A recent sustainability conference came up with some bright ideas for carbon-cutting products, projects and codes. But the time for talking is over. How do we take action?

The speakers at last month’s Building a Low Carbon World conference offered diverse motivations for tackling climate change. They included the preservation of freedom, democracy and capitalism; the promotion of corporate “cool” and the desire to leave a better world for our children.

What seemed clear, however, was that there was a consensus among speakers and delegates on the need for all those involved in the development process to take positive steps to reduce the carbon emissions by the built environment – and to do so now.

Some inspiring examples of projects and products were given: Google’s 1.6MW photovoltaic solar project at its headquarters in Mountain View, California; the proposed use of a non-toxic, artificial stone made from rice husks for some of the 400 million new homes to be built in China by 2012; and architect Bill McDonough’s photosynthetic roofs.

The focus was on our cities and on the need to create sustainable communities. Cross-sector collaboration was called for, with strategies to embrace and appeal to the interests of all those involved in the development supply chain and further onwards to the end users, down even to us as individuals.

Many initiatives have either been launched or are in the pipeline and there are a number of bodies in the public and private sectors working for change. We have the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and the more recent UK regulations, mayor Ken Livingstone’s Climate Change Action Plan for London and the Code for Sustainable Homes.

If, as some argue, the technology already exists to tackle the problems and, as others suggest, the costs of sustainable development are generally overestimated, the future of the built environment may be as glorious as our vision for it. Business appears ready to take action – only a small minority thought the Climate Change Action Plan for London was too prescriptive.

Perhaps we will soon see a day when, alongside the standard deleterious materials provisions in contracts and appointments, there are sustainable or environment friendly materials clauses.

Business appears ready to take action – only a small minority thought the Climate Change Action Plan for London was too prescriptive

If that is to happen, it is likely the industry will want proven examples of benefits. Construction can be slow to embrace change – look how long it took for third-party rights to become accepted.

Although there are notable examples of developers, engineers, designers and others who have already embraced sustainability in a practical way by incorporating significant measures into their projects, if the industry as a whole is to take action, it is likely to do so only if there is clear direction as well as tangible benefits.

While the many initiatives demonstrate a laudable example of drive and creativity, some must necessarily come to the fore if there is to be consensus and direction. A point touched on at the conference is the need to offer definitive guidance for the punter who is looking for best practice advice.

Livingstone’s “concierge service” for well-intentioned individuals obviously recognises this demand in the residential sector, although it would be good to have reassurance that the advice it gives is clear, definitive and correct. But where does the commercial developer look? What about designers themselves?

At the moment, there seem to be a plethora of bodies co-ordinating and promulgating best practice guidance and there is an urgent need for a single authoritative source. The UK Green Building Council, which is supported by many leaders in the industry under the leadership of Paul King, seems to be the most powerful voice working to achieve a sustainable built environment but it needs to deliver on its stated goals at a practical and sensible level.

Private initiative must align with legislation, or drive it. The British Property Federation’s landlord’s energy statement for office buildings was launched at the start of May. It aims to work alongside the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive but to provide landlords with more information. There is a “green landlords” scheme in the making and a push for a green code for commercial buildings. There was also the recent Think conference.

Hopefully, practical advice for action will continue to emerge. Successful projects will provide examples for others to follow so sharing information gained is crucial. The recent conferences should be just the start.