The Government is forging ahead with plans to cap greenhouse gas emissions involved in the construction of new buildings, according to an official briefing released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act.
In November, Building and Construction Minister Megan Woods was advised on the process to introduce requirements to measure, report and ultimately cap the climate pollution from buildings.
The proposed regulations, officials within the Building for Climate Change programme said, would only apply to new buildings rather than require retrofits of existing ones. Houses and commercial buildings like offices would both be subject to the standards, though they may face different timelines and requirements.
Changes to the Building Act which will come before Parliament this year are aimed at introducing mandatory energy use ratings for buildings, but the legislation will also empower the Government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from construction. The timeline for introducing regulations was redacted from the briefing released to Newsroom, but initial consultation with the sector was to be held late last year.
Two types of building-related emissions would be the focus: embodied and operational.
Embodied emissions include greenhouse gases released in the manufacture and use of the materials that make up buildings. They span the process from prior to construction to after the deconstruction and disposal of the materials.
Operational emissions include greenhouse gases released through living in the building. This could include direct emissions (for a house that uses gas for cooking or water heating) or indirect emissions (the carbon associated with electricity use).
Initially, a carbon assessment would be submitted alongside new building consents but a cap on allowed emissions could be phased in later.
“The proposed regulatory changes would take a new approach of predicting emissions outcomes for the whole building. This is a transformational approach. It would achieve better emissions reduction outcomes by focusing on the emissions impacts of design choices on the building as a whole, rather than regulating inputs on a fragmented basis,” officials said.
“The proposed approach focuses on achieving emissions reduction outcomes rather than describing how a building must be designed. This would align with the performance-based nature of the Building Code and enable consumer choice around how to achieve emissions reduction outcomes.”
While measuring and reporting emissions can drive reductions, officials said, reaching New Zealand’s climate targets may require harder regulation. A range of questions officials identified as still unanswered include whether both types of emissions should be capped, how caps should apply to different building types and what the appropriate cap level might be.
As part of work into understanding the impact of cutting emissions at the design stage of new houses, Building for Climate Change officials commissioned a study on the issue. Released publicly in November, that document shows embodied emissions could be slashed by 12 percent at no additional cost. This comes through “smart design” like using a suspended timber floor instead of a concrete slab, rather than simply swapping out intensive building materials for low-emissions alternatives. The swap approach could increase costs by 5 to 10 percent.
Previous work by the New Zealand Green Building Council has shown the benefits of regulating to cut building emissions far outweigh the costs. A report from consultancy Business and Economic Research Limited released last year found early phase-in dates for green building requirements could boost New Zealand’s GDP by $147 billion.
At the time of the report’s release, Green Building Council CEO Andrew Eagles said the Building for Climate Change programme was taking too long to be implemented.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw agreed, saying it could have been done in the previous Parliament.
“It’s not moving as quickly as I would have liked it to. I think there was room in the last term to upgrade the Building Code and so on,” he said.
“Anything that we build that is below the standard that we want to be at, is in place for decades to come. You’ll have buildings that aren’t as energy efficient as we would like, that people face higher energy costs for occupying and so on.”