By signing the Paris Climate Agreement, the government of Australia agreed to a zero net emissions goal by 2050. Australia has made the promise to reduce the emissions by 2030 on the basis of per person and the intensity of the emissions. This promise even exceeds the target set by the countries including the United States, Japan, Canada, South Korea and the European Union.

But the question still remains if we are on the right track to achieve the set target by 2030. This is not going to be any cakewalk. Afterall, it’s a 26-28% drop from what it was in 2005. With one of the highest population growth rates in the developed world, this is almost a 50% reduction in emissions per person over the next 12 years.

Let’s take the effect of one sector, the built environment. The construction, operation and maintenance of buildings leads to almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. By 2030, the population of Australia is estimated to grow to 31 million and as it grows, even more buildings will be required to meet the demand.

In 2017 alone, almost 18,000 dwelling units got approval for construction every month. It is predicted that by 2031, there will be an additional requirement of 720,000 homes in Melbourne and 664,000 in Sydney. Overall, as compared to 6 million residential homes in 1990, Australia will have now have 10 million of them by 2020. The citizens will be too obsessed to acquire a home at any cost that they would hardly be able to think about the level of emissions the construction and urban development would do.

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

It is the combination of both that makes the goal of reducing built emissions appear practical. However, it is still in it experiment stage and is far from the ideal strategy.

To cut emissions, there must be a strategy that caters to the entire lifecycle of planning, designing, constructing, operating and even decommissioning and disposal of buildings. To create sustainable buildings, there is a need for strategies that require less resources and produce less pollution. An urban landscape is more sustainable than the combined sustainability of the building component in it. Moreover, other factors like transport, amenities, social fabric and culture, etc. also need to be taken into consideration. Unfortunately, the emission reduction strategy of Australia does not take into account the entire range of sustainability factors that impact emissions from the built environment.

Moreover, the existing mandatory and voluntary measures have also been criticised. There has been a great amount of research detailing the failure of voluntary measures for accurately evaluating energy performance and the granting of misleading ratings based on tokenistic gestures. Apart from that, the strategy of using front runners to persuade and win the majority never works. There have been evidences in the low level of voluntary measures that flood the real estate industry in Australia. Some of the prominent voluntary rating tools have penetration rates of less than 0.5% across the Australian building industry. As for mandatory tools, NatHERS-endorsed buildings have been shown to underperform against traditional “non-green” houses.

Having said that, voluntary and obligatory tools are not weak links in our emission reduction strategy and that’s where the fundamental issue is!

So, what do the experts suggest?

As a part of our study, we involved a group of 26 experts drawn from the sustainability profession. This group was asked as to what can be done to generate a working strategy so as to meet Australia’s goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050. Below are the inferences from their opinion:

The Sustainability transition in Australia is failing because of the lack of commitment of the Government for developing effective regulations, audit performance, resolve vested interests (developers) and in clarifying its own vision and selling that sustainability vision to the community.

It is also failing because the advocates of sustainability advocates are isolated in commercial and residential markets and are vulnerable to various jurisdictions with different sustainability regimes.

And above all, it is also failing because the end users just do not care. No one even bothered to communicate the Paris Accord promise to the citizens, let alone explain why it should matter them.

As a solution, making further changes to the rating tools would be a good thing. It would be better to get more than a token few buildings rated. However, the mere display of beautiful, fascinating, green-rated headquarters buildings is not going to save the problem and save us from the built emissions. Beyond the major cities remains a suburban sprawl that continues to draw up ever more energy and resources.

To reduce emissions cost more than between 8% and 30% of the normal cost of the building. But there needs to be someone who should explain the struggling homeowner why the Paris climate promise is worth it. Since the next election is not too far, the political parties still have time to articulate their pitch.