UK Green Building Council
Opinion
by 
John Alker

Yes we can!

Last week I was in San Francisco for the USGBC’s annual Greenbuild conference and expo. Here are a few reflections on what I heard.  All the quotes in italics are taken from USGBC Founding Chair, President and CEO Rick Fedrizzi’s keynote speech.

“In this country we have an addiction that threatens our very way of life. The addiction is denial and the subject is climate change.”

Sometimes those of us in the green movement seem to be scared to talk about climate change, but we shouldn’t apologise.  The science is looking worse and worse (see this week’s World Bank report), and we need to tell it like it is. Globally about a third of carbon emissions come from our buildings. If we are to have any chance of tackling the problem we need moral leadership, from both government and business. 

With that in mind, it’s starting to frustrate me that the need to ‘prove the business case’ is treated with such reverence.  I detect in part a tactic being employed to cause obfuscation and delay. What about the human and ecological case? I’m not daft, I realise we need to make green buildings financially viable, but if we can’t make the finance stack up, we will need to change the rules of the game. That probably means government regulation, and if not that then a level of leadership from the private sector we’ve never seen before. 

“We are right”

It follows, therefore, that we need to take on the naysayers, or as Rick would call them, the “cynics, scoundrels, and detractors”. He was specifically talking about those in the US chemical industry who are lobbying against LEED’s efforts to eliminate toxic materials (a big issue in the US where regulations aren’t as stringent as the EU), but I think there is lesson for a UK context too.

We have an insane situation in which our Energy Minister is campaigning against wind energy; where our Environment Secretary is equivocal on climate change science; and where our Chancellor holds back green growth. These people are wrong, we are right and we need to win this argument. It’s a battle we simply cannot afford to lose. Again, to quote Rick “Bring it on”.

“You don’t have to leave the country to find a better one.”

Whether it’s the definition of zero carbon, the latest update to BREEAM or some obscure aspect of policy, it seems like the green building movement in the UK is all too eager to be cynical, self-critical and loves nothing more than an exercise in pseudo-intellectual navel-gazing. Ideally this takes place in stuffy window-less rooms in Westminster conference venues. And, frankly, it’s depressing. 

Contrast that with the admittedly stereotypical ‘can-do’ mentality in the US. Despite, possibly even because of, the fact that 3 out of 4 Republican Senators publicly question the science of climate change, there is a relentless positivity that is really infectious. The attitude is if you want something doing, do it yourself.  There is a coalition of the willing, from Governors to city mayors, big developers to small architects, and community organisations to faith groups who are out there, doing what they can and celebrating success. We need more of that here. 

Best of the rest:

Paul Hawkins, environmentalist and author: “In the past if we didn’t like the message of change, we killed the messenger. In the case of climate change there was no messenger, so we killed the message.”

Cory Brooker, Mayor of Newark: “We need to stop putting this into left-right terms, the broken record of our politics.”

Majora Carter, urban revitalization strategist: “The quest for equality always leads to greater prosperity”.

Van Jones, Obama’s former green jobs advisor:  “We need to fight pollution and poverty at the same time… (and create) a green economy Dr King could be proud of.”

To watch a video of the opening plenary at Greenbuild, click here.

John is the UK-GBC's Director of Policy and Communications

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