With the failure to agree a deal in The Hague, the EU is set to take the lead on climate change. For European construction, it looks like everything is about to go green.
two weeks of intense negotiations at the hague failed to agree a deal on climate change last month, leaving the European Union on one side of a chasm and the USA and its Japanese and Australasian allies on the other. Attempts to restart the talks in Oslo also collapsed, with the Americans saying it would be pointless, as no agreement was in sight.

The result is that the EU looks like being forced to take the lead by redoubling its members states' efforts to cut greenhouse gases – in effect launching the green century without the USA's help. In the aftermath of the collapse, French environment minister Dominique Voynet and her German counterpart Jürgen Trittin went out of their way to stress this possibility.

US president-elect George W Bush officially opposes the 1997 Kyoto protocol "because it is ineffective, inadequate and unfair to America". As former governor of oil-state Texas and the recipient of $12.7m of election funds from coal and oil interests, his stance should come as no surprise. Meanwhile, scientists are warning governments that urgent action is needed. Bob Watson, chair of the intergovernmental panel on climate change, told Hague delegates that: "It is not a question of whether the earth's climate will change, but rather by how much, how fast and where. Adverse impacts will undermine the goal of sustainable development in many parts of the world."

It is not a question of whether the earth’s climate will change, but rather by how much, how fast and where. Adverse impacts will severely undermine the goal of sustainable development in many parts of the world

Bob Watson, chair of the intergovernmental panel on climate change

The biggest stumbling block throughout the talks, and the topic that caused their eventual collapse, was "carbon sinks". A carbon sink is a forest or an area of vegetation that stores carbon that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere. And carbon, in the form of CO2, is responsible for global warming. Plants help reduce the carbon present in the atmosphere by absorbing it as they grow, storing the carbon until they decompose or are burned, and the carbon is released into the atmosphere.

In The Hague, the USA proposed to reduce carbon in the atmosphere by not cutting down forests. The EU was not prepared to accept this, countering that limits should be placed on the number of carbon sinks that a country could use to meet its emission-cutting targets.

The clean development mechanism would allow British companies to invest in a building efficiency scheme or a solar power project in a developing country – for example, China – and take all or part of the resulting carbon permits as its own

As one union official explained: "In the end, the 15 EU ministers felt the US offer was compromising the environmental integrity of the Kyoto protocol and they could not take the deal back to their public." The deal would have allowed the USA 75 million tonnes of CO2 from sinks, with 15 million tonnes each for Japan and Canada.

With this refusal, the EU has put the onus back on energy efficiency. One result is likely to be that the UK government brings forward measures to encourage the uptake of combined heat and power units and renewable energy. Construction firms and developers that seize the opportunity to add energy efficiency to buildings now stand to do well in future. This could also benefit the UK industry by creating a thriving carbon market (below).

In the end, the 15 EU ministers felt the US offer was compromising the environmental integrity of the Kyoto protocol and they could not take the deal back to their public

European Union official

Another Hague sticking point that, once settled, might help construction is the issue of "supplementarity". This bit of jargon essentially limits how much of a country's carbon-cutting target can be achieved by buying pollution permits from overseas. The USA wanted no restrictions, and the EU wanted a 50% cap. The negotiations concluded with a fudged phrase saying reductions should be made "primarily (or principally) through domestic action", but without stating a specific percentage.

Currently, supplementarity is not a problem in the UK, which is set to surpass its Kyoto target of 11.5% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2010 and might well be in a position to sell permits to other countries struggling to meet their own targets – such as the USA. However, the more energy buildings save, the more permits their occupiers will have to sell the government, which can then sell them on.

Projects benefiting from this new approach would include medium-sized wind parks for communities, photovoltaic panels for buildings, and large energy-efficiency programmes

Designers of low-energy buildings and energy-efficiency consultants should be keeping an eye open for a future deal on the "clean development mechanism", which might create another potentially lucrative carbon market. The mechanism would allow British companies to invest in a building efficiency scheme or a solar power project in a developing country – for example, China – and take all or part of the resulting carbon permits as its own.

The Hague conference was good news for small energy-efficiency schemes. Minor sustainable energy projects are often crippled by having to jump through the same set-up procedures and costs as a £100m project. A report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers for the DETR, which gave a business view on elements of the proposals outlined at the Kyoto conference, showed that these costs can amount to 70% of the capital costs for a small solar photovoltaic project, and 7-10% for a medium-sized building efficiency project. Delegates agreed simplified procedures to cut the transaction costs of small projects by a factor of 10.

Projects benefiting from this new approach would include medium-sized wind parks for communities, photovoltaic panels for buildings, and large energy-efficiency programmes. If energy efficiency remains a priority in the next round of talks, it could open up a worldwide market for energy efficient buildings and combined heat and power plants.

Meacher’s challenge for construction to cut greenhouse gas emissions

What can construction do to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and what will the true value of buildings be in a carbon-constrained world? Environment minister Michael Meacher has set up an industry taskforce to answer these questions, and has challenged the industry to come up with plans to reduce emissions from the whole built environment. Chaired by Lord Ezra, the taskforce includes Max Fordham of consultant Max Fordham & Partners, Philip Ward of the DETR, Mike Murray from Amec, Vic Crisp of the BRE, Terry Wyatt of consulting engineer Hoare Lea & Partners and Adam Poole of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers. Wyatt, research and development director for Hoare Lea, says: “Nothing is sacred. If we are to get on the curve towards 60% carbon reductions over the next 40 to 50 years, business-as-usual is the only option we can exclude.” After several meetings, the taskforce has concluded that using Building Regulations alone is too bureaucratic. “We are leaning more towards carbon trading in all buildings, using a system of carbon benchmarking as the base,” says Wyatt. He confirmed that homes would not be excluded – “otherwise people make no connections between floods and the action they can take to improve energy efficiency”. The draft recommendations will be presented to trade associations early in the new year, in order to report to Meacher before a May general election. Input is welcomed: send an email, for the attention of Adam Poole, to: patrons@cibse.org.

Carbon: the new green pound?

Construction companies that use low-energy manufacturing processes and clients that occupy green buildings will soon see their eco-friendly habits boosting the bottom line. Under proposals put forward by the UK government, firms are to be given credits – called carbon permits – if they beat pollution targets. They can then sell these to firms that do not. An international emissions trading scheme may not be launched before 2007, but with a UK voluntary scheme due to kick off in April, British companies will need to gear up for this large new market. A number have already set up internal pollution targets and emission trading systems, others are already investing in carbon credits, forestry and renewable energy schemes. “Typically these have been the big ‘polluters’ such as the oil and gas industries,” says Guy Battle, a director of consultant Battle McCarthy. By contrast, “the property industry has remained largely ignorant of the opportunities that emissions trading and the new climate change levy could bring, and certainly does not understand the implications of operating in a carbon-neutral environment – which is likely to happen in the not-too-distant future.” Battle uses the example of a typical 100 000 m2 office development: “Throughout its lifetime, this building would emit over 20 000 tonnes of carbon a year – in addition to the 500 000 tonnes of carbon already embodied in the materials used to construct it. If this building had to be developed in a carbon-neutral environment, this would require the developer to buy £400 000 of carbon credits a year just to offset the building’s annual emissions.” In a move to exploit this market, Battle McCarthy has set up a carbon management consultancy. According to Battle: “A property development company could reduce its carbon emissions by 25% by 2005 by introducing renewable energy schemes and combined heat and power systems, the use of materials with a low embodied energy and improvements in the operation of energy consuming plant.”

Integer goes international

The Integer house was a startling vision of the future of the standard suburban domicile – a house half encased in a glass box to protect it from the predominantly chilly British climate. Now the team behind it are doing the same for the high-rise, high density Hong Kong apartment. Construction will begin later this month on a 1500 m2 circular building on the bustling waterfront of the city’s Admiralty district. It will be built using environmentally-friendly construction techniques and prefabricated components. If successful, this £3.5m pavilion will demonstrate that ecologically efficient, housing can be produced for a high-temperature, high-humidity region. The building will house two demonstration flats that are designed to be stacked up to 40 storeys high. Visitors will also be able to wander through a demonstration lift lobby and examples of structural and services innovations. Like the pavilion itself, the flats have been designed to be factory-assembled and to use sustainable and recyclable materials throughout. The project is being sponsored by the UK and Hong Kong governments, and is supported by the Hong Kong Housing Authority and the Hong Kong Housing Society. The building will be opened in September this year, with the exhibition due to run until the end of 2002. It is not just Hong Kong that is getting the high-rise treatment. Closer to home, Integer is currently involved in discussions with Westminster City Council to refurbish a tower block using green techniques and intelligent systems. “It will be our next demonstration project,” says Alan Kell, Integer programme director. Details of the pavilion are available on the Integer website: www.integer.com.hk Project team: clients Integer Programme in Hong Kong, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, Department of Trade and Industry
lead architect Cole Thompson Associates
executive architect Leigh & Orange
structural and services engineer WSP
information technologist I&I
quantity surveyor Franklin + Andrews
main contractor Gammon Construction

The laws that will turn construction green

Pending legislation
  • End 2001 – revisions to energy-efficiency rules contained in Part L of the Building Regulations
    A radical shake-up of the energy regulations that will affect all new buildings. All new buildings will have to be better insulated, more air-tight and use more efficient heating and lighting systems. Taxes
  • April 2001– Climate Change Levy
    A tax on energy use that will affect all UK businesses and the public sector. It will be collected at the rate of £0.43/kW for electricity and £0.15/kW for gas and coal. The aim is to “encourage” business to be more energy-efficient.
  • April 2002 – Aggregates Tax
    To be used to stimulate demand for recycled materials. It will be levied at a rate of £1.60/tonne on sand, gravel and crushed rock.
  • Annual – Landfill Tax
    The landfill tax will be raised from £11/tonne to £15 in 2004 in annual £1 increments.
  • April 2001 – VAT cut
    A cut in VAT on energy-saving materials, from 17.5% to 5%. Other initiatives
  • Local Agenda 21
    A scheme that originated at the Rio Summit in 1992, which outlined environmental goals to be implemented by local authorities.
  • Domestic emissions trading scheme (carbon trading)
    Due to begin April 2001, kick-started with £30m of government support.
  • Renewable energy generation
    Government target for an increase in the use of renewable energy; for example, wind and wave power, to 10% by 2010 and 20% by 2025.
  • Green purchasing initiative
    Government initiative that will require, by March 2003, that all government departments use whole-life costs, make post-project reviews of energy and water efficiency and monitor user satisfaction. All new buildings should have “excellent” BREEAM ratings.
  • What is to be done

    Industry views on the future of sustainable construction
    Sustainability runs right through everything we do. The issues of energy use and conservation are prerequisites of any building project. We are moving towards a sustainable society. There is a social agenda for a more sustainable lifestyle; for example, urban transport – how can you persuade people to walk more? It is also about how poorer people can manage with less energy.
    Mark Whitby, director, Whitby Bird & Partners A new house is four times more energy efficient than its Victorian counterpart. If everyone used as much energy as a new house, we’d be beating the scientists’ target of reducing energy consumption by 60%. Housebuilders are acutely aware that taking an environmental lead can be good for business. Barratt (70%) and Crest (95%) are actually exceeding the government target of 60% brownfield site development. After the recent flooding, it was thought that new housebuilding might be a cause. But we’ve been pressing for porous tarmac, reed beds and other urban drainage systems to control the rate of drainage for some time.
    Spokesman, House Builders’ Federation