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Speech on Greenhouse and Energy Minimum Standards Bill

On Monday 11 September 2023, I made a speech in Federal Parliament on the Greenhouse and Energy Mininum Standards Amendment. You can watch the full speech here or read the transcript below.



The Greenhouse and Energy Minimum Standards Amendment (Administrative Changes) Bill 2023 is an update to regulations passed back in 2012 after a review. The greenhouse and energy minimum standards scheme is basically designed to create a national standard for energy efficiency in household appliances. There's nothing wrong with that, especially in the context of rapidly rising household energy bills. These particular amendments are extremely minor, and the government have signalled their intent to add more significant amendments later.

That's all good, all fine, except this scheme doesn't substantively address the biggest drain on household energy: the heating and cooling of our homes. The replacement of household appliances is a small step towards lower emissions as we transition to more renewable clean energy. However, it's nowhere near the scale to meet the crisis. We need much bigger moves. We need to, at the federal level, address the fundamental design of houses, buildings, neighbourhoods and cities. This is about survival, as we face the looming and most dangerous threat of climate change: heat. Heat is the biggest killer of the climate crisis. There are far more deaths from that than from other unnatural disasters brought on by climate change, like floods, fires and cyclones, and Australia is hugely vulnerable.

We know the cause of the climate crisis and we know Australia is complicit. We've seen the bushfire and heat maps. We've heard the BOM's predictions and the dire warnings of those in the know, like Greg Mullins, former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue New South Wales and member of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action. I heard from him again last week at a very timely briefing. We are heading into what is likely to be our most challenging summer ever, a summer of unprecedented and extensive heatwaves and potentially catastrophic fires, and every summer thereafter will likely be worse. Greg has risked his life, literally, at the fire front, and he warns that we haven't seen the worst yet. We need urgent and systemic answers to this, and the federal government must play a central role, as this is a national-scale crisis. We need to transition to clean energy now, and part of this is reducing the energy demand of households across Australia.

My 40-year career as an architect has taught me that twiddling with appliance specifications is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reducing household energy demand. To really address household energy use, we need to address the spatial and material design of our houses, and there are a number of fundamental principles and minimum standards that every house design must meet if we are to address the scale of this crisis.

An absolutely fundamental principle of residential amenity and energy efficiency is passive solar design. Environmental designers know that houses oriented to north and south can capture winter sunlight and be easily and economically shaded to exclude summer sun, while east and west frontages expose the house to unwanted low, hot summer sun. Houses, townhouses and apartments receiving northern sun in their front or rear gardens or balconies, with natural cross-ventilation, are comfortable and energy-saving living environments. North sloping roofs also allow the maximisation of solar panel harvest. Experienced solar designers know that residential streets should be oriented to primarily run east-west, yet surveyors and planners persist with seemingly random development plans and patterns that make good passive-solar design virtually impossible and thereby lock in high energy use.

Good solar design is not only useful for comfort, reduced energy use and lower emissions; it also mitigates the worst impacts of the climate catastrophe. Instead, because of the bad design of our neighbourhoods and houses, households that can afford them are running aircon units far more than they should have to. This can be as much as 20 per cent of a household's energy use and result in massive spikes in our energy system during heatwave weeks. Ironically, in addition to driving climate change through the HFCs and burning fossil fuels to power them, aircon units can also raise ambient temperatures surrounding the home by 1.8 Celsius.

We can't just make our appliances better; we have to change the way we design our homes. As well as good environmental design of individual houses, we must plan our precincts and cities to mitigate climate challenges. We must locate housing judiciously in areas protected from bushfires, above flood levels and secure from coastal erosion and inundations. Hotter seas will likely produce tropical cyclone effects further south in Australia, just as hurricanes are increasing and extending further in the Northern Hemisphere.

The greatest climate killer in Australia is heatwave effects. We need to design our neighbourhoods to deal with this inevitability, yet we continue to build our cities in ways which create urban heat islands. Heat islands are stationary zones of exceptionally hot air that can persist through the night, with no relief, causing huge stress to the human body. They actually threaten survival and are particularly dangerous for the vulnerable. The hard surfaces of our buildings, roofs, roads, driveways and parking areas absorb heat from the sun and slowly re-radiate it through the night. We know that areas of cities with trees, gardens and permeable soil are significantly cooler, with the shade of leaves and the cooling effect of evapotranspiration significantly reducing temperature. We know we should include generous greenery, a very practical and economical way to shade and cool, but we keep building these air-fryer suburbs. You know the ones—everyone will be familiar with them: black roofs almost touching side to side; front yards dominated by driveways and backyard only a few metres deep; facing windows so close that they're kept closed for privacy, so the air-conditioning has to be cranked harder. This cooling, as I mentioned before, is just a local illusion, as the air-conditioning throws the heat out into the already baking environment. These are literally killer environments in a heating climate.

It's not just the misleadingly named 'greenfield' sites that are to blame for the heat island effect. Poorly designed residential consolidation in what are now called leafy suburbs can destroy valuable established backyard trees and sacrifice permeable water-absorbing gardens to driveways. We can increase density in an environmentally responsibly manner—again, with good design. There are plenty of great international examples of urban housing that's built taller, with a smaller footprint, to allow valuable green courtyards and gardens, the free circulation of cooling breezes and important absorption of water, not to mention pleasant, liveable gardens. An urban network of street trees and backyard gardens serves other important purposes, like providing wildlife corridors and absorption and slowing of the storm run-off that, in our ubiquitous hard paved environments, can actually exacerbate flooding.

Saul Griffith's dictum to electrify everything must guide our endeavours to replace gas and solid fuel from our domestic cooking and heating, as it also must guide the replacement of gas and coal at the national level, as the UN says we must right now. Just this morning Saul Griffith, who is actually the Australian architect of the United States Inflation Reduction Act, outlined the massive opportunity for Australia's future if we invest in all aspects of clean energy incentives and stimulus at every layer of the economy—that is, incentives for buyers to purchase EVs, appliances and goods; incentives for producers of clean energy to run those appliances; and incentives for producers and manufacturers of cars, appliances et cetera. This is an emergency, and we have to respond with emergency powers. Sort of like the US arsenal of democracy in World War II, the world needs an arsenal of survival.

In another huge opportunity for Australia, the world needs our resources. Australia is the first, second, third or fourth largest producer of these essential minerals: aluminium, copper, nickel, magnesium, cobalt and lithium. We would be absolutely insane not to capitalise on this. Intelligent design of whole-economy solutions is clearly what we need, and I need to stress this would be an investment, as Saul Griffith said, with potentially enormous returns, not a cost. We know these things, we know what works and we know that good design and planning for the reality of climate challenges from the ground up is far more economical than, especially in the place of housing, retrofitting poor design or the overuse of energy for heating and cooling, which poor design actually locks in.

Yet where are the appropriate controls and provisions in our planning and building codes and mandated design standards? Australia's mass housing patently does not meet even the most basic environmental standards. In fact I would say it's an environmental—and I'd also argue social—disgrace, causing rather than solving problems. Why? Local for-profit developers intimidate and dominate local government, and building property organisations and major builders play state governments off against each other—another example of the dangerous capture of Australian governments by corporate for-profit interests working against the needs and interests of everyday people and communities. We urgently need to build hundreds of thousands of new affordable social and public houses. Like rental reform, this is an issue of national import, way too important and of too large a scale to just leave to local and state governments.

A comprehensive response to our housing crisis is a remarkable opportunity, at the large scale needed, to design and build exemplar housing, to improve our lives and to create more sustainable cities. Why waste it dithering around the edges? This is an urgent national issue that requires a national-scale solution. We need to develop a comprehensive and cohesive sustainable cities policy and delivery mechanism at this federal level. The measures in this bill are a tiny step towards this, but in terms of the existential scale of the climate crisis they mean virtually nothing while the government keeps approving new coal and gas.

Earlier I mentioned Greg Mullins, former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW and member of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action. Greg Mullins knows the score and knows the risk from experience of climate induced catastrophe, literally from the front line. Greg Mullins just last week called for the immediate cessation of Labor's $65 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies, as he blasted the incomprehensible coalmine approvals—incomprehensible indeed. The environment minister just approved a coalmine expansion to 2073. That's 50 years from now; long past the supposed net zero year of 2050. That's Labor's fifth coal mine approval this year.

Labor does love to trot out the excuse that they're just following the law as they're approving these coal mines, 'Nothing to see here,' but do I need to spell it out? You're in government, Labor. You make the laws. In fact, Labor has been in government for over a year and has not just failed to act but has ruled out putting a climate trigger in our environmental laws, the exact thing that would have stopped these approvals. Does Labor care about stopping the climate crisis? For the answer to that, don't listen to what they say; look at what they do. Tragically, what they do is protect the interests of their donors in the fossil fuel industry. So, no, it seems they don't care. It seems they've given up caring about stopping the climate crisis. They'd rather that mining billionaires make a few more billion while our future burns. In the face of the magnitude of the climate crisis, bills like the GEM are an almost meaningless distraction if the bigger picture issues like the housing and climate crises remain unaddressed.

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