There is no net zero without insulated, energy efficient homes 06 October 2022

Image source: Insulation Australasia website

By Rachael Wilkinson, EEC Senior Advisor - Policy and Projects

A prominent Swedish scientist began early discussions on the issue of climate change as far back as 1896. For perspective, that’s about 30 years before we invented penicillin. Since then, there has been a lot of research, a lot of arguing, and even more talking.

Even with increasing government acceptance of the science and the need to act, the scale of the challenge seems to leave us stumped. Human development has been inextricably linked to burning fossils fuels, so how do we reimagine our society and rebuild it sustainably?

The answer backed by the vast majority of experts is net zero.

Net zero is almost always framed in a new technology context; a total transition to renewables, EVs leading to the death of the petrol car. This is of course extremely important, but in many ways it’s the easy bit.

Humans are inventive, and always will be. What we aren’t so good at is correcting past mistakes.

Australian homes are a prime example. They are, categorically, some of the most energy inefficient in the developed world. In fact, Industry and consumer groups agree that more than eight million of them are as inefficient, with many built prior to mandatory minimum energy efficiency requirements.

To reach net zero, we need to own this mistake and modify millions of existing properties, all while committing to doing a better job whenever we build something new.  

Simple actions, including using existing, proven technologies to retrofit millions of our energy inefficient homes, will have a huge impact.

For example, insulating new and existing buildings could reduce Australia’s annual emissions by 7.1 million tonnes of CO2e while creating jobs, increasing comfort, improving health outcomes and reducing household energy – and public health – costs.

It seems like a no brainer, especially given that Australian homes have been likened to tents, with our rental homes colder and more damp than World Health Organisation safety standards.

In fact, it’s actually estimated that around 3,000 Australians die during periods of hot and cold weather each year. Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane have cold associated mortality rates that are far higher than Stockholm in Sweden (and it’s sub-zero there … for months).

On the other end of the spectrum, extreme heat is another known killer, and a growing problem given climate projections include increased periods of hot weather.

Yet even here, there are straightforward options available to combat the problem using existing technology. It’s estimated that bringing the building stock of Melbourne up to a 5.4-star NatHERS rating would reduce deaths in heatwaves by 90 per cent.

It’s clear that controlling the temperature of our homes is a critical element of climate resilience, but it isn’t just our health and future prospects on the line.

Our leaky homes are also hurting our hip pockets.

Power bills have been the source of much angst for many Australians, particularly this year, with confidence in energy markets suffering its sharpest ever collapse as price hikes hit home for consumers.

Heating our homes this past winter has been struggle for many, and some of that struggle need not have been endured.

A study of insulation retrofits in New Zealand found that homes with upgraded insulation had energy bills that were 13.2 per cent lower than the control group. In addition to the overt household level savings, the country also saw improved economic outcomes when considering health and productivity.

Even closer to home, the Victorian Healthy Homes program led to demonstrated cost savings of $887 per elderly person in the healthcare system over the winter period. The program report suggested that for every $1 saved in energy, more than $10 is saved in health (great news in a single payer health system like ours).

Beyond individual health and savings benefits, upgrading insulation in the millions of homes built prior to mandatory minimum energy efficiency requirements could provide consistent, full-time jobs for more than 10,000 Australians over the next decade, and add billions to our economy.

This volume of upgrades will be a big challenge – but it’s a challenge the industry is ready for.

In 2021, the Energy Efficiency Council (EEC) and a coalition of industry and other groups, including the Affiliated Insulation Industry Coalition (AIIC), released a Roadmap for quality control and safety in insulation installation. The AIIC and EEC have since commenced a program of work in support of its recommendations.

This work is especially valuable given that in order to meet our commitment to hit net zero by 2050, we need to deal with the inefficiency of our homes, which are responsible for around 24% of overall electricity use and 12% of our nation’s total carbon emissions.

Insulation alone isn’t going to solve the climate crisis, but Australia needs insulated homes to reduce our overall demand for energy, lock in the benefits of energy efficient products, like supporting grid reliability by enabling flexible heating and cooling loads, and put us in the best position possible to manage the impacts of climate change.

While many people may be underwhelmed when considering something as simple and hidden away as insulation against something as exciting as an electric vehicle, the reality is it’s an overlooked (and far cheaper) kind of magic.

Insulation (when compared to many alternatives) is a fairly simple and cost-effective lever in our pathway to healthy homes that support a prosperous, net zero world. 

It’s nothing new and there is no big revelation here.

We simply can’t side step insulation in the shift to net zero. Like so many elements of the climate challenge, the problem shouldn’t be avoided, and the time to act is now.   

So, let’s get moving.


This post originally appeared on Rachael's LinkedIn.