AIRAH’s Phil Wilkinson: On who’s really going to save the planet
2 February 2013
By Tina Perinotto
24 January 2013 – The Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Airconditioning and Heating reckons a lot of the responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions comes down to its core business – whether from stationary sources in buildings, or not.
Yes, there have been some wonderful programs to reduce emissions, mostly driven by government – most notably the Green Building Fund, and NABERS and the Commercial Buildings Disclosure program.
- Photo: Phil Wilkinson, with daughter Emily at Federation Square this week
But among these have also been programs that focus on a single part of the industry, are cancelled, or never make it past the starting gate, such as the Tax Breaks for Green Buildings Program. Making redundant millions of dollars of in-kind work by AIRAH members and related professionals by way of meetings, submissions and the inevitable sleepless nights.
For Phil Wilkinson, chief executive of AIRAH, the choice eventually became crystal clear: spend the next 10 years going the rounds of meetings with endless stakeholders, cobbling together submissions, waiting for results, waiting for funding…just waiting. Or seize the agenda now and “own the discussion”, if not the results.
When programs are run by government, changes in funding and personnel often mean the loss of expertise and knowledge within government. “You lose momentum as an industry,” Wilkinson says.
“We thought let’s take some ownership in this.
“We want to own the discussion; we don’t want to own all the solutions so we want to take responsibility to bring in all our own stakeholders and to aim for a consensus with other stakeholders on what pathway we need to look at to achieve and low emissions future.”
What Wilkinson and his board and colleagues decided on was nothing less than a roadmap to reducing carbon emissions in his industry. But not just for AIRAH members. While the team were at it, why not bring into the fold the hundreds of hugely disparate related airconditioning folk who work in the residential areas, and then why not those who work on cars and trucks and anything else that has a related aircon or heating or refrigeration component?
And why not collaborate with global colleagues at the same time? After all it’s a global problem. Included in the program are the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, the United Nations Environment Program and the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers.
It’s a massive job. And hugely ambitious.
But somehow, and partly through the so-called “holiday period” the result is an impressive working draft of a paper released this week that could change the face of Australia’s carbon emissions from stationary and non-stationary sources of heating, ventilation, airconditioning, and refrigeration.
And that’s between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the 24 per cent of Australia’s emissions directly attributable to the built environment.
The title is simple enough, Draft Discussion Paper, Transition to Low Emissions HVAC&R, Issues and Solutions.
The making of it was anything but simple.
For example one of the questions the paper looks at is the role of design in reducing the need for carbon-driven heating and cooling. And how the potential conflict of interest inherent in this might be handled.
Early on Wednesday evening, during a telephone briefing snatched during a frolic with his three kids at Federation Square in Melbourne Wilkinson told The Fifth Estate that the mere thought of how complex the job would be had made him feel queasy.
But what’s the point of getting bored, he laughs.
The catalyst for this mammoth project was the carbon equivalent levy early last year when the cost of synthetic refrigerants, designed to replace greenhouse gas intensive refrigerants, blew out by 300-500 per cent.
“The carbon equivalent levy really sharpened out minds,” Wilkinson says.
The furore exploded with sensational media coverage of business threatened with ridiculous price rises just to “top up their fridges, which shouldn’t be leaking anyway”, numerous mentions in parliamentary record Hansard, and culminating in the wake of the carbon price in an appearance by Wilkinson and AIRAH chief operating officer Neil Cox before the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
“The industry was accused of price gouging,” he says.
While the government imposed a 23 per cent tax on the importers of the synthetic refrigerant a margin was added all along the supply chain, for security, for extra insurance to reflect the higher value and so on.
The ACCC inquiry, into whether the price increase unfairly (and illegally) blamed the carbon tax, was resolved without the need for handcuffs and a jail sentence for either himself or Cox, Wilkinson jokes.
But what it did do, together with the media coverage, and a robust communiqué issued by AIRAH and reported in The Fifth Estate, was put the issue squarely in front of government.
It fostered much better understanding of the industry, Wilkinson says.
“They found out the work we did in the communiqué and it became an education exercise on how the industry works. We ended with an open dialogue. It was very valuable.”
One result was the creation of fact sheets sent to small and medium enterprises, which helped quell the fear in the industry.
“All this happened last year and toward the end of last year,” he said.
“Our board then said we needed a bit of a game plan to get to this horizon we want to get to, this future, and that’s what this roadmap was about.”
In fact the board’s visionary and energetic members were critical, Wilkinson says, praising president Sean Treweak (principal of WSP) and directors Mike Palmer (principal mechanical engineer for Multitech Solutions), Simon Wild (managing director of Cundall), Nathan Groenhout (Queensland leader of AECOM’s building engineering business) and Bryon Price (strategic development director at AG Coombs).
The question was where did AIRAH fit into the whole picture? That’s not a bad question, he says, but the problem was there was no “whole picture”.
“The HVAC industry is really fragmented. You can’t just go and talk to one peak body.
“So that’s what we’re in the process of doing, it might be a 10 or 20-year plan, bringing all the stakeholders together and shifting the mindset of 99 per cent of the industry and those external to the industry.
“All the people we got to know over the years – we asked if they would help us. They said, ‘You crazy bastards, of course we’ll help’.”
The draft document has now been sent to 400 stakeholder associations. Big and small.
But Wilkinson says none of this could happen without another vital participant: technical director Vince Ahearne, a former Standards Australia operative and a building services expert. Without Ahearne…well … Wilkinson prefers not to go there.
In the end he says, “I’m the one the guy who gets on the phone and talks to people” but Ahearne is the man who who’s pushing a massive quantity of data into something that’s akin to a technical “food mixer and pulls out this (technical) poetry”.
On 26 and 27 March, the industry – and all its cousins and distant relatives – will hold a summit to officially launch this long march.
See our report with highlights of the Draft Discussion Paper, Transition to Low Emissions HVAC & R, Issues and Solutions.