The Politics of Building Green

In spite of some starting troubles, it turns out that the recently concluded climate-change talks at Cancun might well be a landmark event in the politics of sustainability. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has miraculously avoided the usual political blame game between developed and developing nations. The talks have ended in a near-unanimous agreement on climate change, including a commitment to reduce green house gas emissions and a fund to help vulnerable countries. But a network of 40 international environmental and business leaders, led by the Green Building Councils (GBCs), is calling for a closer look at how the built environment is implicated in the agreements at Cancun.

The Global Leadership in Our Built Environment (GLOBE) Alliance is urging governments to explicitly recognize that sustainable building and infrastructure are a key component of the battle against climate change. “While diplomats try to hammer out a new agreement on climate, the world is not stopping its economic development.  China is projected to build the equivalent of 10 New York Cities over the next decade,” quipped Jane Henley, CEO of the World Green Building Council (WGBC).

The release of the Cancun agreements (available as pdfs here and here) seems to confirm their fears that governments might be choosing to conveniently ignore how buildings and infrastructure contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The agreements occasionally refer to “land use;” and while they speak at great length about the reduction of forest cover, they don’t really take a stand on unsustainable construction.

The GLOBE alliance has put out a Call to Action which, though released a full week before the Cancun agreements, seems to apply the broad measures of the agreements to the building and construction industries in particular. The alliance asks first that governments must recognize that across all sectors in all economies, the building sector has the greatest potential to cost-effectively reduce emissions. The alliance then calls for more investment in sustainable building technologies, and a focus on better ways of measuring a building’s performance in terms of emissions. And predicting some of the features of the Cancun agreements, the call to action also suggests better mechanisms for sharing knowledge and sustainable practices between developed and developing countries.

This is not to say that the built environment has received no attention from the powers-that-be. India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who played a key role at Cancun, is also busy back home dragging some very influential developers to court for flouting environmental building regulations. The China Green Building Council, established only two years ago, is developing its own rating systems, and co-operating with other GBCs worldwide. The China GBC is an active member of the GLOBE alliance.

However, these scattered measures need to be united by a global political urgency. The Cancun agreements have shown us that such a common political will can be rallied. If some of that will can be directed at the construction sector, we can work much faster at building a greener world.

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