The government must put its money where its mouth is to save small businesses and the environment

2008 was a year of rising uncertainty, both in the financial and environmental world. Whilst global stock markets and the credibility of banks tumbled, the temperature of the earth's climate continued to rise at greater levels than the scientific community had previously thought possible. This has created a challenging and potentially rewarding market for small businesses focusing on the sustainability testing and certifying of buildings; but a strong lead from the government is required to prevent these opportunities from disappearing under the rising tide of recession.

HRS Services is an SME working in the specialist construction industry for the past 25 years. From the mid nineties the commitment of forward thinking retailers such as Tesco to achieving best practice levels of building airtightness enabled HRS to enter into the early stages of the sustainable buildings revolution. The government's commitment to the Kyoto protocol and its subsequent translation into Part L of the Building Regulations introduced the concept of building energy performance testing and certification. However, adherence was initially poor, in part due to a less than robust approach to enforcement of compliance from the government. Anecdotal evidence suggested that building air tightness testing was only being implemented on 35% of commercial projects. Small companies, such as HRS, found themselves over-equipped for a market that had failed to mature as expected. Mercifully since 2006 the increased efforts to provide education on and more stringently enforce the Regulations have facilitated a growth in the market. However, since the introduction of the Part L Regulations, there is not a single record of any prosecution being undertaken regarding non-compliance.

Further to the Kyoto treaty, a 2003 white paper set a target of 60% carbon dioxide emissions reductions by 2050. This has recently been superseded by the Climate Change Bill, which commits the government to cutting 80% of carbon emissions, including shipping and aviation, by 2050. The very impressive and commendable target will put the UK at the front of the world stage in combating climate change. With such ambitious ideals both industry and the general public will be looking to parliament for strong leadership and guidance.

The considerable contribution of the energy use in buildings to national carbon emissions is well documented. The incorporation of the European Performance of Buildings Directive into UK law provides a framework for assessing both the theoretical and actual ratings of all buildings through EPCs and DECs. This provides valuable information for clients not only on how well their buildings are currently performing, but also the most cost effective way to reduce energy consumption. In a climate of gradually increasing energy prices it would appear that the time has truly come for small companies that can provide not only EPC and DEC performance assessments, but also the knowledge and services to provide remedial actions.

With new build only accounting for a 1-2% turnover of stock and an estimated 40% of the current stock to still be in use by 2050 it is clear that the performance of existing buildings must be addressed if the UK is to have a hope of achieving its commitments. This market is also partially shielded from the recession pressures associated with new build. It would therefore appear to be a lifeline for small companies such as HRS that face what is billed to be a very tough 2009. Unfortunately, the Achilles heel is that there is no legal requirement to actually upgrade the energy performance of an existing building, unless it is refurbished. The onus is therefore on the client to make decisions on improvement based on their Energy Performance Certificate and Display Energy Certificate (if applicable). Scepticism amongst the general public about climate change and commitments to carbon emissions reductions are rife. This is exacerbated by the publication of the measured energy performance of some government buildings. Both the Houses of Parliament and Portcullis House, only completed in 2002, were awarded a G rating - the worst possible. It is understandable that faced with such double standards, apathy for change will remain.

Whilst top level political and scientific will to reduce carbon emissions is becoming more prominent, the lack of implementation of measures in public buildings is evident. With energy costs still relatively low and pay back periods for remedial energy performance improvement measures perceived by many as too great, it is time for action. Aiming for greater energy efficiency in public buildings, as retailers have already demonstrated as feasible in their stock, will not only provide a model for commercial building users to aspire to, but provide potential growth for SMEs faced with a contraction in the construction industry.