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Rich Palmer on the upside of strong agendas

Richard Palmer at an industry event
Richard Palmer at an industry event

WSP’s Rich Palmer is one of the more thoughtful people in the sustainability space. You know he cares because he tells it like it is. Not so long ago Palmer hit our top reads with a piece where he said the trickle down effect in green buildings had worked no better than it had in the economy.

So we like to catch up with Palmer now and again to get his call on the business of going green in the built environment. Clearly at the time of the trickle down story in July 2016, Palmer was palpably frustrated. Have things changed?

Yep, Palmer is noticing changes.

In a catch up in a cafe at the base of his offices at World Square, Palmer, director of sustainability at WSP, now with a team of 50, ranged through an impressive array of topics – most, you could tell, just the tip of the iceberg of what he’s thinking.

Setting aside the serious issue of how little time we have to turn around climate change or even properly prepare to deal with its impact, Palmer was upbeat.

He sees fundamental shifts in a range of areas.

The renewables transformation

At the industry scale Palmer seems most impressed at the way renewable energy procurement is coming onto the agenda “in a substantial way”. Power purchase agreements and micro grids, with private energy providers operating at a scale that “embed renewable energy and storage”, are particularly encouraging, he says, especially in NSW and Queensland, which are seeing the biggest action in “the private utility type of engagement”.

He thinks the South Australian experiment in renewable energy is “fascinating”, particularly the Elon Musk proposal to build a virtual power plant with solar and batteries over 50,000 households, and now the state government’s proposal to match the scheme.

“I think it’s fascinating; it’s normalising the central ownership of distributed assets,” he says.

“The value proposition to households will be interesting.

“The market around how we invest in power and pay for generation is interesting; same with storage.

“One of the big exciting things is utility grids and how they can deliver low carbon for the built environment.”

Transport boom

Another hugely exciting area of growth is transport.

“Right now there are also great things happening with unprecedented public investment in the metropolitan network.”

A “once in a generation” investment in heavy rail, inland rail between Melbourne and Brisbane, and Sydney’s light rail as well.”

At the same time there is innovation in technology and services driving efficiencies, through mobile apps, for instance.

He rattles off new point-to-point models and ride sharing vehicles for instance.

“The spectrum of possible options is much wider looking forward than looking back.

“There are more options than we are aware of.”

Mobility is coming up as concept in investment, he says.

Palmer draws the line at flying cars, and is not impressed when we mention that Uber has flagged it will have an agreement with the City of Sydney for a trial of flying cars 2023.

“I’m a sceptic,” he says. “I don’t see the short cycle innovation of flying cars; I don’t see the urban benefit.”

One reason is safety. Another is the equally important question of whether this is a city we want. Where will all those flying cars park for instance?

On smart cities, there are also big questions. We need to unpack what a smart city actually means, he says.

“The narrative can mean just about anything you want it to mean.”

Yes, maybe it’s hyper surveillance. It’s all part of an area that “hasn’t been landed on yet”.

There are huge efficiencies promised, of course, but Palmer sees the subject as one of big challenges.

“The answer is, we don’t know because it depends on policy.”

In the US they’re working on it, developing a white paper on driverless cars to find the regulatory pathways to find what the possible impacts might be, he says.

“What’s possible is permanent traffic jams because empty cars are driving around, running errands.”

Private versus public interest cities

The big issue here, he says, is the private versus shared driverless cars.

Put all these emerging areas together and you can see we need quickly to start to understand what a “public interest smart city looks like, as opposed to what a private interest smart city looks like”, he says.

Right now, he says, there is not enough vision.

“And we haven’t dived deeply into the role of smart cities in delivering sustainability.”

And, “how do you open public data while still maintaining privacy while creating spaces for app development and so on? We’re still scratching the surface.”

We’re not doing too well in some spheres.

“The [national broadband network] is likely to be obsolete on the day it’s completed.”

Climate is a political risk

The biggest emerging theme politically is the risk around climate, he says.

Not that’s there’s much of a risk in the sense of the unknown, “it’s a known entity but the risk profile is not a known entity, especially in pricing the risk.”

“If you’re an asset owner, how do you quantify transitional risk”?

He points to the two speeches last year by Geoff Summerhayes, Australian Prudential Regulation Authority member, which flagged that climate stress testing to banks was on the cards.

“Transitional risk and a carbon price start to encroach on what that might mean for a portfolio of assets or for a balance sheet. Which is fascinating.”

In fact, it’s the regulatory space that is most interesting and how that follows its way to the capital markets.

Reconciliation needs to be seriously dealt with

With the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Palmer says, “we’ve seen Indigenous Australians articulate how they want to be recognised and we’ve got a built environment that is abysmal at Indigenous engagement”.

WSP’s answer, he says, is to build embedded placemaking and support for Aboriginal procurement that better reflects that culture. We need more engagement with Indigenous projects, he says, but this is work that’s still at the very early stages.

For now the team has started working with a number of Indigenous-owned design practices.

Housing and wider definitions of affordability

Another big issue is to look at the social side is affordability and the relationship between affordability of the house itself and other factors.

For instance, affordable housing often gets looked at in isolation, but affordability is not just about the building, it’s about the housing location and mobility and the way you can procure utility services.

“It might be there’s an opportunity to deliver affordability through smart utility and connectivity built into a cost of living strategy to try to address housing affordability, not just through housing.”

Biodiversity, where we need more than legislation

On biodiversity and urban ecology Palmer says that in the absence of most sites to not trigger biodiversity legislation, “the property sector doesn’t push to have biodiversity”.

“I’m not interested in how to make sub-optimal systems more functional; it’s about preserving what we have.” This includes what he terms mobile species such as birds, bats and bugs that have particular needs in terms of “stepping stones, predation or feeding generally”.

“We need things like pocket habitats, wetlands or nesting boxes and ecosystems in urban areas where bees can pollinate.”

These are not currently worked into a framework but Palmer says he’s “opening those doors to clients”.

The clients who are listening are the ones looking at ways to open up market differentiation, he says.

Clients need to go further to stand out in front

“Passive design is now [business as usual],” Palmer says, but clients need to go so much further now to stand out in front.

“Sustainability and green buildings are still core business but not core value propositions. The question is, what’s the point of difference?”

And the waste issue – still searching for solutions

Another big untapped opportunity is with waste.

“It’s an area where we haven’t come up with a really good technical solution.”

Stopping the creation of waste at the retail level, such as with plastics, is a good place to start and that’s where property owners can set ground rules through green leases.

This at least, he thinks, is a supply chain issue, not a technical one.

As with the sustainability challenge in general, Palmer says, key is to understand the drivers of key players.

“You can convince leaders to change if you can identify the leverage. If you can identify the things that matter to people and frame them in sustainability people can be convinced.

“It’s understanding the personal and business opportunities and the risk opportunities.

“And then talk about how you plausibly get them there.

“Yes, it’s a bit of selling the vision.”

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