Building foundations for an energy-efficient world

Instead of focusing on saving energy through consumables like cars, energy conservation should come from investments in “green buildings.”

Killer typhoons in Taiwan and on mainland China. A failed monsoon in India. The UN secretary general in the Arctic pleading for action on climate change as politicians bicker over the costs.

But, instead of letting that debate rage while the planet heats up, policymakers should embrace one of the cheapest ways of cutting the air pollution that lies at the root of the problem: making buildings more efficient.

Surprisingly, buildings account for about one-third of global energy use. Transport, mostly cars, accounts for roughly another third. Factories and mines make up the rest. A lot of attention has gone into making cars and factories more efficient since the first global energy shocks of the 1970s. Yet most buildings are bigger energy hogs than a fleet of SUVs. Given advances in technology in everything from window glass to air conditioners, change can come for no net cost.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which produced a landmark study on the topic, contends that buildings should put back into the system at least as much energy as they take out.

But governments must act. Farsighted administrations in places as different as Germany and Singapore are mandating green buildings. Policymakers there know that governments have a role in mandating regulations to create a level playing field and helping build industry capacity.

Buildings last for decades, so decisions made today have a long-term impact on energy consumption. Efficient buildings enable countries to consume less energy, which supports economic development, because money is freed up for other projects, while promoting energy security and environmental sustainability.

Greener buildings are particularly important for Asia, home to the world’s most rapid economic growth. Asia’s share of global energy consumption has doubled in the past 30 years, and its buildings’ share of energy use is growing at similar rates, with China and India alone constructing more than half of the
world’s new floor space. Without well-designed policy measures, improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings and appliances will continue at a relatively slow pace in Asia.

Energy-hungry China builds the equivalent of two to four 500-megawatt power plants every week. No one can ask China to slow its development. But if China can improve its energy efficiency, it will save money and strengthen its energy security.

Before change can come, some old myths need to be demolished.

Myth 1: Green buildings cost a lot more to build. Initially, there may be higher costs, usually 3 per cent to 10 per cent, though this figure tends to fall quickly, as everyone from architects to construction workers becomes more familiar with new ways.

Myth 2: The idea that energy-efficiency means sitting in the dark, shivering in the winter and sweating in the summer is nonsense. Repeated studies have shown that well-designed buildings are more comfortable. Green offices have lower employee turnover and fewer sick days.

Myth 3: If energy efficiency worked, everyone would have done it already. This is like the joke about the two economists who ignore a US$100 bill they see lying on the street, figuring that if the money were real someone would have picked it up. Building developers often don’t want the extra cost or extra hassle of breaking old habits. After all, they either sell the property or pass on the higher utility costs to tenants.

Nothing stands in the way of change except the unwillingness to change old patterns. Governments need to set standards that become progressively tighter over time. Everyone in the building and construction industry needs to be more creative. Tenants need to take the same care with buildings that they do with cars. The net result of a series of small changes would be a dramatic reduction in energy consumption.

Originally published in The South China Morning Post. Can be accessed at