Transformation needed to meet climate challenge

Wednesday, 03 May, 2006

Quite frankly, Sydney doesn't rate in terms of sustainability when compared to other cities around the world.

That's why I was asked to prepare a report on an environmental leadership program for the City of Sydney. The Lord Mayor was interested in what other cities around the world are doing in this area at a time when Sydney is yet to establish a reputation for sustainable management and planning.

In my view it's not about focusing on separate areas of sustainability but how you take an integrated approach to it. The most important aspect is developing a strong policy framework with clear goals and actions. We must engage the community in a positive way and we also need to report the results of our actions in a transparent way.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if we put as much effort into social planning and environmental issues as financial management.

Melbourne is leading the way in this area, whether it's reporting, forming relationships with outside organisations or creating long-term policies combined with strong, measurable actions. The City of Melbourne has signed up to the Global Reporting Initiative and has been engaged in sustainability discussions at an international level for some time.

However, in Sydney there is a lack of understanding from some of the key players and a lack of will. In NSW there's a tradition of deal making rather than policy making, particularly compared to Victoria. For example, in the property sector I see an interest in controlling the agenda rather than genuinely working out how to transform that sector using a sustainability approach.

For me, climate change is the critical issue in the sustainability debate and it will become more important. The developed world has signed up to deliver a 5.2% cut in global emissions between 2008 and 2012 and at this stage we are unlikely to achieve that. We really need deep cuts of 60 to 70% in greenhouse gases by 2050 based on 1990 levels, which present an enormous challenge to all of us.

A large part of this challenge involves buildings and the built environment because greenhouse emissions from buildings are on their way to doubling. We need to think of buildings as part of the solution. There is great scope to reduce their energy use, to extend the life of buildings, to turn them into energy generators returning green power to the grid. There is also an opportunity to integrate sustainable transport and urban planning to reduce emissions from transport by carefully planning the built form.

The challenge is to make climate change central to how we do things. We need to use every tool in our toolbox to deliver deep cuts in greenhouse gases. Regulation, which delivers minimum standards, mixed with voluntary programs, will not be enough.

If it's taken the last nine years to get minimum, mandated energy efficiency standards in the Building Code of Australia, how long will it take to get minimum sustainability standards included? Apart from a few leaders who understand that sustainability is a powerful business strategy, the property industry will resist even minimum standards for as long as they can.

The sustainability strategy to transform the property sector needs to be a clever mix of regulation, incentives, government and private sector policy, eduction and the clever use of technology - such as the new computer modelling system, Life Cycle Assessment, developed by the CRC for Construction Innovation.

While working for the Australian Building Greenhouse Rating Scheme, I knew that leaving it as a voluntary program would never achieve market transformation. We had to put policy in place that required government tenants attain minimum ABGR standards in their offices - a policy that is in place in NSW and is being adopted in other states.

If we stopped to think of costs incurred from the consequences of climate change, most people would realise that we don't have a choice but to work for change.

* Sue is a sustainability consultant and chair of the Total Environment Centre. She recently prepared an environmental leadership program for the Office of the Lord Mayor of Sydney and she was previously the program manager of the Australian Building Greenhouse Rating Scheme.

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