green cityscape

News from the front desk Issue 469: From local councils, state governments and the architecture and engineering professions, there is a new sense of urgent momentum for change.


This week The Fifth Estate called into Melbourne and had meetings with a few well placed people. One lot said to speak to the City of Melbourne; they’re doing great things; the other said to speak to the state government: ditto.

Latest from Victoria is a blitz on waste. There’s a new Waste Crime Prevention Inspectorate with $71.4 million dedicated to stopping illegal dumping and stockpiling, and a Business Innovation Centre. Overall, a $300 million injection. That’s Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio again.

But the Melburnians, never shy to self critique, say the days of Sydney looking to Melbourne for leadership could be over; now their state is playing catch up.

They point to the NSW Circular outfit launched last year among other strong initiatives. Among them could be NSW energy minister Matt Kean taking on the Feds on climate, even before the worst of the bushfires, though he was belittled by the PM at the time (“No one knows who Matt Kean is. We bet there’s a few more million people who do now.”).

Melbourne had the climate all stars turn out in force for the big National Climate Emergency Summit recently but it was the big contingent that Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore said that gained a lot of attention and was central to a bunch of collaborative work set underway between some of the most climate active councils in the country.

This is not airy fairy stuff. Just so we’re clear, 30 per cent of Australia’s population – 8 million people – are now living in an area whose government has declared a climate emergency (this is mostly local but including the ACT territory government and the upper house of South Australia). This joins 1402 jurisdictions (such as the UK) and local governments covering 819 million citizens globally.

Even The Oz, strange as it seems, looks like it’s feeling the change in temperature and letting slip more two-way bets on climate in its content.

On Wednesday came a clanger from Troy Bramston who let fly with frustration at Australia’s self-harming politics.

Here’s a taste:

It is beyond mad that some politicians still doubt whether climate change is real and that it demands a local, national and global policy response.

And…

There is no Australian government that does not accept that climate change presents a major economic, social and environmental challenge for this generation. There is no government that is not allocating significant funds and using regulatory frameworks to mitigate climate change. Every state and territory government supports the goal of zero net carbon emissions by 2050.

And yet, he says a response to climate is “perhaps the single most significant public ­policy failure in decades and it has ­destroyed multiple prime ministers”.

Pressure from the advertisers? Maybe. GetUp! is targeting one of News Corp’s biggest, Woolies, which has been getting rave reviews for its financial performance and won’t want to spoil this by upsetting its customer sentiment index.

A spokesperson said: “We’ve reduced emissions by 18 per cent on 2015 levels by investing in renewable generation and energy efficiency in our stores. Our long-term ambition is to reduce our emissions by 60 per cent on 2015 levels by 2030,” Mumbrella reported.

I don’t wanna go to rehab, no no no

News Corp denies it’s a climate denier. “We’ve been on the public record countless times recognising that the climate is changing,” it says.

This is symptomatic of the cognitive dissonance that’s increasingly obvious: the narrative has changed from denial, to yes maybe there’s global heating, but there’s no point doing anything about it. Call it the principle in the lyrics behind Amy Winehouse’s song that infers: yes, this thing I’m doing is killing me, but so what? (I don’t wanna go to rehab, no no no.)

Check out the new anti-Greta heroine of the far-right groups supported with enthusiasm by the Heartland Institute in the US, which is the fossil-fuelled heartland of denial. This 19-year-old does not deny climate change but argues we should relax and just go with the flow.

Architects and engineers are mobilising

This attitude doesn’t wash with disciplined people or creatives who have energy and don’t want to waste it in rehab or similar.

In the engineering and architecture professions the mood of frustration is increasingly palpable. This is the crowd that knows that more than 60 per cent of our carbon emissions are created by buildings, through operational energy and embodied carbon in the materials. The first bit is easy to fix and up to the property owners and managers. What they need is a bit more caring, not much more budget and a plan. Less Amy and more Greta.

Among architects and engineers, the climate emergency declare movement is still finding its feet but it’s shaping up to infiltrate the broader industry with impact.

How much impact is still hard to see, but the factors lining up globally and nationally right now are like accelerants whose impact is unpredictable but likely intense.

Like the bushfires. Like the coronavirus.

First came the vast apocalyptic vision of the Australian fires, now the unseen secret erosion, like the invisible man, chipping away like a million termites at the things that prop up our world. Suddenly there might be no more plastic toys in the shops, or medicines at the chemist. Food might become scarce. A woman in Melbourne said her family business exporting grapes to China had come to a complete stop.

Caroline Pidcock

Caroline Pidcock, a convenor of the Architects Declare movement, says in a house she is finishing off, the door handles have not arrived and may not do so for a while. It does not take huge leap of imagination to extrapolate that to the building supply chain.

Suddenly the globalisation we hankered for after for so long has arrived. One global economy, one global trading platform, one global outpatient.

Ummm, not sure this is exactly what we had in mind.

It’s impossible to underplay the impact this new heightened sense of our economic and environmental vulnerability will have on us. Even if the coronavirus is magically cured in less than 12 months, even if the everyone at firestorm ground zero decides heroically to build back (though their natural environment won’t do so for several decades, if that) we can not unsee/unknow these recent events.

They are seared into our brains.

Now what?

Amy or Greta?

It’s our choice.

The architects are still forming their front and Pidcock, a veteran of many leadership positions in architecture and sustainability, says this will likely take the form of dedicated smaller units and steering committees, each focused on different points of impact.

At meetings she’s fronted at various practices, such as Hassell and Woods Bagot, and the momentum is definitely on the rise, she said on Thursday.

“Declare is gaining momentum. Every time I talk to another bunch of people they’re saying, how can we help, what can we do?

“I’m overwhelmed from people saying they want to help and want to get involved.”

The biggest question now is how to influence the clients who sign the cheques and keep architects in business.

Architects are absolutely part of the solution. What they do best is resolve really complex problems and come up with great solutions.

A collective approach looks like the answer. “It’s collectively asking people to work together to deliver that message and actually use the great persuasive talents that architects have to persuade their clients to change,” Pidcock says.

“Architects are absolutely part of the solution. What they do best is resolve really complex problems and come up with great solutions.

“If you say the problem is to become net zero energy or lightweight they’ll say here are the parameters and the clients will end up with much better buildings.”

Besides these buildings are more enjoyable to be in, and much healthier. People will want to rent them, and funnily enough, they can be insured.

“Pretty soon,” says Pidcock, “clients won’t be able to insure their buildings or lease them if they are designed and built as business as usual.”

And it’s a professional obligation in any case. “Architects are really well placed to make sure their clients are not building white elephants. Armed with that knowledge and impact architects are feeling empowered.”

She says engineers will be key collaborators in this.

This could be a tougher job because engineers are so disparate, she says, with many working for mining and the fossil fuel industry.

 Yet a founding member of the Engineers Declare movement, Chris Buntine, says he too has been surprised by the swell of support for the movement.

Buntine, who’s recently started as Victorian sustainability manager with Northrop, says a key challenge for both movements is to deal with the essentially reactionary nature of their professions.

“If they’re asked, they will design and provide sustainability outcomes, but they haven’t driven it,” he says.

The opportunity, he says, is to say to a client that “it’s not in their best interest to deliver a high carbon building that is not resilient”.

There is much bolder leadership shaping up, he says. The narrative now is, “No, we’re not comfortable designing buildings that have a high carbon profile. It’s not good for the client, our brand and reputation.”

The conversation at a recent gathering focused on the building code, “which is not relevant if you are in a climate emergency and trying to drive low carbon buildings.”

How to change things is the big question

It seems systemic. Sure the leaders will respond to the call for marketing edge and the brilliance of outperforming on innovation but there is a deeper systemic problem in our view. Quite apart from the building codes that don’t even begin to meet the actual needs of the moment let alone the future, there is a fundamental problem with our laissez-faire economy that even if there are rules and regs, rarely bothers to enforce them.

Price is the dominant driver of all that we do. In one way or another. Even green buildings must prove they are financially more worthwhile.

And who among us has not chosen the lowest cost item at Bunnings because budget doesn’t permit this month?

(Let’s not right now go into the handcuffs on millions weighed down by heavy mortgages that mean all other considerations –  their neighbours, good governance, the future – must all be shoved aside in the interests of survival today … it’s another story)

But what if the choices at Bunnings ranged from good to excellent, not shoddy to excellent?

Chris Buntine

What if we had the same regulations over our building materials and building practices as we have over cars or fridges?

In the face of the coronavirus, we’re happy to break the free market mentality: our medical officers confirm that our laws can be as tough as China’s to enforce lockdown.

So in the face of a burning planet, why not a much smaller friendly step than lockdown and simply mandate that we make buildings that are good for us?

Buntine says: “Ideally we would bring in better regulations over a long term trajectory so we all know what’s going on and there is clarity for investment and for skilling.”

This last point is so important, Buntine says. And he might be right. We would ask for it to be a very much shorter trajectory.

But again the engineer/expert shares an answer we can’t argue with. We could bring in a brilliant set of regulations tomorrow to mandate the best, most sustainable housing and other buildings, but if no-one knows how to build them there’s not much point, he says.

Buntine advocates a fast-paced skilling up, for free or not much cost, in the way California embarked on more than a decade ago for solar installations and other sustainability measures.

“There are very few builders or practitioners in the industry who are not having conversations internally about what the climate change emergency means to them.

People in the industry are aware, he says.

“There are very few builders or practitioners in the industry who are not having conversations internally about what the climate change emergency means to them.

“More than one third of the Australian population – about 8 million people – live in a municipality that has declared a climate emergency.”

People living in those communities are trying to work out how to future proof their life, says Buntine, and he’s pretty sure that’s a change “that’s rippling across the industry.”

It will be non linear change. It might come from insurance companies or rapid shifting out of coal or fossil fuel investment.

“My sense is it will come much faster than people realise.”