In Summary

  • Deputy Director of Swinburne’s Centre for Urban Transitions Professor Peter Graham discusses the building sector’s potential to contribute to mitigating and adapting to climate change

The Global Climate Action Summit held last month in San Francisco was a conference for leaders from cities determined to take action on climate change initiatives. Over three days, municipal policymakers compared notes on how they are faring with implementation of action plans, how effective those actions are in both energy savings and emission reductions, and to see what other ideas may help them to achieve their targets. 

Swinburne’s Centre for Urban Transitions played its part by convening an official affiliate event at the Summit in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme’s Cities Unit, the UN Global Alliance on Buildings and Construction, and the Global Buildings Performance Network.

“Until the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, national governments had struggled to forge an international agreement on climate, so many sub-national governments and particularly cities began to lead on climate action commitments,” says Professor Peter Graham, Deputy Director of Swinburne’s Centre for Urban Transitions and program leader of future urban decision making in the Smart Cities Research Institute.

Municipal policymakers can make a big difference in meeting climate targets because of their influence in a key area – building and construction.

“The building sector contributes around 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions due to building energy consumption,” says Professor Graham.

Additionally, cement manufacturing contributes around five per cent to global greenhouse gas emissions, but everything from materials manufacturing and building design to how energy is consumed within buildings are contributing factors. The sector needs to reduce its energy demand by about 80 per cent by 2030 to meet the Paris climate target of limiting global warming to well below 2°C.

Ambitious changes to climate policy in relation to buildings makes good sense, given both the industry’s intense energy use and the fact that it’s ubiquitous – the common denominator for the residential, business, education and government sectors is the buildings in which human activity takes place.

Decarbonising the Building Sector

“Decarbonising is about making buildings net producers of renewable energy rather than net consumers, so that the building stock is helping the city reduce emissions over time,” says Professor Graham.

“Old buildings need to be retrofitted so they’re at least four times more energy efficient than they currently are, and all new buildings need to be near or net zero energy – that is either super low energy consuming buildings and/or buildings that have integrated renewable energy supply.”

Many energy efficiency solutions for both retrofitted and new buildings already exist. However, one of the challenges decision-makers face is determining what solutions work best in a given situation.  Not all options have been analysed closely for evidence of their effectiveness.

This has an impact on investment. Significant innovations in materials, design and integration exist, but without clear evidence of their effectiveness, it’s harder to convince investors to get involved.

People looking to build or renovate don’t always know where to find examples of best practice either. Research indicates decision-makers rely on internet searches or their peers for advice, a tactic which can bypass more in-depth knowledge.

“It’s very hard to discern opinion from fact, and it’s very hard to discern information from evidence,” says Professor Graham.

City Knowledge Centre project

Swinburne’s City Knowledge Centre (CKC) project aims to change that by providing evidence-assessed resources for urban policymakers that have been reviewed and validated by experts. Commissioned by UK philanthropic organisation, the Children's Investment Fund Foundation, the CKC is due to be launched at the end of 2018. 

Professor Graham presented the CKC at the Climate Action Summit’s Sustainable Building Codes Day – a joint initiative of the UN Global Alliance on Buildings and Construction and the Global Buildings Performance Network, to both showcase how the Centre can help municipal policy makers, and to invite new groups to join the partnership and share their resources to add to the body of evidence.

While the commitment of cities around the world to taking action on creating sustainable built environments is important and commendable, it may not be enough to halt the climate decline in time.

“The missing ingredient is a real sense of policy ambition. In Australia, we don’t have the energy policy framework that enables those solutions to get to market and scale up. The European Union has a directive requiring all member states to have near net zero energy building standards. Some countries are going much further than that.”

Professor Graham notes that the building industry is practical, and if standards change it would retool to meet those standards. Policy that resets the baseline to ambitious energy and sustainability performance would have a powerful effect.

Australia’s building standards are developed at the federal level. The mandatory codes are then adopted by the states and implemented at the city level. Change, therefore, has to come first at the national level.

“Unless we can get some federal action to improve our building codes, we’re a bit stuck.”

The issue is urgent

“Every building constructed to Australia’s existing codes locks us in to energy demand and high emissions, and locks out a lot of opportunities for integrating renewables. It’s a race against time to get this innovation happening. 2030 is key. If we haven’t got near or net zero energy building codes mandated by then, it is going to be more costly and less likely that we will meet our climate change targets.”

Two policy courses have proven very effective. The first is to update building codes. The other course is the introduction of energy performance rating and labelling for buildings – not unlike appliance energy ratings. The Australian Capital Territory already has a ratings system for residential buildings, and nationally the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) has star ratings for commercial buildings.

“Work is being done to investigate the feasibility of a national mandatory energy rating and labelling scheme on these lines,” says Professor Graham. “Legislation could require energy and greenhouse gas performance to be displayed whenever you’re advertising a house for rental or purchase. At the point of sale or change of lease, the owner might need to improve the energy efficiency the next ratings level. That’s what’s going on in Europe.”

Mandatory building codes and labelling would have benefits beyond the environmental, too.

“We’ve modelled the economic benefits of introducing ambitious building codes,” says Professor Graham. “It’s a huge potential economic boom. The return on investment after 2030 is more than 125 per cent globally. There are also key-benefits like job creation, and improved health and wellbeing.”

“The building sector’s potential to contribute significantly to mitigating and adapting to climate change really, really positive. The trick is finding the political will to make some important decisions on energy policy. The doom and gloom scenario is that we are not making change quickly enough. 2030 is the tipping point. If we haven’t got ambitious building energy policies in place by 2030, we may have missed the boat.”


Learn more about the Smart Cities Research Institute program led by Professor Graham that aims to engage citizens in the design and management of the urban environment.