Energy and Sustainability
Two large sustainable buildings conferences have occurred recently that clearly reflect the different drivers and strategies for green buildings around the world: Greenbuild in New Orleans, which was largely North American; and the World Sustainable Buildings 2014 Conference in Barcelona, which was largely attended by delegate teams from many countries in Europe, Asia-Pacific as well as North America.
While all regions of the globe recognize the urgency of dealing with climate change and the important role of the building industry, nevertheless, each region has a slightly different focus.
- The GreenBuild sessions showed that the focus in North America is extending beyond just mitigating climate change to also finding adaptation solutions to cope with the inevitable effects – particularly along coastlines, where most economic activity occurs.
- In contrast, the European philosophy tends to be that climate change beyond the 2 degree threshold must be avoided at all costs. Failing this, however, will cause insurmountable disruptions to human civilization as we know it. The European sense of urgency to deflect a global disaster of unimaginable proportion was reflected in the World Sustainable Buildings Conference theme: “Are we acting as quickly as we should?”
- In China, change is also being driven by the environmental impact of increased consumerism from a rapidly expanding middle class, and unhealthy cities.
These contrasting perspectives are resulting in three different types of strategies:
- In North America, change is occurring primarily through voluntary measures, which are market- driven and are supported by not for profit foundations and institutions.
- In Europe, where the focus is to take aggressive action to mitigate climate change, European Union led commissions and committees are drafting regulations and codes for buildings. Meanwhile, citizen-led sustainable community development is also taking place.
- Meanwhile, in China, the strategy is largely taking place through local government planning of sustainable new cities to accommodate a growing middle class, which is increasingly conscious that the air they breathe is killing them.
The relative merits of the three approaches is worthy of discussion. While standards and regulations at the building level may be more effective because they impose change across the board, the reality is that they tend to be minimum requirements. These mandatory measures must also be phased in gradually to allow businesses time to adapt; otherwise they may cause major economic and market disruptions. On the other hand, voluntary action, such as is largely found in North America, can be more ambitious and innovative, but is dependent on market demand. Actions at the city level, whether through local planning or citizen-led sustainable community initiatives, are getting traction. Improving existing districts and developing new sustainable communities is a holistic approach, which integrates buildings and local infrastructure, using a top-down meets bottom-up citizen engagement. There is nothing contradictory in any of these measures – and in fact, all three work well together.