If you think saving the planet is not the responsibility of either the construction industry or UK plc, think again. Everybody has a part to play - including you and me
I cannot recall the topic of sustainability and the environment ever being as hotly debated as it seems to be currently. Whether it's Ken Livingstone's desire to cut carbon emissions by 20%, or RIBA president Jack Pringle calling for tougher energy standards, they and others like them are making a positive contribution to the debate over how we protect the environment.
The subject of the planet's well-being is no longer the preserve of a niche of society but has been embraced by many at every level. It has taken a while but the penny has finally dropped - that never has there been such a universal issue where everyone is a potential stakeholder. We do not want future generations to look back and describe us as modern dinosaurs who were aware of an oncoming meteorite but decided to ignore it in the hope it would hit the planet next door.
At the basic level, my company has examined what it can do to help the environment. We now have a system of genuine energy reduction being introduced in many of our UK offices and our management team recently travelled to darkest Nottinghamshire to underwrite the planting of trees for the Woodland Trust. But is this enough, or can we all do more to influence the attitude of those shaping the built environment in the UK? After all, if we construction professionals can't have an effect on sustainability, who can?
I find the difficulty with discussing environmental responsibility is that often it seems all too easy to take one step forward through establishing energy-saving initiatives, while taking three steps backwards through the clumsiness of our efforts. For instance, it was recently suggested to me that we convert our current fuel source to palm oil, which has lower carbon emissions than petrol. This seems fine until you learn that only one fuel station in northern Europe seems to sell palm oil-based fuel and that to harvest the palm oil they have been destroying the rainforests of Borneo, home to the endangered orang-utan. Hello ice caps - goodbye apes. The real answer would be to plant thousands of palm oil trees in the Sahara where they grow naturally, but this has its challenges.
We now audit the carbon footprint of our offices, we've reduced our day-to-day energy use and we've started sourcing some of our electricity through a green energy supplier. It costs the business about 10% more per year but, hand on heart, we are trying.
The real conversion process in Europe needs to take place within the boardrooms of the financial institutions who feel far more secure investing in tried-and-tested developments using standard energy sources than "experimenting" with designs that embrace long-term thinking. This is an alien concept to some investors, who still see the green issue as something for hippies and fantasists.
Businesses in the Far East view a carbon footprint with the same incredulity as that of a yeti
The point made by the enviro-cynics is that the issue of sustainability is a global challenge and that it is not about the UK finding an answer or even the Europeans sourcing a solution. It is more about persuading the old and new superpowers that it is in all our interests to do something.
And indeed, as an organisation we often find ourselves competing, and partnering, with businesses in the Far East who view a carbon footprint audit with the same incredulity that they would the footprint of an abominable snowman. (In fact, the yeti theory has more credibility in that part of the world.)
There it is all about price, speed and service delivery. And the same is often true of Eastern Europe, where legislative and cultural influences are very different from those in the UK.
Ultimately, it is the role of our political leaders to take a stand. Recently, when Gordon Brown was asked what he thought was the most valuable contribution Mr and Mrs Average could do to save the planet, he muttered something about turning TVs off at the mains at night - hardly epoch-making advice. However, some forward-thinking firms are acting with considerable foresight. We have seen clients adding wind turbines to roofs in central London, making an important contribution to lighting the building as well as saving money. Others have conducted environmental audits and made changes - a real approach to a serious issue, rather than a PR stunt.
Each day you cannot move without seeing headlines on global warming and other impending catastrophes. As fossil fuels become ever more costly, is it time to take the initiative and start looking at the real cost of energy consumption? Perhaps we should establish the true origin of our raw materials and enquire what happens along the entire supply chain. But then again, this could be an impossible task unless backed on a legislative basis - and do we really want more red tape to dictate a green future?
As I stood with my fellow partners planting trees in Skellingthorpe Wood, we did not think for a moment we had made a huge contribution towards protecting the polar ice cap. However, as the management team of a major consultant, we play an key part in the building process. If we can at least start raising the issue with suppliers and clients, then just maybe our global political leaders may start seriously searching for answers.
Richard Steer is senior partner in Gleeds