major emitters elsewhere – Australia’s target should have increased to -15% by 2020.
It is against this second benchmark that the Turnbull government’s efforts should now be measured.
Assuming all the emissions reductions contracted in these auctions are delivered, and the price per tonne of carbon remains the same for future sales, then the A$1.89 billion remaining in the ERF’s coffers will buy around another 101 million tonnes of emissions.
All up then, the total emissions reduction bought by the ERF will be around 193 million tonnes of CO₂. While this is 10 million tonnes better than predicted after the first auction this outcome remains 44 million tonnes (or about 19%) short of Australia’s -5% target – and much more for the -15% goal.
But that’s not the whole story. Some 275 projects will deliver their contracted emissions reductions over different periods – a few in a year, some over three, a few over five, many over seven, and most over ten years… by 2025.
Looking at the duration of contracts, it appears that only 45% (by volume) of this mitigation effort will contribute to the 2020 target. The rest will be occur after 2020.
In other words, only 51 million tonnes of emissions will be have been cut by 2020, leaving Australia 85 million tonnes (or 36% of the total) short of its -5% target and at least treble that amount for a -15% goal.
The vast bulk of the contracts agreed in both the first and second auctions have re-funded emissions reduction schemes established well before the Direct Action Plan was conceived. As was the case for the first auction, most of the projects (by volume of emissions) involve “forest protection”. These rural projects generate carbon credits by paying to halt the destruction of native vegetation (so-called “avoided deforestation”). Such reductions could be achieved at no cost through regulatory intervention.
Most people paying superficial attention to the workings of the ERF would expect public money to be spent on creating structural change, by moving our industries onto renewable energy sources, for instance, rather than on paying rent to rural landowners to avoid activities that may release emissions in the future. Useful though these projects are, one wonders whether they should constitute the core and bulk of Australia’s flagship climate policy.
If the average price of carbon rises in subsequent auctions – and if Australian energy use and emissions continue to grow – the overall shortfall will increase still further. Recent evidence suggests that emissions from stationary electricity production and energy have increased by some 3% since the removal of the carbon price last year.
It is notable that – again – no major emitters in the energy and resource sectors were among the successful bidders. In other words, the major sectors involved in producing Australia’s emissions are not engaged by this scheme.
The ERF’s reverse auction approach seems incapable of driving an economic and cultural transition to renewable energy or of encouraging substantial mitigation by major industrial emitters. It is not helping Australia work “more agilely, more innovatively”, as Prime Minister Turnbull has put it, in this case to tackle climate change.
Using this mechanism Australia won’t meet, let alone exceed, even its very weak 2020 reduction target. The ERF would need well over A$3 billion to buy all the emissions needed for that goal.
And it is equally clear that this approach is doing nothing to prepare Australia for the 2030 target it is taking to Paris, of -26 to -28% below 2005 levels. Nor for the much more ambitious targets required to avert dangerous climate change.