Good news too on voluntary programs

Have the last three posts left you in despair? While writing the book being summarised in these posts, the overall narrative of poor performance surely got me down. But don’t panic. I do see the value of voluntary programs in the transition to a low-carbon built environment. They just require a different application – and more modest expectations.

How to improve the performance of these programs is the topic of the final post in this series. Today’s piece is about the handful of hopeful examples I have come across and what binds them together.

Separating the wheat from the chaff

Before moving on I have to stress that I assess the programs according to:

  • How many participants they have attracted as a percentage of the full pool of potential participants. I consider a voluntary program promising when it has achieved an uptake of least 15 per cent of this potential pool. This is the “tipping point” after which a novelty is considered to become mainstream.
  • How much participants have improved the performance of their buildings (in terms of energy consumption or carbon emissions). I consider a voluntary program promising if it has improved this performance by at least 20 per cent compared to mandatory requirements (such as building regulation and construction codes) or general industry practice. This 20 per cent improvement is often considered as meaningful and achievable. Of course, more ambitious targets are necessary if we wish to address climate change related risks.
  • The total impact of the program in terms of energy or carbon emission reductions compared to the energy consumed or carbon emissions produced by the full pool of potential participants.

However, it should be kept in mind that programs like CitySwitch, discussed in a previous post, and many of the others that I have studied, have achieved much more than just a number of buildings, or an amount of energy consumption and carbon emissions reduced. Many have resulted in valuable lessons on how to develop, retrofit and use low-carbon buildings. Many have attracted participants that were previously sceptical to low-carbon building development and transformation. Many have spurred the feeling that action needs to be taken to reduce building related resource consumption and carbon emission.

Such results are very valuable and can often not be captured in statistics. Yet the bottom line is that when looking at actual reductions achieved, the vast majority of the programs studied is not promising in light of the assessment criteria – except for a few.

The programs that show promise

Four programs stand out for showing promising performance. These are the certification and classification programs NABERS in Australia and Green Mark in Singapore; and the knowledge generation and sharing programs Retrofit Chicago in the US and the Better Buildings Partnership in Sydney.

NABERS, Australia

NABERS is a certification and classification program that applies a rating. It uses actual performance data of buildings to assess their performance. The program was implemented in 1998, and since 2010 the Building Energy Efficiency Disclosure Act requires that NABERS is used when a commercial office building of 2000 square metres or larger comes to the market for sale or lease. The Act does not set any requirements to the specific class of rating a building is expected to meet.

In short, NABERS combines mandatory participation with voluntary performance. In terms of attracting participants NABERS is doing really well. By the end of 2014 close to 80 per cent of office buildings in Australia was NABERS certified (for energy performance). In terms of energy consumption reductions NABERS is promising also. On average its participants indicate energy consumption reduction of just over 20 per cent compared to conventional industry practice.

Because NABERS rates the actual performance of buildings, these numbers are trustworthy. Numbers published by administrators for programs such as LEED in the US or Green Star in Australia are often based on paper performance. These programs have thus far predominantly certified building designs, which comes with a range of complications to actual performance, as I have discussed in an earlier post.

Green Mark, Singapore

Green Mark is a certification and classification program that applies labelling. It awards certificates in four classes: Certified, Gold, Gold Plus and Platinum. The criteria set under Green Mark relate directly to mandatory construction regulation in Singapore. As of 2008, a Green Mark classification of at least Gold is mandatory for all new development larger than 2000 sq m. This is because of a general practice in Singapore to build high-rise buildings.

This requirement de facto implies that all new construction is mandated to meet Gold classification criteria. As of 2013, a Green Mark classification of at least Gold is mandatory for commercial property retrofits larger than 15,000 sq m. Certificates are awarded to completed building or city development projects, and certification is subject to periodical renewal – re-assessment is required every three years to maintain an awarded Green Mark class.

The Singapore Government aspires to have 80 per cent of all (existing and new) Singapore buildings certified under Green Mark and meet at least lowest “Certified” class by 2030. It is well on track achieving this: 24 per cent of all buildings have been certified under Green Mark already. Even more, 35 per cent of certificates have been issued in the highest class, Platinum. These buildings are at least 20 per cent more energy efficient than what is mandatory required.

Better Buildings Partnership, Sydney

The Better Buildings Partnership is a collaboration between the City of Sydney and its major property owners. It aims to reduce the carbon emissions and wastes produced by the buildings owned these major property owners, and their energy and water consumption. Together these property owners own over 50 per cent of all commercial property in Sydney’s central business district. The program requires its participants to reduce their (existing) buildings’ carbon emissions in 2030 by 70 per cent as of 2006 emissions.

Participating property owners in the BBP sign a letter to the Mayor of Sydney pledging that they will make improvements to their buildings to achieve this goal. In return the City of Sydney keeps these property owners involved regarding future policies so that they can plan their property portfolios accordingly. It further seeks to reduce regulatory barriers these property owners face in retrofitting their property, as well as financial barriers they face in doing so. In addition, the City of Sydney highlights the “beyond compliance” performance and leadership of participants in various media outlets, including a website that is dedicated to the program.

The program is well on track in achieving a 70 per cent energy reduction by 2030. In 2014, the City of Sydney reported that participants had already reduced 35 per cent of their building-related emissions [ed note: Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has announced at COP21 that this has increased to 45 per cent for 2015]. There are some caveats, however. The program only applies to the central business district of Sydney – some 25 square kilometres. The program applies to a relatively small number of buildings, and the program has the advantage to work with a relatively small number of very wealthy, very professional and very ambitious property owners. No other city in Australia has this advantage.

Retrofit Chicago, US

Retrofit Chicago sits within the US Better Buildings Challenge. While the Challenge has not achieved impressive results as explained in an earlier post, Retrofit Chicago is on track in achieving its goals. The program seeks to reduce the energy consumption of its commercial buildings in 2017 by 20 per cent of 2012 consumption.

Yet, this positive performance comes with the same caveats as with the Better Buildings Partnership. The program has thus far attracted the most iconic office buildings in Chicago that are owned by relatively wealthy, very professional, and very ambitious property owners. The program only applies to the small central business district of Chicago. And the program applies to a relatively small number of buildings only. Its impact on building-related energy consumption in the larger metropolitan region of Chicago is futile. The same holds for the impact the Better Buildings Partnership has on building-related energy consumption in Greater Sydney.

What binds together these promising voluntary programs?

Both NABERS and Green Mark are characterised by the combination of mandatory participation and voluntary performance requirements. Administrators and participants explained that the advantage of these programs is that by being (mandatorily) exposed to the program, participants often realise that it is easy to do more than the bare minimum.

Another advantage is that the legal support for these programs gives them more credibility than certification and classification programs that are more remote from government – like LEED and Green Star. Still, these programs allow enough flexibility to property developers, owners and users to use these programs for their projects in ways they consider most promising for themselves.

The Better Buildings Partnership and Retrofit Chicago are characterised by their focus on a small group of elite participants. The BBP initially focused on the City of Sydney’s 14 major property owners, and Retrofit Chicago predominantly targets iconic skyscrapers. The highly professional, wealthy and ambitious participants of these programs make them stand out from the participant base of most other programs I have studied.

These elite participants have a very strong personal interest in participating that often moves beyond direct financial gain. To them it is reputation and being seen as a leader that matters. And money often does not play a major role to them. For example, the participants of the BBP have already committed many millions to retrofitting their existing properties. There are very few firms in the construction and property industries wealthy enough to make similar commitments.

Some first lessons begin to emerge

Looking back at the last four posts, including this one, some first lessons begin to emerge. Overall, voluntary programs have not achieved promising results in the transition to a low-carbon built environment. Particularly, small- and medium-sized firms and households are not interested in participating in them. They do not understand the value of low-carbon buildings, do not see the need for it, or do not want to go through the hassle of retrofitting their existing buildings.

Yet, voluntary programs for low-carbon buildings are not a failure by definition. The four programs discussed in this post indicate that promising performance is possible. This requires, however, a different approach to how we use voluntary programs. NABERS and Green Mark indicate that a combination of voluntary and mandatory may be a promising avenue. The Better Buildings Partnership and Retrofit Chicago indicate that highly exclusive programs may be another promising avenue.

I will present more lessons in the final post in this series. But before doing so I will first look at some programs in Malaysia and India.

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