Economic realities are serious impacting on the sustainability agenda - but what’s at stake in this delay?

There is a new realism to the government’s green agenda - and doesn’t the construction industry just know it. Last month, chancellor George Osborne told the Conservative Party conference that the UK would not rush ahead of Europe in the race for a green economy. His language was as emotive as it is depressing: “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business,” he said. But tell that to the once rapidly growing solar sector, which this week warned that the government’s decision to halve solar feed-in tariffs could send their firms under.

This is just the latest in a long list of environmental policy U-turns. The mandatory introduction of display energy certificates for commercial buildings has been all but scrapped and will now be picked up by Paul Morrell’s Green Construction Board for further review. The government has already delayed releasing its detailed proposals for the Green Deal, raising concerns about the looming October 2012 implementation date. Ministers’ commitment to carbon capture has also been thrown into doubt with the collapse of a £1bn project last month, while the watering down of the Zero Carbon Homes definition has done nothing for their green reputation.

What’s at stake? First and foremost, the future of the many businesses aligned to the government’s green rhetoric and legislative agenda

Osborne may argue that these are decisions made in exceptional economic circumstances and that, as well as avoiding draining the national purse, he is saving businesses from more red tape and cost. Of course, his concern about the economy is well backed up by the data, as conditions begin to resemble the economic nadir of 2008.

So will anything get funding? Perhaps the government will focus on a few high-return initiatives, such as an enormous nuclear programme, in order to meet euro targets and secure the UK energy supply until economic stability returns and the renewables games can begin all over again.

But what’s at stake in this delay? First and foremost, the future of the many businesses aligned to the government’s green rhetoric and legislative agenda. The buy-in and trust of firms that could sign up to future green initiatives. The urgency and huge cultural change required by the general public. And - crucially - the UK’s green leadership credentials. The country’s environmental sector is currently hailed as a European - if not global - leader, to be emulated across the world. With that in mind, the UK Green Building Council is preparing a green business case to put before the government that will set out the actions required to maintain this leadership position.

But, sadly, it seems that this will only have a chance of being considered when the eurozone financial crisis is stabilised, and then only on its economic merits, if George Osborne is persuaded that the green economy will will drive future growth. Can we afford to wait?

Tom Broughton, brand director