It’s a global crisis, and it’s getting grimmer by the day, but this one we might actually be able to do something about… Paul King explains why sustainability is still the biggest issue of 2009

This may not feel like a particularly happy new year for everyone in our industry. Times are tough and there is no escaping that fact. Does this mean green building goes out of the window in 2009? Absolutely not. This Building sustainability special is testament to the fact that the issue remains high on the agenda, and rightly so.

Nothing has fundamentally changed in terms of the urgency of the task ahead of us. The climate crisis, not to mention a myriad connected environmental issues, gets bleaker by the day. Some may prefer to bury their heads in the sand, hoping this is all some January nightmare brought on by an over-indulgent festive period. But the harsh reality is that we must find solutions that put green building at the heart of a low-carbon economic recovery. The good news is, if we get it right, it could mean a boost for new business growth, new jobs, and new skills.

I can’t claim any great originality. Lord Stern said recently: “Let us grow out of this recession in a way that reduces risks for our planet and sparks off a wave of investment that will create a more secure, cleaner and more attractive economy for all of us.” And only last week, Gordon Brown said: “We must build tomorrow today … People will want to use the changes we’ve got to make as a result of the downturn to take the next step towards building a far more environmentally sustainable economy.”

The great and the good are queuing up to see the silver (or should that be green?) lining on this economic storm cloud. Politicians, from David Cameron to Barack Obama have spoken of seizing this opportunity to help green start-ups and to transforming industries such as car-making.

But what of our sector in particular? Perhaps of most immediate significance to us in the UK is the apparent appetite of Brown to use capital expenditure to create jobs.

Unfortunately we are yet to see any real detail beyond the rhetoric. Should this expenditure go on public transport, skills, energy efficiency and public sector building programmes with high sustainability standards? If so, I think we can begin to talk about the possibility of a “green new deal”. If it goes on road building or increased airport capacity, you have to question the logic. And I think the jury is still out on where eco-towns will sit on that sliding scale!

An early test for the government will be the heat and energy-saving strategy, due out for consultation in the next few weeks. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set out a plan for reducing emissions from our existing homes and buildings.

It is perhaps the refurbishment sector where most opportunity lies. This should be to the benefit of builders (large and small), specialist installers, product manufacturers and, of course, consumers – both homeowners and non-domestic occupiers. Yes, there are barriers, but surely not insurmountable ones. We’ll certainly have to overcome them if we’re to meet our national targets of at least a 34% cut in greenhouse gases across the economy by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

If we’re not all measuring the thing using the same methods, then how can we seriously say what represents progress?

On the new-build side, there are challenges aplenty. But we’ve come a long way in the last couple of years. Zero carbon is the right level of ambition and it’s achievable. It means minimising costs through good design, innovating in the way we generate and supply energy, and it depends on a clear and consistent trajectory of future regulations.

It’s been a slow process, but this spring, following the end of the consultation, we should finally have a definition of zero carbon for homes. And “later in 2009” a further consultation on the trajectory to zero-carbon commercial buildings is promised.

This year also promises to be busy for both government and industry action on a raft of other issues including water use, waste and climate change adaptation. Some targets from last year’s Sustainable Construction Strategy have to be delivered, and we must make measurable progress towards others.

In fact, the issue of measurable progress could well be a recurring theme of 2009 and it’s something of a new year’s resolution for the UK Green Building Council. As an industry we have collectively been good at raising the profile of sustainability and particularly good at creating initiatives. But it’s time to begin to rationalise the plethora of measurement tools and requirements, which even just for carbon dioxide in non-domestic buildings run into dozens. If we’re not all measuring the thing using the same methods, then how can we seriously say what represents progress?

Sustainability has been embraced by this sector, and it’s here to stay. But we’re going to need a bit more self-discipline to fully understand how our buildings really perform, to work out where we need to get to, by when, and what steps need to be taken to get there.

So the challenges are immense, but this is a resourceful and innovative industry. Can we rise to the challenges in 2009? To be the latest in a long list of people to paraphrase Obama, yes, we can – and yes, we must.

Original print headline - The carbon crunch