Many sustainability claims have been overstated, under delivered and consequently, undermined

David Bownass

In a market economy, the link between sustainability and value is fundamental. Without contributing to the value of a project, any sustainability proposals are very unlikely to be delivered.

This may be unacceptable to those who believe we should be doing “the right thing” for the future of the planet. To those people I’d suggest we have enough to do without trying change our economic philosophy, rather we should work with the market to achieve our aims and start by understanding the many facets of sustainability and its value.

If we accept that a market can be altered through simple things such as financial incentives, regulation and education and that these lead to a change in value perception, then we have our route to create change. This approach has been used by successive governments; we have feed-in tariffs (FITs) to support renewable electricity, enhanced capital allowances to support energy efficient plant, Part L regulations to reduce building carbon emissions and continuing education on eating healthily and increased exercise.

Accepting these helpful market adjustments and focusing on the built environment, where is the current value? Well, in principle it’s everywhere, for example:

  • Planning permission: without embedding sustainability into your application whether it’s appropriate storm water attenuation, waste recycling, green transport or reduced carbon emissions you are unlikely to obtain approval.
  • Building regulations: without demonstrating compliance with a range of regulations, including Part L, your building cannot be used.
  • Societal value through place making: for example, ensuring people have local shops, doctors, dentists and space to play. New homes which have provision for a home office, space for drying and waste recycling and ideally a garden. Developing mixed use developments that mitigate soulless, uniform, housing estates.
  • Reduced operational costs: through designing new low carbon buildings, retrofitting existing buildings and utilising financial incentives such as FITs and the Renewable Heat Incentive.
  • Financial penalties: the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme penalises large produces of carbon emissions.
  • Improved information technology and fibre optic infrastructure that supports home working, video conferencing and rural businesses. 
  • Better food labelling so that the consumer can make an informed choice. 

While these are all true and valuable, the devil is in their detail and delivery.

Sustainability claims have in many cases been overstated; think micro-wind turbines on houses and eco-homes with huge heating bills.

The sustainability message has also been hijacked. Sustainable development doesn’t mean watering down standards, building homes with rooms that are too small or ignoring future climate change impact. Sustainability has been oversold, in some cases under delivered and, as a consequence, undermined.

My aim in future articles is to highlight examples of sustainability policy or regulation that are credible but are misapplied or don’t work and highlight practical examples that do work. Hopefully in doing this we can provide some clarity and reinforce the value of sustainability.

David Bownass is sustainability director at WSP