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Letter from AustraliaApril 2008

Australia, November 2007: a General Election ousted longstanding PM John Howard, a nationwide Walk Against Warming took place in one of the most polluting countries on Earth, and refrigeration energy was forecast to double by 2020. Roderic Bunn watched history unfold.

Poor old John Howard. You could see it in his eyes. Not a man of happy mien at the best of times, but this long-standing climate change-denier knew the game was up long before polling day. Not only did Australia's PM lose office, he lost his seat as well. A distinction shared by only one other prime minister in Australian political history.

Howard's nemesis Kevin Rudd is scarcely more colourful, but nonetheless the political opposite. He signed the Kyoto Protocol in December (something which Howard resisted to the bitter end) and speaks fluent Mandarin, a skill which will be well appreciated in Beijing.

Rudd will need his linguistic skills. Not only is Australia's electricity mostly powered by coal - much of it of low quality and responsible for 35 percent of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions - it earns the Australian exchequer precious export dollars from sale to Chinese power stations. China bought $491 million worth of Australian coal in 2006, a 51 percent increase on 2005.

Throughout Australia, massive demonstrations against climate change preceded election day. The Walk Against Warming attracted over 20,000 people in Melbourne alone. The assembled masses - a coalition of many different green constituencies - were orderly, united, and good-humoured, but clearly very anxious.

It's no wonder Australian's live in an age of anxiety. The facts speak for themselves: the country's annual output of CO2 in tonnes per person is 20.24, compared with the UK's 9.55. Emissions grew by 43 percent between 1995 and 2005, against the UK's 4 percent. About 95 percent of the nation's electricity comes from coal, putting Australia sixth in the league table of global greenhouse gas emitters. All this from a nation of just 20 million people.

So Rudd has his work cut out to become a leader of serious international action on the environment, rather than a saboteur like Howard. There's much ground to make up. For example, a report issued by Refrigerants Australia at the Melbourne Sustainability Conference predicted that the growth in mechanical cooling (especially for dwellings) is set to accelerate, not stabilise.This trend is mirrored in the growth of electrical appliances. The research by Steve Anderson at Refrigerants Australia predicted that energy consumed by televisions in Australia will double from 40 PJ in 2008 to 80 PJ in 2020. This dwarfs increases of all other electrical appliances.

Think about it. No bedroom can be without its LCD tv, and no public building, train station or departure lounge is complete without a 32-inch plasma screen.

It's not all doom and gloom. While the Australian Federal Government grapples with reversing Howard's energy policies, the public and commercial sectors are working hard on their own responses.

Australia has embraced operational energy ratings for buildings - the Australian Building Greenhouse Rating scheme (ABGR). This is a star rating based on 12 months of metered energy data.

"Some major companies have publicly stated that they will only lease space in buildings with high ABGR star ratings," said Steve Hennessy of Steensen Varming's office in Sydney. "Some developers are signing commitment agreements whereby they publicly guarantee to deliver verifiable high-performing buildings."

The effect on building owners and managers has been revolutionary, says Hennessy. Where energy in buildings was once a side issue in Australia, it's now mainstream. In the UK, operational energy auditing has been put back from April to October 2008, and even then it will initially only apply to public buildings above 1000 m2. So Australia is even beating us on energy legislation. How embarrassing.

Australia, though, is still wedded to what we would call old-fashioned forms of air-conditioning like VAV. Chilled ceilings are a very recent introduction. As a consequence, the comfort setpoints in Australian office buildings stick rigorously to traditional comfort criteria. Even in thermally massive buildings it's still unthinkable for internal temperatures to rise, say, to 24 degrees C, let alone above it. Expectations might have to change.

NABERS may be the prompt. NABERS (the National Australian Built Environment Rating System) is a voluntary performance-based rating system for existing buildings. (And just in case you're wondering, yes, the pun in the name is intended. Australians...)

NABERS rates a building on the basis of its measured, operational effect on the environment. The scheme will be extended to strategic planning and sustainable fitouts as a key tool in achieving the ultimate aim: carbon neutrality. And you know, having witnessed the Australian property world's enthusiasm, I think they just might make it.

For details on Australian energy rating schemes, visit [link= caption=frequently asked questions] on the NABERS web site.

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