Building legislation is the key to combating climate change says Dietmar Siersdorfer, Middle East CEO for Siemens, within a passionate article published on the World Economic Forum website.
“We cannot afford to wait for individuals to do the right thing,” he said. ”Pockets of change are insufficient to address such an enormous challenge. Countries and cities can act boldly and implement legislation that encourages the conversion of existing buildings into energy-saving structures, while making sure that upcoming ones are built with smart technologies in the first place.”
Buildings are the centerpiece of Siersdorfer argument and for good reason. Buildings consume over 40% of all energy generated globally, yet energy savings of 30-40% are available today through retrofitted smart building technology, and the equivalent reductions are even higher in new builds. So, when you also weigh in the cost of climate change, Siersdorfer’s plea seems more warranted and logical, or even common sense.
This week, London introduced its Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), which builds upon the congestion charge scheme that has been in place since 2003. The congestion charge focused on reducing traffic and associated emissions by charging vehicles to enter the city center at certain times of the day, with exceptions for low-emissions vehicles. ULEZ, however, shifts focus on to air-quality in the UK capital by charging polluting “normal” vehicles to enter the city at any time of day, 365 days a year.
The initiative has been met with varying levels of appreciation from environmental advocates and London residents, in addition to varying levels of disgruntlement by business owners and other London residents. ULEZ and similar bold urban mobility policies are, of course, positive for the environment but where are those controversial, business-upsetting, headline-making policies for the building industry?
“Buildings consume more energy than industry or mobility. We eat, sleep, work, shop and spend most of our leisure time in buildings. Whether they’re skyscrapers or single-unit homes, buildings collectively have an undeniable impact on the environment around us,” says Siersdorfer. “Energy you don’t use is energy you don’t have to generate. If less energy is required in buildings, power plants don’t need to produce as much. This will also bring down emissions from power plants, as well as the amount of natural resources burned for electricity generation.”
Efficiency-focused building regulation does exist, of course, and seeks to balance environmental responsibility against the cost of construction, employment, and the need for housing. However, not many would describe it as strong enough to make a significant impact on climate change efforts, certainly not in the way that Siersdorfer is describing. Considering buildings are such big energy consumers, the lack of strong legislation akin what we see in transport and industry, could and perhaps should be considered strange.
So what are the chances of stronger legislation for the building industry? The kind of strength that will ensure all new buildings are born smart and all older buildings are required to become more efficient. Legislation strong enough to achieve efficiencies that at least make a dent in global building energy consumption figures, and therefore support climate change efforts.
There appears to be no compelling evidence that major countries, or municipal governments, are about to make that kind of revolutionary, business-upsetting, headline-making change to their building legislation. This could partly be down to the common socio-political sensitivity around the topic of housing provision, which may be justified, especially in areas with significant population growth. Climate change does not spark that kind of political protection despite its threat to all life on earth, so policies have more encouraged than required.
So far, at least in the context of smart buildings, the focus of green building regulation in major markets has been based on incentives rather than legislation. This somewhat “softly-softly” approach does serve to support the industry in finding its feet and generate its own growth but it is not so great at reducing the number of inefficient buildings. Bigger incentives would no doubt help but as long as there are contracts open to for the construction of inefficient buildings, then there will continue to be inefficient buildings.
If strong efficiency-focused building legislation was to come into effect then the industry would be forced to adapt. Every new building contract would be for buildings rich in energy-efficiency design and technology, meaning every architectural, construction, and building services company would be forced to develop those proficiencies. The current skills shortage would be deepened enough to trigger major training and education initiatives funded by the increased flow of money into the private sector and by a government keen to see its new legislation succeed.
New smart buildings would be built, older buildings retrofitted, a robust, progressive, and cohesive sector would develop, creating ever more efficient buildings, thereby reducing fossil fuel consumption and helping save the planet. At least, that’s what Siersdorfer hopes.
“It is possible and within reach - as long as we can create awareness and understanding that smart buildings must become a central pillar of national energy strategies,” concludes Siersdorfer. “Making this world inhabitable and sustainable for the 9.8 billion people we expect to populate it by 2050 is a big feat, but one we can accomplish together. By bringing together know-how from the private sector and public legislation to implement new technologies, the journey to combating climate change has already started. Will you join us?”