The green building movement could have the whole world in its hands…and at home NABERS is still under scrutiny

By Tina Perinotto

20 September 2010 – Spend two days at World Green Building Congress in Singapore (13-14 September) and your view of the world will change forever. Not only does the green building movement look like a much better idea than you thought, but one packed with globally compelling economic and political punch.

Attending the congress were nearly 500 delegates from more than 40 member countries, from a total of 20 fully fledged and nearly 60 emerging members.  Each exuded excitement, energy and a huge conviction that this was a sector with unparalleled potential for growth.

As WGBC chair Tony Arnel put it, the Asian Pacific region is the world’s fastest growing region and green building is the fastest growing industry.

For Australia there are huge opportunities to partner with other countries and deploy skills and know-how already established at home.

But Arnel is also convinced the industry has the power to cut through in climate change action where the world’s international politicians have failed, by forging links between industry and government.

The WGBC has devised draft “sectoral agreements” for these collaborations, which Arnel says have the power to shift the markets in each of the member countries.  If that happens, that’s an awful lot of clout about to hit this sector world-wide.  Throw a voluntary carbon trading mechanism into the mix and you also have a powerful way to mutually benefit rich and developing nations, Arnel said. See our posts on this here and here

Yes, every bit of the green building movement is coming off a low base. Singapore’s GBC is only a year old and China’s new GBC can point to only 51 green buildings.

Singapore night view

But look at the drivers in just one country, Singapore.

The country has a population of 5 million people jammed into an island that takes less than an hour to drive across. It imports nearly everything it needs: food, energy, building materials, labour and until recently all of its water. Not a nice feeling as we head into climate change.  Especially with neighbours who sometimes threaten to cut off your supply of sand, for instance, and sometimes do. (“Luckily we had been stockpiling sand for years, because we knew something like this could happen,” one of the delegates told TFE over a morning tea break.)

Today the Singaporean government is busy purifying waste water and desalinating seawater determined to be self sufficient in water within 10 years.

Likewise it wants to transform its building stock.

Singapore GBC president Lee Chuan Seng told delegates at the opening ceremony the country already has 500 green buildings using the five-year-old Green Mark rating tool scheme. But he said the government target was retrofit 80 per cent of existing building stock by 2030, a “tough challenge” he admitted, but one that “with everyone contributing” could be achieved.

To assist the SGBC introduced a green product listing in March and has embarked on a Green Building Product Certification scheme.

But the country will also need skilled people to manage such a huge target – up to 18,000 and the Singaporeans who spoke at the conference did not hold back in encouraging anyone with the right skills to come right on over.

Typical of its approach first used incentives – a mix of cash and extra density – but has now introduced a bit of “stick” and mandated that all new buildings reach a certain sustainability target measured by its Green Mark rating tool, depending on the building’s size.

As Arnel pointed out the potential is for Singaporean to become a hub for green buildings in the region. An idea not lost on its government, no doubt, which must constantly dream up ways of building its economy when its only natural resource is the ingenuity of its people.

Some of the 500 delegates, World GBC Congresss, Singapore, 2010

China is another emerging hot spot. Of course. And the government is now firmly backing its own new China Green Building Council.

So far the country has only 51 green buildings. But a new decree has mandated that 10 per cent of all new buildings are to be sustainable. It’s a small percentage but has  huge financial value.

Australian has been hoping to play a part in China’s transformation and the Australian contingent led by Arnel, his colleagues at the Victorian Building Commission where he is Commissioner and the WGBC and Green Building Council of Australia, have worked hard to next week bring a delegation from the China GBC to Australia to showcase local talent.

At least one highlight we know of will be a tour will be the Pixel building in Melbourne, that its developer Grocon claims is one of the world’s most sustainable buildings, and a “laboratory” of what’s to come.

Tokyo has also been actively transforming its property market. It has a target for a 25 per cent reduction in greenhouse gasses below 2000 levels by 2020 and devised a new cap and trade scheme for carbon credits  – the world’s third, after the European Union and 10 US states. (A scheme strongly favoured by Lend Lease in Australia.)

The scheme, covering 1400 commercial and institutional buildings and industrial buildings, aims to achieve an 8 per cent reduction in GHG by 2014.

In South Africa, the move towards more sustainable building needs to linke strongly with wider ethical practices to address the huge social welfare issues in that country, its GBC SA says. Housing projects already trialled include using local labour in construction and training local people in management of solar hot water systems, for instance.

But no less, in places as far flung as Jordan, Turkey, Mayalsia and Columbia the interest is also growing and building in momentum.

What’s fascinating is to hear some delegates tell of how their governments were at first indifferent but now quickly starting to realise the potential of these fledgling movements – both economic and political, no doubt.

The sense you are left with after two days immersion in this new green world is that the overall the case for greater sustainability is not just hugely compelling but highly unlikely to dribble away. At what point do you say, “oh, we are sustainable enough now; let’s go back to our energy-guzzling earth-depleting ways”?

In hard economic rationalist terms that’s an awful lot of economic activity than can be mined for GDP growth. Not finite scary mining booms or any other boom whose source you know will one day run out. As one caller to TFE said this week, it’s the “clean industrial revolution”. And that’s got a long way to go before we reach a steady state economy that anti-green fear-mongering whimpers  about.

Another big driver is that sustainability doesn’t stop at “things”, as the GBCA SA pointed out. Logically, how can you develop greater sensitivity and respect for the earth – the way you use building materials and how you design cities – without realising this respect must flow to all around you?

So there’s the political clout as well.

As Arnel’s message said, the potential of the green building movement to cut through is very powerful indeed.

The delegates at the World GBC conference certainly get it.

We will bring you more on the WGBC conference in following days. Meanwhile see this excellent new report from the WGBC launched to co-incide wiht World Green Building Week  for a round up of impressive action around the world.

The Fifth Estate attended the WGBC conference as a guest of the GBCA.

NABERS still under scrutiny

Back home, things don’t stand still.

Key item in the whisper mill last week was that the Property Council was mounting a challenge to NABERS, the energy y rating tool that seems to be under constant scrutiny from some sectors of the industry, but beloved by others.

PCA chief executive Peter Verwer denied that the PCA was working on an alternative tool – after all the PCA supports NABERS as the operational tool and Green Star as the design tool, he said. But Mr Verwer confirmed that the PCA would convene a review panel for NABERS.

He said the review already commissioned by NABERS manger the NSW Department of Climate Change Environment and Water would fall short of what the industry needed because it was conducted by a consultant and not an industry stakeholder group.

“It is not the sort of review panel where there are multiple stakeholders,” Mr Verwer said. “It’s not transparent. Where is the independent entity [to carry out this review] and where is the independent governance process?

“We’ll be asking everybody what’s right what’s wrong. Where should NABERS go [in terms of future development] and we will be submitting that to the government…all nine governments.”

However, Mr Verwer would not elaborate on what were the key industry concerns driving the PCA review except to say that the tool was now 10 years old.

“We want an all embracing review, a tool that will be fit for the future. The tool has been around for a long time and it’s a good time to review it.”

“What we hope to achieve out of that is to make it better.