A gutsy band of UK consultants have stormed the Johannesburg world summit to take up the flag of global sustainability in construction. Matthew Richards reports on their manifesto – and asks: where on earth are the contractors?
Any plan to save the planet has to involve the construction industry: building, operating and demolishing buildings accounts for 40% of global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as 30% of all waste in industrialised countries. Yet at this week's Johannesburg earth summit, construction is largely being ignored and industry representatives are thin on the ground. So, in the apparent absence of any concerned contractors, a group of UK consultants has decided to take action.

RIBA president Paul Hyett is currently in South Africa leading the charge to show the world that the industry can develop, and adhere to, sustainable policies. He will be speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Global Alliance for Building Sustainability, or GABS, which is being held this week to coincide with the earth summit.

The alliance is a coalition of professional industry bodies, non-government organisations and government agencies that aim to raise awareness of sustainability in construction and development. Led by the RICS Foundation and launched on Wednesday by United Nations under secretary-general Klaus Töpfer, the alliance will bring together UK bodies such as the RIBA, the RICS, the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers and the Construction Industry Council with their foreign counterparts.

Hyett explains that GABS is an attempt to put UK consultants in the vanguard of green construction. "Governments are made up of lawyers and accountants," he says. "They're trained to look backwards. As architects we're trained to look forwards; we need to ensure our voice is heard. We can build zero-energy buildings – we can even build buildings that generate energy."

However, Hyett concedes that legislating for sustainable construction will be "bloody difficult". "We operate in a market economy, so how the hell do we introduce regulations at national and international level to bring in green buildings? We need to educate people in the industry, in government and the public. We need to carry out research to show the alternatives.

We need intelligent consumers who demand sustainable buildings – but the UK government is one of the worst at demanding green buildings. We need to b e offering the market alternative strategies. The construction industry can and must do more."

Governments are made up of lawyers and accountants. They look backwards. As architects, we’re trained to look forwards

Paul Hyett, president, RIBA

The GABS agenda
"The aim of GABS is to accelerate policy and practice," says Alan Gilham, sustainability adviser at the RICS Foundation. "There's a lot of policy, but it's going to be delivered on a case-by-case basis – we want to give practitioners a platform to show what they've achieved. We're determined to get some action from this, because that's what's been lacking over the 10 years since Rio."

GABS has a lot of work to do. The industry is a voracious consumer of the world's resources, including tropical hardwoods and quarried products. The developing world is urbanising rapidly – the World Bank estimates that two-thirds of people will be living in cities by 2050, meaning that the built environment's impact on the planet can only increase. And although some of the initiatives on the Johannesburg table are of interest to the industry – such as attempts to improve timber certification – much of the agenda is taken up with general subjects such as public health and poverty. The alliance aims to refocus international attention on to crucial industry issues such as recycling, waste and resource consumption.

One way GABS will do this is by highlighting best practice such as Denmark's recycling scheme. In 1985, Denmark launched an action plan aimed at reusing 90% of building waste by 2004. It reached the goal in 1997, and in Copenhagen 93% of demolition waste is reused in construction; a further 6% goes into substitute fuel. Denmark has also used green taxes to cut water consumption in construction. GABS hopes it can persuade other countries to follow suit.

What about the contractors?
Some are sceptical about what a voluntary body like GABS can achieve. Susie Edwards, of BRE's Centre for Sustainable Construction, says she hopes the alliance will transfer knowledge from the developed to the developing world, but points out that there are already two international organisations promoting sustainable building, and questions what GABS will add.

Hannah Griffiths, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, agrees. "Another voluntary initiative!" she says. "Voluntary initiatives haven't delivered what they've promised. If construction was serious about environmental issues, it wouldn't be scared of our proposals on compulsory environmental reporting; it would join the calls for them and have nothing to fear from them.

I wouldn’t go to Johannesburg because I don’t see any sign that the summit will have practical outcomes

Bill Tallis, director, Major Contractors Group

"Compulsory environmental reporting is especially relevant to construction firms because they've been linked to some projects with devastating consequences. We'd like to see laws that hold companies accountable for their impact, and require them to consult with local communities."

CIBSE president Terry Wyatt, in Johannesburg for the GABS launch, defends the initiative. "GABS will be a pressure group on governments," he says. "It will be easier for us to talk to ministers such as John Prescott and Michael Meacher together than separately." But even he is aware of the organisation's fundamental flaw: contractors are not involved. "How can you have a global alliance for building sustainability without contractors?" he asks. "You can't. It just shows we carry on ploughing our own furrow without looking at what other people are doing."

The Major Contractors Group was invited to take part in GABS, but director Bill Tallis was against it. Tallis is eager to emphasise his green track record – he attended the Kyoto summit and chairs the sustainable development working group of the Institute of Chemical Engineers, which produced a "toolkit", or guide, to sustainable practices for chemical engineers – but says he does not believe GABS will make a real difference.

Tallis says: "It doesn't look as though GABS will produce a toolkit. I wouldn't be interested in going to Johannesburg because I don't see any sign that it will have any practical outcomes." This sentiment is echoed by Quentin Leiper, director for engineering and environment at contractor Carillion. "I don't think the summit will move us forward much," he says. "The summits at Rio in 1992 and Kyoto in 1997 didn't. If you have an agreement between 180 countries, you get stuck with the lowest common denominator."

No surprise, then, that contractors are so poorly represented at the summit: although utilities firm Thames Water and transnational corporations with UK connections – such as Rio Tinto and Shell – have sent delegations, construction firms are nowhere to be seen.