Problems of Green Construction
September 28, 2012
Krzysztof ¯mijewski, a former deputy construction minister and secretary-general of the Public Board for the Development of a Low-Emission Economy, an independent pressure group, talks to El¿bieta Wrzecionkowska about the problems of green construction and the government’s role in promoting environmentally-friendly practices.
Buildings account for more than 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and consume 40 percent of energy generated worldwide. How big a problem is this?
The crux of the problem in construction is not the extent to which buildings are responsible in terms of the overall amount of emissions but the potential for reduction. This potential is huge in construction compared to other sectors. If we compare buildings from before World War II, when heating consumed more than 300 kWh per square meter per year, we can see just how much progress has been made and what potential there is in construction.
Statistics are the best yardstick. Today we can build a zero-energy building or even a positive-energy building. Such projects are being built in China and Dubai, for example. These buildings are still very expensive, so they are not profitable projects. On the other hand, passive buildings that use up just 15 kWh per sq m per year are profitable. If someone gave us a loan to turn premises into a passive building, this would certainly be a profitable undertaking. The first such office building is being built in Katowice with support from EU funds. But such examples are few and far between.
For now, we should concentrate on bringing some order to the regulations, the ones we already have and the ones stemming from the EU’s common policy. Remember that, as of July 1, 2012, EU members had to change their laws regarding the energy performance of buildings so as to reduce energy consumption in the construction sector by 20 percent.
Energy certificates were supposed to encourage building owners to reduce energy use some time ago. How has this system worked, in your opinion?
The Polish system of energy certification of buildings has been a washout. Energy certificates do not provide real information on how much energy a building uses. Some of these certificates can be ordered online just by sending a photo, which means they are about as reliable as a medical diagnosis based on a photo. This is simply a swindle, but people go along with it because the cost is zl.50. By law, energy certification is required for all buildings, both new ones and ones being sold, but the regulations are not enforced in practice.
International environmental certificates such as LEED or BREAM, for which environmentally-aware developers apply in Poland, have very strict requirements as to energy conservation. Can they improve the energy balance in the Polish construction sector?
LEED and BREAM environmental certificates are a drop in the ocean. There are still very few buildings with these certificates. One reason is the cost of certification, but the main reason is the lack of correlation. Investors incurring the costs of energy-saving and eco-friendly systems and undergoing certification do not gain any advantages from the savings generated during the building’s use.
Whether certification is sought or not depends on the awareness of the market, meaning office tenants and housing residents, where the level of awareness is determined by education. Over here people think that these things will happen of their own accord, that companies which use advanced technologies will handle the public’s education, whereas companies are concerned mainly with profit, and rightly so. That’s what managers are held accountable for. There is no support from the government and the ministries. Let me give an example.
A great deal of office space is rented by the government and local governments. This amounts to millions of square meters. The question is, shouldn’t the regulations on these leases specify at least that space may not be rented in buildings that don’t have an energy certificate? Under the law, every building appearing on the market, even if it is old, has to have an energy certificate. We could be developing this, thus supporting green construction as well. Is the government setting a good example? No. What are we even talking about, then? We as the Public Board for the Development of a Low-Emission Economy wanted to see such requirements included in the law on energy efficiency, but the finance minister protested against such a provision.
In that case, what role do you see for the government in promoting eco-friendly and energy-saving construction?
Education, information, promotion. These aren’t synonyms. You inform someone who wants to be informed, and you promote someone who wants to be promoted. These are all tasks for the government. It’s only in some areas that business can support these tasks, but expecting business to perform them alone is just avoiding one’s own duties.
Then there are standards. These have to be defined at a high European level and then enforced. It’s not just that all buildings should have energy certificates, they have to be checked as well. You can’t allow people to get out of obtaining them by some trick or other.
Optional standards could also be introduced, like environmental certificates. If the government thinks meeting these standards is too expensive, then it’s hard to force everyone to comply with them, but at least they should be supported. Once we have education and standardization in place, then of course we can move on to systems of support. It’s best to support whatever will no longer require support the soonest. As far as the interests of society as a whole are concerned, we need to build mechanisms in which such support would be a fading trend and not a fixture. Let’s take photovoltaic cells, for example. Once costly, this technology is becoming more and more accessible today. Its price has halved over the past five years, and has been dropping by 7 percent annually since the Chinese entered the market. More than 50 percent of these cells are made in China these days. It’s worth looking at our neighbors, Germany and Britain, where 90 percent of support programs involve photovoltaic projects. Wind turbines with a vertical rotation axis are another example. They rotate when the wind blows, they are quiet and very efficient.
Thirdly, there are household power and heat generation plants. The latest boilers are able to turn heat generated during combustion into electricity. We’re not talking about something unattainable here. These are well-tested and available systems. They need to be popularized and supported, and then savings in construction will emerge quicker than we expected. As I said at the beginning, construction has huge potential, we just need to use it.