The Global View

UK building industry doubts zero-carbon targets

If the UK government is to meet its goal of a zero-carbon building market, it’s going to have to do a lot better at persuading the construction industry that that target is achievable.

That’s because, according to a new survey, some three-fourths of the British development industry don’t believe the government’s zero-carbon goal for the sector is realistic. The survey questioned more than 7,000 individuals in the industry, the largest-ever such poll.

“With an industry that is sceptical about carbon reduction targets, closer collaboration between government and the industry is essential if these are to be met,” said Liz Peace, Chief Executive of the British Property Federation. “Government will need to work with all sectors to understand fragmented views and identify why certain sectors feel the targets are more achievable than others.”

A joint effort of the British Property Federation, international law firm Taylor Wessing, and specialist research and communications consultancy Spada, the survey is detailed in a report titled “Hitting the Green Wall … and Beyond.”

“Government faces a huge challenge in striking the right balance between ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ in order to
secure its sustainability objectives,” the report states. “It is incumbent upon the industry to engage as much as possible and attempt to meet and exceed targets.”

The report is based on a survey of a number of different players in the building industry, ranging from investors and developers to contractors, technical and non-technical advisers and even tenants.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • All sectors of the UK development industry are sceptical of the government’s policy objectives, with 76 per cent of respondents saying plans to make all new housing zero carbon by 2016 are unrealistic. Similarly, 73 per cent said plans to make new commercial properties zero carbon by 2019 are also unrealistic. However, respondents tend to believe the “stick” of regulation is most likely to drive progress in future, which highlights the need for closer industry-government collaboration.
  • The industry acknowledge it is not communicating well with regards to sustainability. Only a minority of respondents say they are communicating sustainability performance “quite well” or “very well” to internal (47.4 per cent) or external (33.7 per cent) audiences. Contributing to the communications challenge is the complexity and fragmentation of the industry, along with the lack of a common currency of frameworks and benchmarks.
  • The importance accorded to sustainability remains high, despite the recession, with over 68 per cent saying sustainability was either “very” or “highly” important. When compared to Taylor Wessing’s previous report on sustainable building — “Behind the Green Facade,” released in 2009 — importance dipped only marginally by 3 per cent, a sign of durable commitment in the face of a severe recession. Contractors, however, reported a 10 per cent dip in importance.
  • Sustainability strategies are now widespread, but success is frequently not measured. Over 70 per cent of those surveyed had a sustainability strategy in place. However, only around half of respondents set internal targets, and just about one-third set targets related to business dealings.
  • Senior management takes responsibility for sustainability, agreed more than 80 per cent of respondents. However, it’s unclear who supports the senior management team as only a minority say they employ dedicated staff (36.18 per cent) or consultants (36.05 per cent).
  • A majority of all sectors (60 per cent) have direct experience of using green leases and other green agreements. This is a dramatic increase since last year’s report, which found that 46 per cent of end users were not even aware of the existence of such green agreements or provisions. Of the approximately 40 per cent of respondents who had not yet used a green agreement, almost half said they would consider it in future. Non-binding arrangements are by far the most common.
  • A plethora of benchmarking tools exist, but these all measure diverse factors and there is little common application.
  • Improved operational efficiency and greater flexibility of use are most likely to motivate respondents to retro-fit existing stock in order to meet sustainability goals. The industry seems unconcerned about future energy security.
  • The industry is taking tentative steps in trying to measure green value. Data relating to environmental performance is requested or provided during financial transactions by approximately one third of respondents.

“The burden and complexity of regulation affecting sustainability at EU and national levels will continue to increase,” added Helen Garthwaite, UK head of construction and engineering at Taylor Wessing. “The industry believes that the ‘stick’ of regulation is necessary to drive the pace of change, alongside fiscal incentives and other measures.”

She continued, “Alongside regulation, better measures to define success and value will be essential. The rationalisation of benchmarking tools and agreement over their application is needed. It is possible that some voluntary benchmarks could in effect become mandatory through industry promotion and use.”