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Cutting emissions one house at a time

Australia's race toward zero emissions is set to falter unless we can transform our housing. Issie Soudy, Macy Saddington & Jemima Wareham report.

It only takes a few years of wet summers fuelled by La Nina events to dull Australia's collective memory, but the bushfires of 2019/2020, dubbed the 'Black Summer', could become a regular occurrence if climate change is not brought under control. It's a future that Melbourne University's Professor David Karoly has dedicated his career to avoiding. Prof Karoly, whose work as an atmospheric scientist has made him a pre-eminent voice among Australia's climate scientists, says that the average temperatures in Australia in the 2040s will be exactly like the extreme conditions experienced during the Black Summer fires.

Devastation in the wake of a bushfire. Photo: Pixabay / Terri Anne Allen

There's no doubt, he says, that the driving force behind the fires was rising global temperatures, and that phenomenon can only be interpreted as the result of human activity. “The only way we can explain the Australian increase in temperature of 1.4 degrees since 1910 is due to the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” he says.

Australia’s emissions reduction targets risk falling behind in the sustainability race with Australia ranked 55th out of 63 in the global Climate Change Performance Index 2023. The continent has already warmed 1.4 degrees since national records began in 1910, and in the past decade, hot weather records have occurred a sobering three times more often than cold weather records. While The Bureau of Meteorology provides useful data in planning for such extremes, the organisation was only established in the early 1900s limiting the information that can be drawn. This leaves meteorologists and experts on climate change as a key source, especially in terms of future forecasting.

Source: Sustainability Victoria 2023. Infographic: Jemima Wareham

“We know that because of the current greenhouse gas emissions globally, and from Australia, climate change is going to get worse," Prof Karoly says. To avoid the devastation of more seasons like the Black Summer he says, our best chance is to curb the warming of the planet through carbon emissions reduction. "We have to rapidly reduce emissions and the only time the global temperature will stabilise is if we get to zero net emissions. That won't happen in 2030,” Prof Karoly says. Australia will need to act immediately to reduce emissions by 43% by 2030, and to net zero by 2050, he says.

Australia is not one of the world's biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, but it is one of the most important countries in leading emissions reduction. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1994 to prevent "dangerous" human intervention with climate systems. It puts the onus on developed countries to lead the way in reducing global emissions. "That means that Australia and other developed countries need to get to net zero emissions much earlier than 2050 – by 2040 or before if we can do it.”

In Australia, a focus on sustainable housing has the potential to dramatically reduce domestic heating and cooling, energy usage and water usage, and each of these aspects of domestic resource management has good potential to cut our overall carbon emissions.

The widespread use of household rainwater tanks cuts emissions and municipal water use by reducing energy needed for supply, and the volume of water supplied to each home.| Photo: Jemima Wareham

The interactions between local and state government, developers, urban designers and planners are often regarded as key to achieving sustainable community development outcomes. Additionally, many individual infrastructure initiatives are being developed by external groups but are not always implemented.

The Art Generator Initiative competition allows host countries to design local landmarks that also benefit the environment. These designs create solutions for distributing clean energy, reflecting the needs of local communities. Professor of Landscape Architecture and Heritage at Melbourne University, Ray Green, says this program was run in St Kilda in 2018 but was not developed into practice, whereas other host countries such as Germany's designs are being developed now.

Various new sustainability measures such as this program are being created and utilised globally, and Australia must follow suit to ensure that citizens can practise more sustainable living. To be able to understand how to prepare for the future with appropriate methods of sustainable development, Australians need to know what climate change will look like in the future. Economic Professor, James Swansson, says, “Our local city council can only do so much, they can only work on public land and they need people to make changes on private land.”

Amelia Houghton at Trust for Nature says that Landholders play a vital role in protecting private land in a post-natural disaster environment. “[They] play a critical role in the recovery process as their actions can result in the success of ecosystem conservation and restoration efforts,” she says.

Native Australian landscapes are in danger of destruction because of our changing climate | Photo: Jemima Wareham

Individual actions such as community gardening, bushfire prevention, nutrient cycling and planned burning have been highly efficient in keeping bushfires under control, but are under strict regulation in Australia. Professor of Bioscience and Innovation at Swinburne University, Mark Adams, says local ideas have been cited as key to bushfire prevention but have been rejected at various levels of governance. “I think it's really timely that we have a much better conversation about fire in Australia. The only way to sensibly manage fuels in large areas is to use fire to reduce the fuel load," he says.

But Prof Adams recognises that planned burning is a controversial strategy, and there are experts who argue that the practice is less effective in times of extreme temperatures. The Australian Greens Party wants to abolish controlled burn quotas and replace them with a more granular strategy of controlled burns that takes in local and fluctuating weather conditions. Regardless of the controversy, Prof Adams says the logic of controlled burning is obvious. "The problem is that unless you manage the fuels, the next fire is going to be worse than the last, and then this becomes extremely challenging from a policy perspective,” he says.

Australia has 125 million hectares of forest, 16 percent of the land area. Forests are recognised and valued for their diverse ecosystems and unique biodiversity and they perform important environmental functions, including storing carbon, producing wood, and protecting soil and water. Adams says, “Forest management is a vexed issue in Australia. We have gone through decades of fighting over the forests. There's a need to completely redo land tenure, and that would help enormously with the management of the forests.”

Adams says that nutrient cycling in forests, which is the movement of nutrients from the physical environment to living organisms and then back to the environment, is, in effect, the basis of sustainability. If the nutrients weren't being cycled, being reused, the nutrient capital could be exhausted and we'd see a reduction in growth, Adams says. “Unless that nutrient supply can keep pace with increases in CO2 and forest growth, it will become nutrient-limited,” he says.

Data: Jarrod Grainger-Brown 2019. Infographic: Jemima Wareham

While individuals alone may not be able to make drastic emissions cuts that limit climate change to acceptable levels, personal action is essential to raise the importance of issues to policymakers and businesses. The World Wildlife Fund suggests that buying compact fluorescent lightbulbs, natural cleaning products, and eco-friendly shower heads can all reduce inefficient energy use, promoting a greener footprint. As well as the integration of individual actions, methods of sustainable development are important to be able to continue building structures without damaging the environment.

Sustainable building procedures reduce waste and reuse materials, which helps the environment. Sustainable houses also lower emissions that contribute to climate change because they assist in minimising energy consumption. Prof Karoly says homes that sustainably use energy are crucial as Australians need much stronger emissions reductions. ‘What people can do, first of all, [is] make choices about where they get their energy from because currently in Victoria and across Australia, coal-driven power stations and fossil gas are used as major power sources for electricity production and industry,” he says. But choosing a different supplier is not the only measure householders can take. “There are lots we can do to make our homes much more efficient in terms of less energy use,” he says.

Rooftop solar panels are an evidence-based way to reduce domestic emissions. Photo: Jemima Wareham

Unfortunately, shortfalls related to policy, high cost, and insufficient technical expertise act as barriers to sustainable housing development. Often those living in rural areas have the hardest time accessing sustainable options. Professor of Hydrology and Water Resources at the University of New South Wales, Ashish Sharma, warns of the type of preparation needed for sustainable housing development in Australia that is practical for our weather conditions. “Preparation consists of two parts – designing infrastructure that can cope with such extremes, the infrastructure then essentially providing us the protection we need, and, warning against any impending anomaly, using a sensible warning strategy,” he says.

Despite the jarring reality of Australia’s changing climate, experts still hold hope for our future, provided action is taken. Karoly says, “Australia can become a renewable energy superpower because we have more sunlight and more wind power opportunities than any other country in the world. We need the will of the people and the will of the governments globally to do it.”


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