OPINION: There may be no belching smoke stacks to be seen, but every time we thoughtlessly put up a poorly designed structure or resort to energy-intensive solutions to cool, heat, and operate an inefficient building we are pushing the greenhouse gas emissions curve up. In Australia, our built environment currently represents a huge “carbon debt”.

Our mission is to turn this trend around. We are re-envisioning the ways buildings are conceived and made. We want to produce carbon positive building products and develop an evidence-base so our cities can be transformed by well-thought-out policies and planning innovations. We intend to slash emissions by about 10 million tonnes per annum, and we have seven years of Federal Government funding to do it.

Building with concrete and steel is a gas

This might seem overly optimistic. National emissions have been on a steady trajectory upwards since the global community began to seriously worry about global warming, and our team is looking for all these savings in just one major sector; the buildings around us.

Since 1990, Australia’s emissions have increased from 418 million tonnes to 545 million tonnes (2009) or by over 30%. But we believe deep, meaningful cuts in emissions are possible, affordable, and can be achieved without compromising our living standards.

Building houses significantly increases our emissions. Electricity consumption in houses and apartments accounts for around 16.5% of Australia’s emissions. There is also the energy “embodied” during the production and disposal of building materials.

For every tonne of concrete and cement about an equivalent tonne of greenhouse gases is emitted. This makes up around 10% cent of emissions worldwide. Steel production comes in closely behind. These are the two materials at the very heart of modern construction techniques.

Simple, smart changes make a lot of difference

But change doesn’t have to mean turning back the clock (although rediscovering the uses and beauty of natural, renewable materials does help). Instead we’re looking for ways to integrate solutions into our daily lives, rather than trying to tack solutions onto our decidedly environmentally unfriendly world.

One way of doing this is to take on Australia’s rooftops. We should integrate solar panels into roofing panels, so that the minute the roof is on the building starts to pay back its carbon debt by pumping power into the grid. The same goes for cladding systems which absorb energy and turn it into power.

Using these kinds of products as standard fixtures, not afterthoughts, is a simple, easy way of integrating deep, meaningful emissions cuts into the fabric of our cities.

Improving materials can also help. We are also working on reducing the carbon footprint of cement and concrete. Recycling the fine fly-ash waste from coal-fired power stations and using it to replace much of the carbon component of concrete can reduce emissions. Materials scientists at UNSW have already patented and commercialised a greener steel-making process. It reduces emissions by up to 16%; instead of burning coke in an electric arc furnace to power the system, it uses waste plastic and used tyres.

Sliding down the cost curves

But, what about the huge stock of buildings we already have? Many of these are poorly designed for the Australian climate and cost an ever increasing fortune to cool and heat.

One of our research briefs is to provide evidence-based answers to some of the big social and psychological questions about why we live beyond our environmental means. Why, for example, do people make so many so-called “perverse choices”? Why do they buy a cheap, new home even it will gobble energy because of its short-sighted design, and so will be much more expensive to live in over the long term? Is there a simple answer like redesigning financial products to encourage people to spend more wisely upfront?

The bottom line for change is affordability. Environmentally friendly products will never be “mainstreamed” unless they can compete on price. Solar panels are a good example. Mass production means prices have fallen so dramatically that a 1.5 KW system can be purchased for $4000 today. With rising electricity prices it will pay for itself in a few years.

The biggest lifetime cost in office buildings is the salary of workers, so a greener building which measurably can increase worker productivity by 1-5% (in different case studies) can deliver a huge advantage to tenants. The added building cost can be recovered within two to three years in many cases. The CRC is interested in evidence base for high performing buildings so rental discussions can be better informed. It is interested in ‘closing the loop’ in terms of environmental, social and economic factors so designers can use this knowledge to deliver ‘measurably better buildings’.

The key now is to join the dots linking all the great innovations already on the market, or waiting in the wings. If we work out how to bring good ideas together and to then link them to our real world markets we can meet our target: saving 30 million tonnes of emissions a year by 2027 from Australia’s built environment alone.

Deo Prasad is Professor and Program Director of Sustainable Development at UNSW's Faculty of the Built Environment. 

This article first appeared in The Conversation.