Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
For all of us, going green means getting down, brown and dirty
When are we going to get over this saurian idea that eco-mindedness is left-wing? John Howard, green clad but still myopic, says he’ll address climate change only when he’s close enough to read the price tag.
Malcolm Turnbull, the Environment Minister, derides the Climate Institute as a “left-wing think tank”. Morris Iemma talks green but rather than simply fitting every house with a rain tank, relentlessly pursues a desal plant that will chug electricity and wreck Botany Bay. And Clover Moore, who rightly wants dedicated cycleways and water reservoirs in the great man-made caverns under Sydney, will find herself choker-deep in bureaucratic merde when she tries to make it happen.
Meanwhile, the rest of Sydney’s councils are still busy making it hard for people to recycle stormwater, purify on-site sewage or secede from the grid.
For most of us the problems of going green, as opposed to talking about it, are many-sided: aesthetic, economic, political. Aesthetically, the obstacles are mainly about the sheer, icky brownness of green: the lawn gone brown with drought, the bog paper that’s brown when you buy it, the bath that stays brown after cleaning. Brown is the child’s first heartbreak, having mixed all the colours in hope of yet greater glory.
It’s the colour of the swamp, of earth’s reclaiming us as territory, of entropy. The colour of war, of dark ages and of old, nicotiney, communist Europe. Brown is what makes the hairshirt irredeemable fashion death. That’s problem No. 1.
Problem two is economic: the sheer cost of water tanks, plumbing, photovoltaics, microturbines, smart cars and phosphate-free detergents. This, against the abject cheapness of energy and water, means that any technology you install will be obsolete well before it pays for itself, especially if you count interest. Lesli Berger, the developer of the new no-name green office building in Double Bay, says sustainability cost him half a million, in a $5 million building. And that’s not counting the $1.2 million Woollahra Council is still trying to slug him for eschewing car parking, or the several thousand Sydney Water wanted for not connecting to the mains.
Problem three is the usual political googly, in reverse. It’s not that sustainable buildings are unpopular, but that politicians think they are, or might be. This, it seems, deprives all pollies with power to change anything of the courage to do it.
As anyone with half an ear to the ground knows, Australia is well behind the world in developing renewable energy and distributed grids. As the Australian Business Council for Sustainable Energy says, “Australia’s global position has slipped over the last five years” because of our refusal to use either tax or pricing incentives to encourage renewables. And, in Australia, virtually everyone is ahead of the Government.
Some local weather makers, such as Tim Flannery, have argued that’s the way of it; that sustainability, like charity, must start at home. Think global, act local. To some extent, as the amount of eco-guerilla action in Australia suggests, he’s right. But where things need the power and abstraction of government is where our governments, in refusing to be part of the solution, are part of the problem.
In theory, anyone could do what Michael Mobbs did with his sustainable terrace house in Chippendale, or what Berger (with Mobbs’s help) did in Double Bay – secede from the water and sewage grids and, in the case of the house, feed surplus electricity back in.
Berger’s four-storeyed Double Bay building, by Eeles Trelease Architects, collects its drinking water and recycles its sewage. It doesn’t generate electricity, partly because Energy Australia insisted on taking about $700,000 worth of ground floor space for a substation. But, as speculative office buildings go, it’s distinctly green-hued.
How green? As green as Melbourne City Council’s CH2 overlooking Swanston Street, or 40 Albert Road, both six-star green buildings, both touted as “Australia’s greenest”? The simple answer is: no one knows. This is partly because, as the Green Building Council of Australia’s Romily Madew notes, the buildings’ legendary six-star ratings relate only to design intent: their performance is still unmeasured. And partly because there are dozens of green rating systems, with more being produced every minute; all different, all incompatible.
In terms of renewable and distributed energy, it’s the same. In 2001 the Howard Government set a renewables target so risible it was superseded within months. So now it’s up to the states. Victoria has mandated 15 per cent by 2016 and NSW may follow. But the obvious accompaniments are tax breaks for renewables and a “smart grid” system, like those in trial across Europe and the US, to encourage local or distributed generation by offering “parity pricing”, where consumers are paid for their excess or “feed-in” at the purchase rate.
Like 19th-century Britain, criss-crossed by a dozen private railroads with incompatible gauges, this needsintelligent government. Government that sees the stupidity of tailgating climate change. Clean your contacts, John; if you’re close enough to read the price tag, you’re already road kill.