Over the last few weeks I have discussed the value and limits of voluntary programs for low-carbon buildings. In sum, these programs have thus far had limited impact in the transition to a low-carbon built environment.
The programs I have discussed thus far are mostly from Australia, the Netherlands and the US. Voluntary programs are, however, also gaining prominence in the transition towards a low-carbon built environment in the Global South. Do they face similar limitations as those that I have discussed for voluntary programs in the Global North?
A brief recap of the earlier posts
Before addressing that question it might be helpful to briefly summarise the six earlier posts.
Certification and classification
Certification and classification programs, such as LEED and Green Star, are predominantly applied in the top-end of the construction and property sectors. They are mostly used for the certification of new office buildings in the central business districts of major cities. They have not yet attracted much interest in the residential market, the retrofitting market and the market for smaller commercial buildings outside the central business districts of the major cities.
Certification programs come with considerable limitations. I have discussed the possibility of gaming the system. And I have discussed the problem that most certificates issued to date are based on building designs and not buildings in use. It remains to be seen whether these “as designed” certified buildings live up to their expectations (there is much evidence that they do not).
I have also explained how a combination of mandatory participation in certification and classification programs with voluntary performance criteria may be a more apt model for these programs. NABERS in Australia and Green Mark in Singapore are examples.
Knowledge generation and sharing
Knowledge generation and sharing programs, such as CitySwitch Green Office and the Better Buildings Partnership in Sydney, have generated a wealth of knowledge on how to develop, retrofit and use low-carbon buildings. They have, however, not been able, thus far, to actually achieve a meaningful number of such buildings.
Their low impact is problematic, particularly because much government funding goes into these programs. One may question whether funds for these programs are allocated most efficiently for reducing the resource intensity and waste production of the construction and property sectors.
In the previous post I have, nevertheless, discussed the Better Buildings Partnership in Sydney as one of the few hopeful examples that I have come across. Yet, I have also explained that this program is likely difficult to replicate in other cities. The program has a focus on a small geographical area, involves a relatively small number of buildings, and its participants are the wealthiest and most ambitious property owners in Australia.
Novel forms of financing
Funding programs are the worst performing type of programs that I have studied. Long story short is that even when funds are made available for property developers and owners for developing or retrofitting low-carbon buildings, they are not interested in doing so. Examples of these programs are 1200 Buildings in Melbourne, Energy Efficient Mortgages in the US and the Amsterdam Investment Fund in the Netherlands.
It seems to me that these programs have to work on their marketing strategy. Particularly home-owners and small-to-medium-sized firms often do not know about these programs. Alternatively, they know about the programs but consider the hassle of applying for funds too much work in relation to the funds available.
Moving the focus to the Global South
In addition to studying these programs in the Global North, I have also studied voluntary programs for low-carbon building in the Global South (predominantly in India and Malaysia).
Voluntary programs for sustainable buildings are gaining prominence here as a means to govern the rapid urbanisation of developing countries. This rapid urbanisation comes with economic growth, which will likely result in an exponential growth of building related resource consumption and waste production in the Global South. Lacking strong mandatory building regulation and construction codes for low-carbon buildings is the main reason why governments and firms are now looking at voluntary programs.
Certification and classification dominates and shows overall poor performance
I found that certification and classification programs in the Global South are also the dominant type of voluntary programs. And I found that, comparable to the Global North, these programs have marginal impact in the transition to a low-carbon built environment. In India, for example, there are a range of such programs: GRIHA is a certification and classification program commissioned by the Government of India; LEED-India is the national adaptation of the international LEED program; and Eco-Housing is a local program for low-carbon housing in Pune.
Since GRIHA was introduced in 2007 less than 100 projects have been certified. Since LEED-India was introduced in 2001 some 700 projects have been certified. And since Eco Housing was introduced in 2004 less than 10 project have been certified. Keeping in mind the vast size of India and its building stock, it goes without saying that the impact of these programs is miniscule.
A more complicated and risky context for voluntary programs
In India and Malaysia, regulation of the built environment is a complex system of powers and responsibilities allocated to governments at national, regional and local level, and interactions with other policy areas. Both countries do not have in place any mandatory requirements for low-carbon building development and use. This makes that voluntary programs appear a promising solution to fill this regulatory void.
The experts that I have spoken in these countries warned, however, that specifically for sectors such as construction and property that are characterised by huge sums of money changing hands, voluntary programs may too easily lead to corruption. Corruption is already pervasive in these sectors in India and Malaysia. They argued that this problem holds, perhaps ironically, especially for certification and classification programs. Not only do these programs allow for gaming, they also bring in a range of people that may be bribed in the certification process – particularly assessors and program administrators.
Low-carbon buildings as a status symbol
Another problem experts talked about is the risk that exclusionary voluntary programs result in a situation where low-carbon buildings become status symbols, which can only be obtained by the wealthiest in a society.
It is somewhat shocking that the world’s most expensive single family house is LEED-certified. Its construction costs were somewhere between US$1 billion and $2 billion, it provides indoor parking space to 168 cars and has three helipads, and from its 27th floor the family occupying this “house” must have an impressive view over Mumbai’s slums that house millions of urban poor.
Another case in point is Eco Housing in Pune. The housing units developed under the Eco Housing program at 10 million Indian rupees (AU$200,000), a sum well out of reach for most of Pune’s citizens.
A focus on reduction, not on sufficiency
The most insightful insight shared by experts in India and Malaysia were, to me, about the inherent flaws of the voluntary programs that were imported from the Global North to the Global South. The programs studied in Australia, the Netherlands and the US have a focus on reduced resource consumption or carbon emissions through technological solutions. But is this technology necessary, affordable, and does it not result in undesired results in rapidly developing economies?, some interviewees wondered.
“Especially in the West there is much stress on efficiency and substitution in sustainability debates. It is all about getting more bang for the buck, and then making the buck more sustainable,” an architect in India said. “But why consume so much at all? The sufficiency issue is not addressed in Western sustainability thinking and voluntary programs such as LEED legitimise this consumption,” he concluded.
Lessons for and from the Global South
My research points out that the limitations experienced by voluntary programs for low-carbon buildings in the Global North are amplified in the Global South, particularly problems with corruption and the risk of social inequality. At the same time the programs from the Global South point to problems that may already exist or evolve in similar programs in the Global North. The risk of social inequalities resulting from voluntary programs may be expected. And the construction and property sectors are prone to corruption, irrespective of their national context.
Another important lesson that can be drawn from my research in India and Malaysia are the insights shared by experts on sufficiency. They are spot on in arguing that many voluntary programs for sustainable buildings are patching problems at best. These programs do, however, not solve problems resulting from the unsustainable built environment-related levels of resource consumption and waste production. A few buildings with a 20 per cent lower than average level of energy consumption here, 14 participating property owners there, and so on, is not going to help much in the long run.
In the final post I will focus on the main limitations of voluntary programs for low-carbon buildings, keeping in mind the lessons that have emerged from the posts so far. I will also address the question of how to use these voluntary programs in a more constructive way. This is because I do see some value in voluntary programs in the transition to a low-carbon built environment – even though my posts thus far have presented fairly negative insights.
Dr Jeroen van der Heijden is senior research fellow at Australian National University and associate professor at the University of Amsterdam.