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The policies of Australia’s cities are seriously inept for tackling climate change
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The policies of Australia’s cities are seriously inept for tackling climate change

Swans glide over a flooded road


Without transforming the way we plan and build cities, it will be difficult to combat climate change. 70% of global emissions. Yet, Australia’s national policies on urban environments are seriously inadequate.

For our ongoing research, we have interviewed more than 140 built environment professionals – architects, urban planners, property developers and more – about their experiences of barriers to climate change action.

They said Australia’s policies, or lack thereof, prevent the necessary action to not only address cities’ contribution to climate change, but also to protect cities from its impacts. As one urban planner told us, “there’s just no appetite for it” in federal government.

The incoming government must strengthen urban development policies if we’re to have any hope of meeting Australia’s net-zero emissions by 2050 target. This requires coordinated action from all levels. built environment sectors.

Cities in a changing Climate

There are two types of climate change actions These are urgently requiredIn cities:

  1. mitigation: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including those from manufacturing and construction materials and the energy used to run buildings, amenities, and infrastructure

  2. Adaptation: To ensure cities can withstand climate change effects such as rising sea levels and bushfires, drought, heatwaves, and other severe weather conditions.

Swans glide over a flooded road

Flash flooding is a problem in cities.
AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

Cities are associated with most of humanity’s consumption of natural resources, such as coal and gas for energy use, and coal and iron to make steel. This results in huge amounts of emissions.

Take the Carbon footprintAs an example, take Greater Melbourne. Melbourne released 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2009, which is 25.1 tonnes per capita. These 4.5 tonnes come from construction and real-estate services, which is the second highest contribution.

Materials like steel, concrete, aluminum, and glass are plentiful in Infrastructure in cities, and their production release significant emissions.

The City of Melbourne holds a stock of 1.5 million tonnesMaterial density per square kilometre. Construction alone would produce 605,000 tonnes of carbon per square kilometre if the city were built today. It would also use 10 petajoules of energy – the same as 700,000 cars driving from Melbourne to Sydney.

Better legislation is needed in the construction industry, including building codes that encourage recycled materials to reduce carbon emissions.

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Cities also face high costs from climate change impacts, particularly heatwaves as well as floods.

During HeatwavesCities can have up to 12 degrees hotterCompared to rural areas.

Cities are also prone. Flash flooding, as the high proportion of sealed surfaces such as concrete in urban areas can’t soak up water when it rains, like soil can. They are therefore vulnerable to storm damage.

Construction industry produces significant amounts of greenhouse gases.

Climate action hindered by barriers

In the past five years, we’ve conducted In-depth interviewsWith 140 professionals working in the built environment sectors.

They identified key barriers to effective climate adaptation and mitigation in cities. Lack of urban development policies that address climate changeParticularly at the federal level.

They also identified a lackluster government leadership and financial constraints within the highly competitive property and development market. A urban planner stated:

We don’t even have a strategy for settlement in this country, let alone […] an urban development strategy. So, that’s where a lot of our climate change issues arise from: our cities and our urbanisation.

If well-designed and implemented, a federal urban policy agenda could help coordinate and finance urban development activities and provide leadership for industry.

It could, for example, determine the location of infrastructure (such transport), services (such hospitals) and housing and offer incentives for sustainable construction.

ADF personnel remove flood-damaged belongings from streets of Lismore in New South Wales.
AAP Image/Supplied By Australian Defence Force

Interviewees also identified another barrier to effective climate action as tensions between federal, state, and local governments. They also expressed concern about the uncertainty surrounding which level of government is responsible to take action, including in response to disasters.

This uncertainty was most evident during the recent floods that occurred in New South Wales, Queensland, and elsewhere. Restrictions on the allocation of emergency fundsAssistance to those in need

A property professional shared this information with us:

Climate change action needs to be driven by all governments, federal, state and local – it has to create a level playing field. The property industry, and its developers, will not accept any initiative. [climate]They should not take action unless they believe it will make them different and they would make money from it.

What happens to homes?

The built environment policy is not able to take decades of climate change knowledge and translate it into action. As the planet continues to warm, this will have dire consequences on Australia’s most populated areas, such as exacerbating inequities.

In some at-risk locations – such as towns built on floodplains or in bushfire-prone areas – local governments will have to manage increasing climate change impacts on declining budgets, as property values Revenue from council rates decline.

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Lismore was the only one that faced floods of this magnitude. Climate adaptation must be improved quickly.

Properties that can’t adapt to climate change, or for which the cost to adapt is prohibitive, will be unable to gain insurance. A Recent analysisAccording to the Climate Council, 1 in 25 Australian homes will be uninsurable by 2030 due to climate change impacts, especially flooding.

This will decrease their value. These properties are more vulnerable to flooding and rising sea levels. Repairs and maintenance in poorer condition. This compromises residents’ health and safety.

In the future, many houses will be uninsurable.

The people most affected by climate changes will be Populations with low incomeLiving in areas with low property values will make it difficult for these groups to recover. Katastrophe strikes.

So what should we do?

Our interviews have helped us identify several ways to address climate change in cities. This includes:

  • federal regulationa stronger construction code to increase climate change mitigation and adaptation.

  • Ambitious emission reduction targets in line with international goals that are translated into urban action

  • To support action, we need more resources such as funding and opportunities for professional development.

Our interviewees also emphasized the need for stronger leadership and more policy certainty. They also stressed the need for more cohesive collaboration at all levels of government.

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What does this mean in practice?

Land use regulation with urban density and connectivity as a focus would make it easier to access homes, work places, and services such as hospitals by walking, biking, or using public transport. A better set of building codes and regulations would allow buildings to rely less on heating or cooling.

The incoming government should do everything possible to ensure we live a world that doesn’t exceed a temperature rise of 1.5℃ of warming this century. This cannot be achieved without stronger national policies regarding the built environment.


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