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Hope for sustainability agenda shines through at GBCA’s Transform

If day one of the Green Building Council of Australia’s online Transform conference revealed anything, it’s that the green building movement is made up of resilient people.

The focus is already on sowing the seeds of a better future on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic, and using this time to assess the various solutions and opportunities.

For Damon Gamaeu, the writer, director, actor and producer behind the amazing solutions-focused climate change documentary 2040, the upcoming months will serve as an opportunity to give people a dose of his “fact-based optimism” for a thriving, decarbonised global economy.

But the master storyteller pointed out that we are currently in the trauma and emergency phase, and it’s important not to push the agenda at this point.

“But the time will be right, and I think we’ll all feel when that time is right and we’re ready to have that conversation.”

Getting the messaging right is key to overcoming major challenges such as climate change and the global coronavirus pandemic.

“As we’re seeing with the current crisis, the lack of accessible clear information is one of the reasons we are struggling.

“As a result, we’ve got an absolutely toxic and pollutive communication environment, which is just as toxic and polluted as our ecological environment.”

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He says we’ve been using data and science to make the case for action on climate change and that has only got so far.

“It’s hard to connect with words like anthropogenic and net zero emissions, these words don’t stir the soul. We need to be smarter about how we tell stories.”

He said that people are becoming more receptive to the ideas presented in his documentary, which is why next week he’s launching an app that connects people growing decentralised food. “I think people are ready for that right now.”

Chair of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency Martijn Wilder, who is also managing partner and cofounder of Pollination, said that people have been quick to draw parallels between the impact of the coronavirus and climate change.

Davina Rooney and Martijn Wilder

“It’s interesting. Most of the discussions we’ve been having with investors and super funds and the like in the last week are that COVID-9 isn’t going to go on that long, but the impact on assets from climate change doesn’t go away.

“We are going to think the assets that have been devalued by COVID-19, such as airports, but as we come out of this those assets will continue to be at risk from climate change”.

He says that companies should be looking to mitigate the risk of both in tandem.

On whether the coronavirus crisis will overshadow the climate change issue, he said that was a difficult question to answer.

“The longer the coronavirus crisis goes on the more challenging it will become. Clearly areas of the business community that have had a significant focus on emissions, like the airline sector, it’s no longer going to be a priority because one, their emissions will be very low, and two, they will be busy rebuilding airlines.

“Companies fighting for survival, in the short term, will find that it’s not as big an issue.”

However, it’s worth noting that regulations that prompt these industries to keep lowering their emissions and buying offsets will remain in place.

Wilder says that ARENA, which uses grants and funding to drive the transition to a clean, reliable energy system, will play a key role in nudging the economy in a more sustainable direction post-pandemic.

“With respect to climate change, as the economy comes out of COVID-19, we should look to incentivise investment in sectors that will decarbonise the economy.”

ARENA’s priorities

The agency has focused on technologies that help improve the reliability of the grid and its ability to take renewable energy. “A big focus on this is battery, and storage and transmission lines to move this renewable energy around.”

Hydrogen is another focus for ARENA. He said there’s been a lot of talk about transitioning the economy to 600 per cent renewables off the back of hydrogen, and Australia exporting renewable energy to the rest of the world.

Decarbonising manufacturing and other existing emissions-intensive industries are also on the agency’s agenda.

On the question mark that is hanging over ARENA’s future, Wilder said that the government is still in discussions about what next for the agency with its funding close to drying up. With COVID-19 pushing the federal budget back, it’s hard to say when the fate of the agency will be decided.

However, the government has already flagged that the organisation will play a role in its energy technology roadmap it announced recently.

Sustainability a proven survivor of economic collapse

Professor Pamela Hanrahan, non-executive director, Landcom, reminded participants that the coronavirus pandemic isn’t the first major economic crisis the sustainability agenda has survived in recent times.

In fact, academic research showed that during the Global Financial Crisis, organisations remained committed to corporate social responsibility and ESG.

“What we found was that people really sharpened their focus [on sustainability] and those issue became more pressing rather than less pressing in those times of economic stress.”

She said that companies reduced the charity aspects of ESG and doubled down on sustainability projects that are core to the business and would secure a competitive advantage once the economic climate improved.

Amanda Steele, who has worked in corporate sustainability roles for years and is now responsible for managing CBRE’s Pacific property management business, agreed that she had been offered more jobs in sustainability during the GFC than any other time.

“I think it will grow after COVID-19, it will thrive out of the COVID crisis, it won’t mean people will turn away from sustainability.”

For CBRE, the coronavirus has raised interesting challenges around modern slavery and social sustainability, including the high-risk role of cleaners during this time.

While adjusting to the coronavirus featured prominently in most sessions, participants were hungry for a bit of normalcy. Speakers took some curly questions during the breakout sessions about embodied carbon and the transition to all-electric.

The GBCA also caught the industry up on what they’ve been up to, including the release of a new report that makes the business case for Green Star extremely compelling.

Expect more coverage from The Fifth Estate in the coming days.

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