Climate change and how the housing sector can help

Climate action: What has it got to do with the housing sector? Compass Housing Services' David Adamson explains.

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David Adamson
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The publication of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report has again focused attention on the urgency of climate change mitigation.

In the world of business, commerce and not-for-profit organisations, significant measures are being taken to reduce the production of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are causing global warming. The IPCC report provides a final warning that action is urgent if we are to meet the targets in the 2016 Paris Agreement. The targets seek to maintain temperature rise to 1.5C, but minimally within a 2C ceiling. Failure to act now will also create tipping points for huge releases of naturally sequestrated carbon in tundra, peat bogs and the forests that are burning globally. The consequences for humanity have been graphically described in the IPCC report.

Here in Australia we need no reminder of the urgency of the situation. Drought, severe heat episodes and the 2019-2020 bushfire season contrast with the floods and extreme rainfall events of 2021. If we need any more convincing, we can look to Europe, Canada, Africa, Asia and the USA for multiple examples of more intense and more frequent extreme weather events.

While the IPCC report points to the enormous scale of the challenge, it also points to the short window that exists to make a significant impact on the climate change trajectory. This creates some hope and should be a rallying call for action.

We cannot postpone our actions in the hope that some future, unproven technology will provide the solutions for us. It calls all of us to take individual responsibility for our contribution to GHG emissions. For households, this can be as simple as changing heating and cooling thermostats by a few degrees, installing solar, reducing meat consumption, using more public transport and changing to a renewable energy supplier.

Most importantly, the organisations we work within can make a substantial impact to reduce carbon footprints. The United Nations Global Compact and its Australian Network are driving business responses and major companies are making ambitious carbon reduction targets and setting zero-carbon dates far more ambitious than their respective national governments. The problem for many organisations is knowing how to begin this process and how they can integrate carbon reduction objectives in their general governance and strategic planning.

Fortunately, there is a framework that can inform the change process in organisations. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) goals have been agreed by 193 nations and provide a structure to measure and report on their achievement. Behind the SDGs are 169 targets that track progress to the 2030 date set for their achievement. The SDGs address social justice and climate justice. As housing organisations many of our activities contribute directly to the social justice objectives of the SDGs. For example, SDG 1 No Poverty or SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities are naturally contributed to through the delivery of an effective social housing service.

Few Community Housing Organisations (CHOs) will track or measure these outcomes in terms of the SDGs. However, there is considerable value in being able to demonstrate to stakeholders and partners that this contribution is an important element of the work of the organisation. Part of the challenge is to translate the high-level national SDG targets into realistic organisational targets. However, this can be achieved by careful review and adaptation of conventional strategic plans.

In relation to climate change, the United Nations has declared a Decade of Action to support the achievement of the SDG climate related objectives. Social and affordable housing organisations have capacity to make a major contribution.

Households account for approximately 20% of GHG emissions, with energy use being the primary contributor. The Australian government's Your Home website provides some useful recommendations on how to reduce the household carbon footprint.

The general built environment is also a major contributor with the operational component of a building contributing 28% of its GHG emissions and the embedded component derived from the building process a further 11%. CHOs manage a distributed built environment based largely on households and are in a strong position to reduce the CO2 loading that the housing portfolio creates, along with its operational premises and offices. Direct physical measures, especially for new build projects, but also including retrofit measures, can reduce the operational carbon footprint of every building.

Furthermore, we can support tenants to reduce their environmental impact. Recycling, reduced water use and changed household consumption patterns make a major reduction given the average Australian household creates up to 18 tonnes of CO2 each year. The reduced costs achieved also make a direct contribution to poverty alleviation. Equally CHOs can alter the carbon output of key service components including energy sourcing for common areas and business premises, fleet operation and staff travel. Where direct savings are not possible, carbon offsetting allows compensatory purchase from the many carbon offsetting schemes available.

None of this happens by itself and requires strategic planning and integration of the SDGs in operational plans. Agenda 2030 provides nearly a decade to organise our impact. This spans multiple planning cycles of most organisations and developing an SDG strategy for the decade that works alongside shorter strategic planning periods provides an excellent framework to design, measure, evaluate and fine tune the organisation’s contribution to the Decade of Action.

The final observation to make is that climate change is increasingly seen as a major risk that boards need to consider as a core component of their risk mitigation strategy. The AICD published guidance on climate change and governance in 2016. In Climate Change and Good Corporate Governance the AICD identifies that climate change aware boards understand the risks and accept that action is required immediately. 

Adopting a Sustainable Development Goals Strategy demonstrates organisational awareness of risk and proof of action to mitigate risk. Having now undertaken a process of SDG alignment with two CHOs I know the exercise places the organisation in a stronger business position to understand the risks posed by climate change. It also motivates staff to become involved in a change process that will place the organisation amongst those that can look back in 2030 and be proud of their contribution to this vital global process of carbon reduction and climate change mitigation.

Get in touch if you would like to starting your organisational SDG journey, and join the growing commitment to Agenda 2030 and the Decade of Action.

Professor David Adamson OBE is Compass Housing Services’ Group Chief Strategic Engagement Officer. He manages Compass’ international development activities, Compass consultancy services, and advocacy for social housing reform. He also steers Compass’ commitment to promoting and achieving the SDGs, is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Wales, and an Honorary Professor at the University of Newcastle.

Interested in learning more about SDGs? David will be participating in a free Industry Connect webinar with the ahi on November 9. To register interest visit our Events page.

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