Government urged to provide policy certainty to green buildings sector

As industry leaders pledge to reduce emissions ahead of COP21 the green buildings sector is struggling with "uncertain" government policy

Ahead of the Paris climate change conference next month industry leaders have been making pledges to reduce their carbon footprint and support low carbon buildings, but experts at the UK Green Building Council say that more policy certainty is needed from government to ensure that UK firms maintain their international leadership position.

“We have seen some changes in policy which have led to a lot of uncertainty in the industry in terms of maintaining levels of investment and skills needed to deliver more sustainable efficient buildings,” said Louise Sunderland, senior policy advisor at UKGBC. “We have a very good green building industry and that benefit may be undermined if we don’t keep up and maintain the impetus. On the international stage the UK leadership position will be challenged by others.”

Plans for homes to be zero carbon from 2016 were axed by the government in July as it sought to reduce regulations for house builders and speed up the planning process. Requirements for non-domestic buildings to be carbon neutral from 2019 have also been abandoned.

“We have seen some changes in policy which have led to a lot of uncertainty in the industry in terms of maintaining levels of investment and skills needed to deliver more sustainable efficient buildings,” 

Louise Sunderland, UKGBC

However international pressure on government and the industry to reduce carbon emissions is set to ramp up following the 21st annual Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris next month. The event is seeking to obtain a legally binding, universal agreement to keep global warming below 2 degrees Centigrade. According to the Committee on Climate Change buildings are responsible for 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and 67% of electricity use.

“The COP is designed to create an internationally binding target and it is up to each country to figure out the best way to meet those obligations,” said Sunderland. “In the UK the buildings sector has the potential to deliver a very significant contribution to the UK’s overall carbon emission reduction effort.”

Ahead of this firms in the building sector have been pledging to minimize their carbon footprint and promote low carbon buildings as part of a campaign by the World Green Building Council. Skanska, Mott MacDonald, Laing O’Rourke, BAM, Carillion, Lendlease, Morgan Sindall, Sir Robert McAlpine and WSP along with a host of developers and manufacturers are taking a leading position in terms of their commitment to change.

Contractor BAM is committed to achieving climate neutral operations by 2050 and says it is working with its supply chain, customers and wider industry to deliver low carbon solutions for buildings and infrastructure. Laing O’Rourke has pledged to produce independently-verified carbon footprints for its main off-site manufactured (pre-cast) products by 2020 and to reduce direct carbon emissions by 50% by 2020. Skanska is targeting net zero energy buildings, near zero carbon construction and the mitigation of other environmental impacts as well as using the World Green Building Council's metrics framework to measure health, wellbeing and productivity benefits to demonstrate that green buildings are mutually beneficial to people, business and the environment.

Consultant WSP says that it is committed to demonstrating the benefits of zero carbon buildings and supporting clients to achieve zero carbon new buildings and low carbon refurbishments of existing stock in a future ready built environment.

“Interestingly industry is showing a lot of leadership now. What they need in order to continue that good work is a level of certainty and knowledge of exactly where we are going and how fast,” said Sunderland pointing out that other policy instruments had also been scrapped. “The greater blow around the removal of the zero carbon policy is that the ability for local authorities to require higher than standard building regulation was removed in expectation of the zero carbon homes standard,” explains Sunderland. “Now we have a situation where very willing local authorities who see viability in their area to have higher standards are struggling to ask for those, which may mean the industry is forestalled in its development. This is really disappointing considering how much progress we have made.”

Potential mechanisms for supporting and enabling green building development are varied and wide ranging from the introduction of new reporting requirements such as a kWh/m2 measurement for all buildings to performance contracting. In Australia the NABERS system requires new office buildings to obtain a green star rating and this has to be monitored through its life to ensure that it meets up to its accreditation. “This has really shifted the market in Australia, buildings are assessed on their performance not just their designs,” says Sunderland.

COP21 will be held in Paris from the 30th november to the 11th December. Read more here

View the UKGBC pledges and add yours here

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