The People Project: Suzanne Toumbourou, ASBEC CEO

In this series, we spotlight the incredible individuals striving for change in our industry. Meet Suzanne Toumbourou, Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council CEO, a renowned trailblazer and sustainability champion.

Can you walk us through your career as a sustainability champion?

I’ve always been passionate about social and environmental justice. I started doing an arts degree at university when I left school, where I participated in various student ‘protest’ activities.  Pretty soon I decided that the best way to make a difference was to engage and collaborate with those you are trying to influence, rather than ‘fight’ them. So I switched to a marketing/business degree and used this education to inform my approach to governance and communication.

Throughout my 20s, I worked my way through several sectors, including retail, manufacturing, government, management consultancies and eventually landed within the NGO sector.  The role that shaped my current trajectory was with the Australian Conservation Foundation, where I worked closely with CEO Don Henry, forging alliances with other environmental nonprofits, interest groups and business leaders.  Don’s approach to dialogue and diplomacy really inspired me.

I eventually landed in this terrifically privileged position at the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, where I coordinate a collaborative forum of peak organisations in the building sector. My job is to help advance the collective vision of almost thirty industry and professional associations, towards a more sustainable, productive and liveable built environment.

In this role, I have been mentored by several incredible women including Jane Montgomery-Hribar (APCC), Bronwyn Evans (Standards Australia), Megan Motto (Consult Australia), Monica Richter (WWF) andthe GBCA’s Romilly Madew, who helped me to find my voice in the national conversation about sustainability.  Without their support, I don’t think you’d be referring to me a ‘sustainability champion’!

How have you seen the conversation around creating a carbon positive built environment evolve over the years?

It’s easy to be distracted by the divisive and toxic debate about climate change that has prevailed over the last decade – and especially the policy inertia at a national level. Net zero emissions is not part of the lexicon for many political leaders; let alone carbon positive.

But within the built environment sector – if not broader industry – the conversation has evolved from ‘whether’ we should aim for a carbon positive, to ‘when’. 

The GBCA’s Carbon Positive Roadmap is an articulation of the vision of the leading organisations in the built environment – and a timely one!

How has ASBEC worked with GBCA to tackle carbon emissions in the built environment?

Buildings contribute to almost a quarter of Australia’s emissions and over half of the country’s electricity consumption, through their operation. And with technology available today, they offer one of the lowest-cost opportunities to reduce emissions and save energy.

As a founding member of ASBEC, the GBCA has closely supported the evidence-based policies we have developed. In 2016, we worked together to release Low Carbon, High Performance, which outlined the potential of buildings to reduce Australia’s emissions, and policy roadmap to achieving net zero emissions buildings by 2050. Many of the recommendations in this roadmap are reflected in policy around the country, including the advancement of commercial energy efficiency standards in the National Construction Code.

More recently, the GBCA has been involved in the Building Code Energy Performance Trajectory project, where we have developed an industry-led evidence base to reduce emissions through improved energy efficiency measures and long-term targets in the National Construction Code.

The GBCA is also critically important advocacy partner to ASBEC, with a solid reputation and respected voice. 

Where do you hope to see our industry in 10 years?

The Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB) results show that the sustainability leaders in Australia’s construction sector are the best in the world. But the rest of the market lags far behind.  In 10 years’ time, I hope we can help the rest of the sector catch up – and compete for sustainability excellence just as the members of the GBCA do.