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Anatomy of a campaign: building green.

The Story So Far ...

It may not seem like the most exciting part of ACF's work, but campaigning for building standards to deliver greenhouse reductions and water savings is one of those 'boring but important' tasks. Government figures show greenhouse gas emissions from stationary energy in 2000 were already 27 per cent above 1990 levels. Even more alarming: they are projected to increase by 91 per cent by 2020.

The energy we use in homes and commercial buildings is responsible for 52 per cent of these emissions. And because the 160 000 homes built every year are getting larger and more reliant on air-conditioning, it is not surprising that greenhouse gas emissions from housing are rapidly growing.

However, by improving building insulation to a 5 star standard, and installing heat pump or gas-boosted solar hot water, most homes would halve their greenhouse gas emissions. This would also reduce household energy bills by about $300-500 a year depending on the size of the home and where it is.

In 1997 the Prime Minister said that energy efficiency standards for new homes would be needed unless the industry picked up their game. Unfortunately, the resistance of the housing industry to even modest changes has been astounding. Representatives from these industry groups and from each government make up the Australian Building Codes Board which sets the national standards for states to introduce through building regulations. Not surprisingly years of delay followed.

Study after study showed greenhouse gas emissions from the housing sector were increasing. A National Framework for Energy Efficiency was established with all state and commonwealth governments. But it was not until 2003 that the first set of standards was proposed by the Australian Building Codes Board--and after all the waiting, the standards were a lowly 3.5--4 stars (out of 10). It was now up to us to get the States to bring in stronger standards.

The Campaign ...

ACF teamed up with Environment Victoria to put pressure on the Victorian Government--soon to be the first cab off the rank. In 2003, they committed to introducing 5 stars, water saving fittings, plus the option of either a rainwater tank or solar hot water, by mid 2005.

The housing industry had been effective in putting pressure on other states to wait for 'national consistency'--which seemed to mean: 'wait forever for weak standards'. Now that the Victorian Government was going it alone, we were trying to encourage the other states to push up their standards too.

By this time, the NSW Government had already decided to ignore the national building code by introducing similar state requirements under BASIX (Building Sustainability Index). While promising at first, these are now being severely weakened due to industry pressure (see our website for details).

ACF campaigners visited each state government in turn, arguing the case with Ministers, advisors and departmental staff for standards to deliver greenhouse reductions and water savings. South Australia already had a high proportion of households with rainwater tanks compared to other states. However the goals of sustainable housing were furthered when they committed to 5 star standards, and banned electric hot water, and required rainwater tanks (although this is not the same as introducing solar hot water). Queensland was even smarter when it came to solar hot water--they included gas as an option, but encouraged solar as a better option through renewable energy certificates. In addition, the Queensland Government has introduced energy saving lighting, water saving features, and through local councils, rainwater tanks. When they eventually commit to increasing standards from the current 4 stars to 5 stars --they will probably beat the other states.

In the mean time, the housing industry put out press releases with ridiculous estimates of how much these measures would cost home owners. They claimed that 'housing affordability' would be affected--when they should have said 'profit margins'. Even as I write they continue to put out misleading figures on the costs and the amount of greenhouse emissions the sector is responsible for. We met with the Council of Social Services to discuss the real causes of the housing affordability crisis and agreed to work together to debunk industry claims.

Sometimes, a lot of effort has to be put into just holding ground, and 2005 was one of these backlash years. At the same time as the Productivity Commission was questioning the need for energy efficiency, advisors to the Victorian Treasury were proposing the repeal of standards already introduced. The disappointing thing about this was that it was not even based on thorough economics. All the same, we steadily developed our submissions and shared this research with academics and organisations such as Climate Action Network Australia, the Insulation Council, the Glass Association, and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.

Eventually, the Australian Building Codes Board proposed to increase the national standards to 5 stars and the job of arguing about building standards continued. In April, the Council of Australian Governments had started to put its weight behind action on climate change. Even Ian Macfarlane, Federal Minister for Industry at the time, seemed to support the standards. By the time Don Henry and I fronted up to the public hearings of the Productivity Commission in July, there was a chorus of support for energy efficiency from most state governments, as well as a number of industry and environment groups. It looked like support had been shored up for the national standards to be decided in November.

Little did we know that the forestry industry was about to join the housing industry's campaign to unravel energy efficiency standards. They argued that

5 star standards would make timber floors more expensive because they would have to be insulated, and that the lower embodied energy of timber wag not being taken into account. Given that timber floors had been losing sales for decades, and that operational energy was well established as a higher greerrhouse priority, it was hard to take these arguments seriously.

On the Wednesday before the November Building Codes Board meeting, where the standards were being decided, we were informed that the decision may go soft. ACF got on the phones to as many state representatives and minister's offices as possible starting with the Western Australia and Queensland representatives who had the furthest to fly--sometimes we were speaking to people literally just before they got on the plane to Canberra. At this point I had a direct message to convey: 'if we can't introduce this modest step in reducing greenhouse emissions--every greenhouse strategy and every government commitment has been a complete waste of time' (not to mention energy!).

It was not until the Friday that we heard the result. And good news! The Board decided to bring in 5 star standards nationally unless the housing industry could back up its exaggerated claims with hard facts. This meant that our efforts were not over yet. The Federal Minister Ian Macfarlane and Premier Beattie were on the front page of the Courier Mail declaring that it would be 'the end of the Queenslander' even though these have hardly been built in Queensland for the past forty years. NAFI went so far as to claim that timber was 'solar powered' (2) and the HIA continued to misuse figures in their press releases. We responded with our own media releases and talked to journalists at the major dailies. Months later, the industry still couldn't back up their arguments with evidence, and the Board ratified the decision in February this year. By then, most states had committed to go ahead with the measures anyway. ACT and SA were the first Governments after Victoria to publicly announce this intention and we congratulate them for that. It is interesting that for all their arguments about the need for national consistency, when it was presented to them, the industry rejected it.

Post Script

ACF is now campaigning to ensure that each state makes good on its public commitments. The Commonwealth Government has taken the unusual step of pressuring the states not to implement the national standards agreed in February. We are particularly concerned about the weakening of BASIX requirements in NSW. You can find details of the state of play in your state on our website--please consider expressing your support for sustainable housing to the Planning Minister in your State.

What is a 5 star home?

Measuring energy efficiency standards in stars is a simple way of describing homes which have:

* Better insulation and window glazing

* Better design for air flow, shading and sunlight

The idea is that if homes are already cooler in summer and warmer in winter we won't need to waste as much energy heating and cooling them.

In the U.S they have had similar requirements as high as 9.5 stars for years--we are far behind.

Kate Noble is Coordinator of ACF's Building Green Campaign.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Australian Conservation Foundation
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Title Annotation:greenhouse gas emissions
Author:Noble, Kate
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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