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Here’s to the new regret-free decade, and the heroes of the last one

Grassroots initiatives like #Trashtag have made picking up litter an Insta-worthy moment.

OXYGEN FILES: Hands up if you’re keen to put the 2010s in a box and shelve them and hope like hell the 2020s will kick off scaled up, meaningful and cohesive action to save our global habitat?

The past 10 years has seen the idea of environmental sustainability move from being bolt-on bling to obvious survival imperative. If you doubt that, ask a fire fighter, marine ecologist, wildlife carer, health expert or Indigenous person.

There’s some grounds for a cautious optimism thanks to the research, practical and financial acumen we have for the challenges ahead.

Several key issues have really grabbed the public attention, and correspondingly a spot on the agenda of the built environment: the power of green finance, the goldmine of energy-efficiency and the nefarious nature of plastic waste.

Green finance

The Climate Bonds Initiative launched at the start of the decade in December 2010, with a framework and guidelines for leveraging capital and debt to deliver sustainability wins. It’s grown into a multi-billion-dollar, global phenomenon enabling capital raising across energy-efficiency, low-carbon buildings, social development, renewable energy, water, low-carbon transport, waste and sustainable agriculture.

In the year to 15 November 2019, green bond issuance amounted to US$219.8 billion.

Other big shifts included the divestment agenda, with major global funds divesting from carbon-exposed industries. We’ve seen the rise of institutional investors as activists, through groups such as the Investor Group on Climate Change, now with around US$2 trillion of funds committed to positive investment activity.

Advocacy and research by the Taskforce for Climate-Related Financial Disclosures is largely why some of the world’s biggest stock exchanges including the DOW Jones and the ASX now have a “disclose or explain” policy around climate change risk exposure and carbon exposure in company portfolios.

At the same time, the real estate investment industry has crunched the numbers and the leading funds are showing a clear preference for third-party ratings around sustainability, energy efficiency and other key indicators. We started the decade with Green Star and NABERS, now we also have WELL and the Living Building Challenge too.

Energy efficiency

This decade saw major work begin on improving the energy performance of all new buildings, and the setting of a low-carbon trajectory for the 2020s. In May 2020, the new Section J requirements for commercial buildings take effect and are expected to deliver a significant improvement in energy efficiency, thermal comfort and reduced emissions. The smart residential builders are already investing in upskilling around blower door testing and quality-checking building sealing and insulation installation.

Existing residential buildings remain a bit of a black spot. There have been some small-scale upgrade programs targeting low-income households and social housing, but there is still no sign of mandatory energy performance ratings at point of sale or lease for older housing stock.

The energy is there, with organisations such as Beyond Zero Emissions, Renew, the Energy Efficiency Council and the CRC for Low Carbon Living quantifying the financial, social and health benefits, but aside from the ACT’s opt-in ratings for residential properties, there’s no clear signal this massive opportunity is on the legislative radar for action any time soon.

Plastic just ain’t fantastic

Between ABC TV’s ground-breaking War on Waste documentary series and the work of activists such as Boomerang Alliance, one-use plastics have lost their social licence in recent years. The Global Optimism Outlook Survey commissioned for Dubai2020 Expo found that plastic pollution in our oceans it is the top issue of concern for Australians – and is also the issue most individuals believe we can actually fix within coming years.

New enterprises have sprung up to harvest ocean plastic waste for repurpose. Grassroots initiatives like #Trashtag have made picking up litter an Insta-worthy moment, and some beachfront cafes now offer a free coffee per bucket of rubbish collected.

We’ve seen the rollout of plastic bag bans, straw bans and export bans targeting the ubiquitous petrochemical polymer consumer trash. Industries have responded with new products such as bamboo straws and metal tiffins for office lunches and new practices have taken hold like waste-free food vendors and the selling of re-useable cloth bags at retail point-of-sale.

There is still more to do, and according to executive director of Plastic Oceans Australasia Ricki Hersburgh, business has a leading role to play.

The foundation launched in 2017, and its focus is research and education around the impact of plastics and ways to reduce their use within a generation.

Hersburgh brings significant experience in the sustainability space to the organisation and its programs, including being involved in supporting one of the decade’s outstanding construction industry exemplar projects, Burbank’s waste-free residential project completed in 2014.

Holiday seasons like Christmas and New Year, along with major events such as that high profile horse race in Melbourne, are often peak events in terms of discarded trash, Hersburgh says.

Holiday time tends to “change people’s behaviour” in terms of “what’s okay and what’s not okay,” she explains.

People will leave their straws, busted lilos, pairs of thongs, bags from bulk ice and plastic cutlery when they visit a beach, riverbank or park. And that waste is more than likely going to end up washed into or blown into waterways and other ecosystems.

Or they go to a holiday home but forget the re-useable bottle and keep cup, so use throw-aways, thinking it doesn’t matter much, they’re on holidays, they’ll get back to good practices when they’re back home.

“They let their guard down.”

But Hersburgh points out that every item of plastic thrown away is a problem. Sir David Attenborough, in launching the documentary film developed by Plastic Oceans UK, said that plastics are as significant an environmental concern as climate change.

The Australian organisation has been working with schools and local councils on grassroots community education and behaviour change. It’s also targeting events, with a toolkit and awareness raising around taking the trash factor out of celebrating significant events such as Christmas or Australia Day.

There is also a business toolkit, which includes a 12-month program of waste auditing, customised waste reduction and waste management strategies, workshops and guidance materials for staff behaviour change and education. The end goal – total elimination of single use plastics from the workplace.

Building and construction

As someone who has been writing construction stories for over a decade now, I’ve noticed there’s often a bunch of unsung heroes that have been steadily progressing the sustainability agenda in their own sphere of influence.

The plumbers who have convinced clients to choose a more water-efficient fixture. The painters who made the leap to low-VOC products for the safety of their workers and building occupants. The carpenters who source recycled timbers wherever possible. The engineers who find ways to deliver a building with reduced use of concrete and steel through smarter design. The electricians who lead the charge for LED lighting and smart sensor use. The tech boffins creating software that helps track energy, water, waste and safety so what is measured can be managed.

All those quiet achievers collectively make a massive difference – and without them the big REITS and the major portfolio owners won’t get the net zero buildings we want to see in 2020.

And thank you, for giving me cause for hope we may yet save this precious, irreplaceable and wonderful planet.

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