Roadmaps to Nowhere?

Roadmaps, trajectories, pathways to a lower carbon future are coming in hard and fast – we are at a moment in time when wide ranging change – or at least an intention to change – is imminent.

Whether for short term stimuli or in response to climate change, the choices we make now are going to determine our future for generations. We must ensure they deliver a green transition that is regenerative, healthy and fair. With up to 40% of global carbon emissions, the built environment has a huge role to play in this transition.

Federal and state governments are in the process of making some far reaching decisions that will impact the future not just of the economy, but also how effectively and quickly we decarbonise the built environment. The federal government’s ‘Technology Investment Roadmap Discussion Paper’ and COAG’s ‘Trajectory for low carbon buildings’ are two significant roadmaps with direct impact on the built environment.

The Technology Investment Paper looks at investment opportunities in existing and emerging technologies that may aid economically viable decarbonisation. Its underlying – though unstated – premise is that if the Government’s preferred technologies are given a nudge, decarbonisation will happen without the Government doing anything else. Worryingly, this includes technologies linked to the continued growth of fossil fuels – carbon capture and storage, hydrogen produced with fossil fuels, and gas.

The Trajectory to Low Carbon Buildings supports the National Energy Productivity Plan targets, which aims to improve Australia’s energy productivity by 40% and reduce GHG emissions by 26-28% below 2005 (in line with the Paris Agreement) by 2030. It proposes to achieve this by expanding energy efficiency requirements in the National Construction Code, based on the premise that changes must be cost effective for consumers and industry.

These roadmaps are significant to the built environment not only because they provide the policy and technology pathways that will have a direct impact on the industry, but also because they are used by professional bodies representing the industry’s interests, including ASBEC, the Property Council and GBCA, to built their own roadmaps. Industry specific roadmaps adopt not only the targets – more on this later – but also the principle that any transition will be voluntary and economically driven, in other words, the market will determine the best outcome. Or – the measure of the transition will be growth of GDP.

This faith in our neoliberal capitalist system and the pursuit of growth masks not just the reality that GDP is a very crude indicator of social health, but also the harm that excessive economic growth causes. With increasing GDP invariably comes increasing energy consumption, increasing extraction of natural resources, increasing carbon dioxide emissions, all leading us towards environmental catastrophe.

A recent landmark study published in the journal Nature Communications, “Scientists’ warning on affluence” — by scientists in Australia, Switzerland and the UK — concludes that capitalism is destroying ‘safe operating space’ for humanity and that the most fundamental driver of environmental destruction is the overconsumption of the super-rich.

The study found that this factor lies over and above other factors like fossil fuel consumption, industrial agriculture and deforestation, because it is overconsumption by the super-rich which is the chief driver of these other factors breaching key planetary boundaries. [1]

It also lies over and above the 40% that the built environment contributes to global GHG emissions.

As it stands, roadmaps in Australia are not adequately addressing the climate emergency, let alone its root cause, that is the systems which determine our behaviour and business models.

What must be done?

Transformation can not happen without a wide ranging statement of intent. So before we plan and shape public policy and industrial strategy, we need to establish the principles of a green transition.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that the climate crisis is upon us and what that actually means.

Many current life forms will be extinct by the end of this century. We are right now causing the Sixth Mass Extinction in Earth’s history. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth we plant in, the food we eat, and the beauty and diversity of nature that are essential to our health are being eroded to an extent that they will be unable to sustain human life on earth as we know it.

The world’s eminent climate scientists now believe that we are on the verge of activating climate tipping points that can trigger abrupt carbon release back into the atmosphere, such as the release of carbon dioxide and methane caused by the irreversible thawing of the Arctic permafrost. If that happens, global temperatures will continue to rise, even if carbon emissions are reduced, and large parts of the earth will become uninhabitable for human life. They conclude that the collapse of civilisation is now a likely outcome. [2]

No amount of economic cost-benefit analysis is going to help. We need a different approach to the climate problem.

Secondly, we must agree on measurable targets.

Australia will not even be able to meet its Paris Agreement targets without an accounting loophole [3]. The government department responsible for carbon reduction‘s – the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources – own projections, released in December 2019, show Australia is not on track. Even if somehow the target of a 1.5°C to 2°C rise in temperature is met, the risk that a cascade of feedbacks could push the Earth System irreversibly onto a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway can not be excluded [4].

What good are roadmaps that are based on inadequate targets? Which are also out of reach given our current trajectory?

To put it in a way that architects will relate to, these roadmaps invite us to plan a future without undertaking a site survey, understanding the environmental factors or engaging with a meaningful brief.

Restricting global heating to 1.5C is a good starting point, and given that we already have reached 1.1C, we can get a sense of the scale and urgency of the challenge.

Thirdly, we must stop talking about the economy and start talking about what is really important – humanity, biodiversity, health, social equity.

In any of the climate change scenarios we face, a resilient, sustainable and regenerative built environment is not a preference, but vital. We have done it before. Our health system is founded on the principle that healthcare should be accessible to everyone. Cost is a factor, but it is subservient to a greater purpose and health policy has been designed accordingly. Access to clean water, education are similarly regulated.

When we consider sustainability in these terms, we can not leave it up to the market to decide how we transition and who has access to it. We need deliberate systemic restructuring. The good news is that it’s not difficult.

What should systemic restructuring look like?

Government’s role is not be to pick technology winners through stimuli and incentives and let the market determine the outcome, but to take a leading role in determining a transition that puts health, climate action and justice at its focus.

Construction Declares (UK) wrote to 10 Downing Street [5] outlining recommendations for a policy roadmap that are equally applicable in Australia. They point to far reaching policy changes that have the capacity to immediately and measurably impact carbon emissions and put health, biodiversity, justice at the core of any roadmap. 

In Australia, these type of policies should include:

  • a carbon price. A carbon price is technology neutral. It sets a carbon budget and lets the market work out the most efficient solutions – precisely the stated purpose of the Technology Investment Roadmap;
  • mandated 80% carbon emission reductions by 2030 and absolute zero by 2040, giving us a much better chance of avoiding catastrophic climate collapse;
  • a Future Generations Act, which requires all parliamentary decisions to be scrutinised for their impact on young people and future generations;
  • a reformed Corporations Act that ensures business is conducted with responsibility to all stakeholders and life support systems;
  • a Law of Ecocide as proposed by the late Polly Higgins [6], that makes it a criminal offence to damage or destroy ecosystems.

Within this framework the built environment could rapidly be transformed through a range of government-led reforms:

  • A mass retrofit of energy-wasteful buildings with whole-life carbon and long-term climate resilience in mind: Radically reducing carbon emissions, addressing fuel poverty and creating jobs.
  • GST reform to promote refurbishment over new-build: Currently GST is applied at 10% to all development, refurbishment and new. Introducing GST breaks on refurbishments would deliver major and rapid benefits to business and communities without the carbon costs of new-build projects.
  • An emergency plan for decarbonising our electricity supply: Renewables coupled with energy efficiency in buildings and industry would deliver this at optimum cost and speed.
  • A zero carbon buildings programme: Requiring all new buildings to be built to a stringent and measurable standard that delivers positive impacts in terms of carbon, biodiversity and wellbeing.
  • A comprehensive review of transport to align with long-term health and prosperity: Improving connectivity and reducing the need for travel, by implementing reliable high-speed broadband. Investing in zero carbon public transport at local and regional levels. Planning policies to promote cycling & walking.
  • Restoration of nature on a massive scale: Addressing biodiversity loss, lock up carbon in plants and soils and save money by reducing coastal erosion.  Extensive tree planting is also needed to ensure a sustainable supply of low carbon building materials.
  • Taxation that encourages use of materials that do not harm people and the environment: Currently many resources are ‘cheap’ because they do not factor in harm caused to people or the environment. Adjusting the costs of these resources through taxation would boost emerging industries that produce zero carbon and non-toxic materials.
  • A reformed Residential Tenancies Act (States) that decouples home ownership from land ownership: For a transition to sustainable homes, the value of home-ownership must transition from land to the improvements – that is the buildings constructed on it. Private/public community land trusts – an alternative to individually owned land –  have the potential to deliver affordable housing that prioritises sustainability, while also implementing a form of participatory democracy in the planning of our neighbourhoods. [7]

These reforms are not without economic benefits. In fact, leading voices like Ross Garnaut, CSIRO, the UK Committee on Climate Change and Oxford University [6, 7], provide strong supporting evidence that a green, socially just transition makes sound economic sense. Conversely, there is a growing agreement between scientists and economists that the growing risk of irreversible climate change implies potentially infinite economic cost [8]. We also know that large scale climate action can bring enormous health and economic benefits – a reduction in carbon emissions and drop in PM2.5 particulate matter has the potential to avert 200k+ deaths [9] and release $500b economic value [10]. We know that by accelerating existing initiatives, such as mass retrofit of existing buildings, micro grids coupled with renewables, projects that reverse biodiversity loss, regenerative agriculture to protect food security, we can positively impact social justice, create employment, reduce environmental threats, such as carbon emissions and air pollution and build resilience to climate change that is already locked in. 

But without a policy framework that prioritises urgent and drastic climate action, the transition will not happen fast enough to prevent catastrophic runaway global heating.



[1] Capitalism is destroying ‘safe operating space’ for humanity, warn scientists
[2] ‘Collapse of civilisation is the most likely outcome’: top climate scientists
[3] Josh Frydenberg rejects IMF report that Australia will fail to meet Paris target
[4] Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene
[5] AD Open Letter to the Prime Minister
[6] Law of Ecocide
[7] The Australian Community Land Trust Manual
[6] Take urgent action on six key principles for a resilient recovery
[7] Will COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change?
[8] Macroeconomic and Financial Policies for Climate Change Mitigation: A Review of the Literature
[9] Burden of Cause-Specific Mortality Associated With PM2.5 Air Pollution in the United States
[10] Conserving biodiversity hotspots ‘could bring world’s poor $500bn a year’
cartoon of Brenda by first dog on the moon