Towards climate safe homes: the case for zero emissions and water saving homes and neighbourhoods

Climate change mitigation Water conservation Climate change Sustainability Power resources Housing Green infrastructure Energy efficiency Australia

Climate change presents a clear and present danger to ecosystems, communities and economies. As Professor Garnaut so powerfully stated “the failure of our generation (to address climate change) would lead to consequences that would haunt humanity until the end of time". With further climate change already locked in based on historical emissions it is clear that climate change will impact directly on our homes and we need to prepare them for higher temperatures, more erratic weather and extreme weather events and higher energy and water costs. It makes sense to prepare our homes to withstand future environmental and economic shocks with better design, glazing, insulation and water-efficiency measures. At the same time, the residential housing sector is a major contributor to our total greenhouse emissions.

The residential sector contributes 17.5 percent of Victoria’s greenhouse gas emissions. By 2010, emissions from buildings are estimated to increase by more than 48 percent above 1990 levels. Yet greenhouse gas emissions from the average home can be reduced by more than 75 percent with energy efficient design and appliances. If the remaining energy demand is supplied with renewable energy further greenhouse savings are possible. It is even possible to achieve a house with zero net carbon emissions. Implementing cost-effective, simple water-saving measures at the same time can help us adapt to the impacts of climate change, such as drought.

The majority of homes that we build today will still be in place in 2050. Building these new homes to yesterday’s water and energy efficiency standards will lock us into high emissions and water use far into the future.

This report recommends that Australian governments adopt a goal of requiring new homes and neighborhoods to be ‘climate safe' by 2020 to guide both regulation and incentives. This would mean that new homes would need to have zero net carbon emissions and be extremely water efficient. The report suggests that Australian governments follow the example of the UK Government which has committed to building all new homes to zero emissions standards from 2016 onwards, and established a task force to set interim standards and programs to make progress towards this target. Australian Governments recently committed through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to increase the energy efficiency standards for new residential buildings to six stars or equivalent nationally as part of the 2010 update of the Building Code of Australia.

While the COAG commitment is a good move forward for all Australian states, a 6 star energy efficiency requirement is only a half step towards preparing our new building stock for the future. Ultimately, if we are to avert catastrophic climate change and prepare our houses to cope with predicted temperature and price shocks, we should be aiming for building standards that require a ‘climate safe’ home – that is a zero net emissions home which is also highly water efficient.

Given the length of time today’s houses will be in use, it is essential that any decisions taken now to raise building standards represent a decisive first step along the road towards this long-term goal. Focusing particularly on Victoria, this report makes a convincing case for raising the required standard for new homes and renovations to at least 7 to 8 Stars and for including complementary water efficiency measures. The report highlights that moving to at least 7 stars would increase the affordability of purchasing and living in a home as the energy and water cost savings would far outweigh the slightly increased up front construction cost. It also outlines further benefits of higher building standards including further job creation in building industries.

However as new homes will account for just 15 percent of Australia’s housing stock by 2020, a focus solely on standards for new homes will not achieve the ‘mass greening’ of our housing stock we need. An estimated 1.9 million Victorian homes built before 2004 still have energy ratings of 2 Stars or less, while at least 50 percent of Melbourne households do not have a water-efficient showerhead and 20 percent still have at least one single flush toilet. Improved standards for new homes must therefore be complemented by a concerted program to upgrade the energy and water efficiency of our existing housing stock as well.

At present, our poor quality housing stock is part of the climate change problem. But as this report shows, with the right mix of policies the housing sector can become an important part of the solution. A full summary of policy recommendations to achieve climate safe programs is at the end of this report.

Prepared by Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Victoria, the Alternative Technology Association, Friends of the Earth and the Moreland Energy Foundation.

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