How can Aussie builders hit the nation’s net-zero emission targets?

Jarrod Brown
By Jarrod Brown
6 Min Read

Australia has promised to stop producing emissions by 2050, but what does that mean for the diesel-dominated construction sector?  

Australia might only account for 0.33 per cent of the world’s population, but we still manage to be one of the highest emitters of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per capita globally.

Every year, we pump out a whopping 463.9 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, and the nation’s construction industry is responsible for over 18 per cent of emissions – accounting for almost 90 million tonnes. 

If the country is to have any hope of hitting our next 2030 climate change target, a 43 per cent drop in emissions, it’s clear the industry needs to change. But what does that mean for builders already doing it tough? 

According to Hire and Rental Industry Association CEO James Oxenham, it’s up to the larger construction companies to front the cost of adopting new sustainable equipment. 

“I think it’s the small and medium businesses that will struggle to change until the bigger companies take charge and lead the way,” he told Build-it.

“What needs to happen is the larger tier-one companies begin asking hire companies for the sustainable equipment needed to shift the industry towards net zero. 

“The more they grow in demand, the more the hire companies can invest in that technology, start replacing older, less efficient machinery and bring down the cost for the average Aussie builder.”

While the initial cost of electrified equipment can hurt your wallet, builders can use the improved technology to save on other costs down the track, like fuel and maintenance. 

Mr Oxenham said that, while there was limited data in Australia, the hiring industry was already seeing larger building companies adopt targets to reduce their emissions. 

“We see that the tier one companies have got targets in place, and they’re beginning to work with other companies to hit those targets, whether it be more battery-powered machines or using solar-powered lighting equipment,” he told Build-it. 

“The construction industry is looking to reduce emission net zero in the early phase of construction. We’re already seeing lower emission generators that are topped up by solar battery generators, as well as a lot of solar light towers on the market.  

“Hydrogen is also becoming an option for alternative power. We can see the market at the top end leading the way in reducing emissions.”

Building a sustainable circular economy

While smaller builders wait for the hefty price tag of sustainable equipment to drop a few more zeros, Mr Oxenham said the hire industries’ “circular economy” was a great way to offset unnecessary emissions. 

“Builders should be looking at the circular economy used by hiring companies,” he told Build-it.

“This way, builders can make sure tools are seeing use over their full life cycle. Thanks to the constant maintenance and care hire companies take with their equipment, it’s not uncommon to see tradies squeeze a few more years out of a tool that would otherwise be thrown away.

“We’ve seen other companies like Airbnb and Uber realise the sustainable value of the sharing economy.”

Construction could lead the way in sustainability

While the industry continues its struggle to make net zero construction the norm, UNSW Sydney Professor Deo Prasad says the Australian building sector has a chance to beat the government’s emissions targets and become a “world leader” in sustainability. 

“While the global community is aiming for net zero by 2050, the building sector has much greater potential and opportunity to reach net zero operational emissions by 2030 and a 60 per cent reduction in embodied carbon by 2030,” said Professor Prasad in a statement provided to Build-it. 

“Most countries will be looking at low embedded carbon products, technologies and systems in the future. The government needs to see this as an opportunity to become a leader by promoting innovation in this space.”

Professor Prasad and fellow UNSW researchers recently developed a national reference guide to help Australia hit its net-zero targets in 2040 – ten years earlier than currently planned. 

In the guide, the professor proposed sweeping changes to the sector’s materials pipeline and design guidelines and called for the government to mandate net zero construction codes. 

“They should lead by example, ensure all public buildings are net zero carbon, and provide subsidies and rebates to incentivise change,” said Prasad. 

“It’s not only about eliminating worst practices. It’s about adopting best practices, which, policy-wise, is also economically the right thing to do.

“It’s essential that the industry – be it clients, government or designers – start speeding up the race to net zero carbon before it becomes too late in the climate emergency.”

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. He has a strong passion for new and emerging consumer technology within the building sector. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.