Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Green with envy, maybe, but more crazy than clever
Clever country? Us? Were we ever serious? If delegates to the Green Cities conference at Darling Harbour this week felt the irony of the situation, they didn’t show it. Stoical to the end, they braved the relentless mall-mindedness of our uptown fun-land to hear the world’s leading green urbanists in action.
And make no mistake: stoicism was needed. Partly because of a tragic contrast between form and content, between the super-chilled, fossil-fuelled syntheticism of Darling Harbour and the holy grail of zero emissions. Because almost all of Darling Harbour’s eco-errors – from multistorey car parks to single-flush toilets – occurred when we knew better.
And partly because – barely a stone’s throw in each direction and not 48 hours earlier – two of the most eye-popping opportunities in Sydney’s history had been deliberately, eagerly missed.
Parliament may have been prorogued but planning presses boldly on, fattening Treasury’s pre-election goose. In a single swipe last Saturday, the Planning Minister, Frank Sartor, approved two new “gateways” into Sydney; the $800 million Carlton and United Breweries redevelopment and the $2.5 billion East Darling Harbour project, Barangaroo.
A three-page release from Sartor and another from the former prime minister Paul Keating extolled their virtues. Neither mentioned the $100 million-odd windfall to Treasury. Neither mentioned the environment. As to the flagship role such developments could – and should – play in modelling green-build principles? Silence.
And yet, as the Arup director and London sustainability commissioner Peter Head said at the conference, it’s getting desperate. Experts give us 20 years, max, to showdown. The planet’s near-vertical carbon dioxide graph is approaching 360 parts per million, based on emissions from the 1970s. Within 20 years present emissions will take it to 500ppm at best; so Britain’s target of last year for a 60 per cent reduction by 2050 has been reined in to 2025. Be scared. It’s real. Tipping-point terror.
But be hopeful. It can be done. A new residential development in Hanover has achieved a 75 per cent carbon dioxide reduction and authorities are seeking to retrofit the same principles onto existing cities. Head is designing zero-carbon housing for London’s Mayor, Ken Livingstone.
Sure, you say, but what of China, frantically burning its coal and ours to fuel its brown revolution? Head will be glad you asked. China is doing remarkable things on the environmental front, including Tangye eco-village in Jinan and the proposed Dongtan eco-metropolis on Shanghai’s Chongming Island, near a world-class wetland at the silty mouth of the Yangtze.
By 2040 Dongtan will house half a million people. Phase one, complete for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, will take 80,000 and provide 51,000 jobs (compared with 50,000 residents and 19,000 jobs on a business-as-usual model). Linked to Shanghai by a 30-kilometre road-rail umbilicus, Dongtan will be otherwise self-contained, growing its food on small organic farms, powering its zero-particulate cars by battery or fuel cells, generating wind energy and hydrogen, capturing stormwater and recycling all waste. Buildings will be topped with photovoltaics and green-roof.
Dongtan’s eco footprint will be about 2.6 hectares a person, compared with 7.5 in Shanghai and other Western-type cities. Using mainly private capital, it’s been kick-started by huge public transport investment as well as legislation.
Ground transport is one of the biggest unaddressed contributors to global emissions. Dongtan’s emissions savings rely on a new rail system, electric road vehicles, car clubs and centralised goods delivery. In Sydney, it’s double-whammy the other way. First, the centralised freight system we had (aka the working harbour) was dumped for a dirty, decentralised system that’ll generate a gazillion tonnes of carbon dioxide trucking it all back in; and same again from the car-based Barangaroo, delivering $80 million to Treasury with no public transport investment.
Managing Barangaroo will be the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, which promises five-star green buildings and a 35 per cent reduction in water use and emissions. Then again, the BASIX requirement is 40 per cent and the authority isn’t the consent body. The minister is, and he, says the authority, “may approve … since recent legislative change, wholly prohibited development” (my italics).
It’s no surprise. We expect cynical government. But green cities depend on leadership. As Head said: “There aren’t many good [green city] examples around the world yet, and those there are have been absolutely created by leadership.”
Dongtan sprang from official recognition in 2002 that inside a decade, the damage from China’s industrial revolution would be irreversible. In Britain, interest from the Blair and Livingstone administrations is intense. Germany, no longer satisfied to pursue the zero-emissions “passive house”, now aims for housing with a net energy surplus.
And here, in the clever country?
As consultant from Arizona, Jerry Yudelson, told the conference, any new building project starting today that isn’t “as green as possible … will be functionally obsolete the day it opens and economically disadvantaged for its entire lifetime”.
Others may break their necks to save the planet, but we, here in quarry land, are so busy pillaging we don’t even see the “knowledge economy backwater” – Stanford professor Bill Miller’s words – we’re creating.
Here there’s just the rhythmic slurpings from the trough, then silence.