The recently published State of the Environment Report has presented, as usual, grim findings for the state of our precious environment in Australia. Which is why Lesliey Golds and others in our Sustainability Advisory team are calling on industry and developers to lead the way in adjusting how we design and deliver projects with four key considerations.
In July 2022, Australia's State of the Environment Report (the Report) was published after being handed to the previous Government in December 2021. Besides shedding light on the devastating impacts on our environment, it highlighted the failure of the Australian system and society to protect our backyard. It’s been nine months since the report was handed to the government and what has changed? What have we done to ensure that this was not just an awareness report, but a wake-up call for urgent action now? 

The Report is released every five years. It is independent, evidence-based and mandated by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and it highlights the pressure our environment is under. This is the first such report that holistically assesses the state of Australia’s environment and includes a strong Indigenous voice for healing the country. It aims to shape Australian policy and actions, influence our behaviours, and assess the impact our actions have on the environment.

This year’s Report highlights that climate change, resource extraction, habitat loss and pollution are among the key pressures facing the Australian environment. The overall health assessment found our environment is in a poor and deteriorating state with approximately 7.7 million hectares of land cleared between 2000–2017. Australia has lost over 10% of our endemic mammal species [1], we now have more foreign plant species than native species, and land temperatures have increased by 1.4 degrees. 

Considering the recent Report, Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has mentioned new legislation to combat the declining environment to be introduced within the next 12 months [2]. There is also the new federal government’s Climate Change Act 2022, which legislates a 43% emissions reduction target for Australian emissions across all industries. The implications of these legislative changes could mean a new approval process for future projects, or clients needing to reduce emissions significantly within the next eight years. 

However, there’s no need for organisations to wait for legislative change for there to be action. There are tangible actions that organisations can take now to prevent future environmental degradation, and Beca can guide clients through this journey. 

Here’s four considerations for developers to factor into their plans: 

1. Retrofit or repurpose instead of demolition 

Before constructing a new building, it is worth asking if the existing building can be retrofitted or repurposed to meet requirements. This can decrease the capital costs, the amount of construction materials needed, the carbon footprint associated with the project and avoid land clearing that may have occurred at a new site. It may also lead to less waste and pollution than a new building or asset. Similarly, in an urban planning context, we need to rethink greenfield development in the name of preserving biodiversity. 

Developing on brownfield sites limits costs and there is a lower net loss of biodiversity overall. Post-Covid, the movement of the population more regionally or away from big city centres is putting a lot of pressure on meeting housing demand. With more new assets than carefully considered upgrades, we face the risk of creating ‘developed country ghettos’ - poorly designed and serviced urban areas. 

2. Incorporate sustainable design 

Sustainable design takes into view the full lifecycle of a building or development, including to “design out waste” – using resources as efficiently as possible when designing, to minimise the materials needed for construction. Designing for deconstruction or future retrofits considers the ability for the asset to evolve and adapt to ongoing requirements. 

The use of secondary materials in construction contributes to the circular economy and creates immediate savings - both environmentally and financially. Other opportunities for sustainable design consideration include passive design, consideration for end-of-life costing, performing a carbon analysis to highlight reduction opportunities, incorporating innovative technologies, and building to sustainable design guidelines. Designing for deconstruction or a future retrofit/repurpose makes the building more resilient in the long-term.

Besides material flows and emissions, it is also critical to consider the social and community implications of sustainable design such as experience, values, inclusiveness, and accessibility. 

3. Seek expert advice and guidance

For new infrastructure projects, developers can seek certifications currently available in the market such as Infrastructure Sustainability Council (ISC) accreditations and embedding physical climate risk assessments, to ensure the project is futureproofed and creates sustainable outcomes. 

For buildings, there are a number of rating schemes for sustainability in the market that can provide guidance to get started such as Green Building Council of Australia Green Star rating, NABERS, and WELL. Climate risk assessments can also be performed for building projects, which can highlight how future risks can be accounted for by slight design changes. 

These can help to improve operational energy efficiency, support low impact material choices, reduce overall water consumption, improve the indoor air quality, and reduce negative ecological impacts. When seeking sustainability ratings on projects, challenge yourself to achieve higher standards and provide more than a few sustainable project outcomes. Beca also has developed a Circular Design Framework which can be utilised for projects across a range of sectors. 

The Circular Design Framework comprises six principles as shown below.
Diagram showing the six principals of Beca’s Circular Design Framework: Integrating cultural perspectives, designing out waste and pollution, cycling materials and assets at their highest value, regenerating natural systems, creating socio-economic benefits, and increasing resilience and adaptation.

If a rating certification is out of the question, seeking guidance from a professional on how to implement some elements of sustainability can be beneficial also. With New South Wales legislation changing in 2023, buildings will need to have an embodied carbon assessment performed during the design phase and prior to construction. Beca runs diagnostic sessions with clients to contextualise their carbon reduction and other broader sustainability considerations for their organisation and projects.

4. Integrate biodiversity enhancement 

Infrastructure and vertical structure projects have a unique opportunity to enhance the local biodiversity by planting native flora, creating wildlife corridors, and incorporating fauna crossings into the project design using blue-green infrastructure. This also assists in restoring natural habitat, decreasing habitat loss due to anthropogenic impacts, and reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, while having social and cultural benefits as well. Incorporating the removal of invasive species in projects could also be beneficial to the local area. 

In summary

Organisations seeking these changes and embedding natural positive and regenerative outcomes are investing in future-proofing their business and the areas in which we live, work and play. Sustainable design solutions enable organisations to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, whilst still delivering the critical infrastructure our society needs. 

In summary, together we can address the recommendations that came from the Report to decrease habitat loss, aid in the restoration of native species, assist in the removal of invasive species, and prevent the degradation of Australia’s environment. 

This emphasises the need for organisations to take a few key steps: reduce raw material usage, procure sustainably and responsibly source products and services, reduce the amount of material being sent to landfill and invest in enhancing local biodiversity. 

Beca acknowledges the State of Environment Report recommendations and strives to embed sustainable thinking to help make everyday better for our people, clients and communities. Find out more about our climate change services here

[1] Woinarski, J, Burbidge, A &, Harrison, P, 2015. Ongoing unravelling of a continental fauna: Decline and extinction of Australian mammals since European settlement. PNAS, Vol. 112, No. 15. 

Photo by Josh Withers on Unsplash
About the Author
Lesliey Golds

Climate Change and Sustainability Analyst

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