What do the “green” Olympic Games, the Kyoto Protocol, and hybrid cars have in common? They all point to an increasing global awareness of the human impact on the natural environment and the effects it has on current and future societies around the world.
At the beginning of the 21st century, mounting scientific evidence and hard to ignore natural phenomena (e.g., melting ice caps, escalating hurricane seasons) have contributed to the speedy development of various sustainable concepts, lifestyles, and technologies. The movement has already influenced many aspects of society from manufacturing and advertising to economies and politics.
Recently, China dubbed its 2008 summer Olympics the “Green Olympics,” while London plans to make 2012 “the greenest Olympics ever.” Members of the corporate media around the globe increasingly use “green appeal” to promote an environmental agenda and achieve favorable recognition.
In 1997, the UN adopted the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement aimed at curbing global greenhouse gas emissions. One hundred and twenty two countries support the agreement. Many of these nations have already voluntarily adopted potentially costly measures designed to slow down the global warming phenomenon and have introduced sustainability into their national agendas.
Meanwhile, on a bottom line consumer level, fuel efficient hybrid cars keep gaining on SUVs and pickups, even in the United States. Americans are starting to fall out of love with fossil fuels and big cars as they come to understand the impact of the rising costs of energy on their personal and corporate budgets. It seems that U.S. consumers are finally getting tired of putting more money into the gas pump and are looking for alternatives.
In the U.S., interest in energy efficiency, high-performance design, building occupant health, and recycling has mushroomed from academic discussions in lecture halls and scientific journals to the 10 o’clock news, radio talk shows, and even political campaigns. A cursory review of recent advertising reveals that multibillion dollar corporations like Ford, GE, Chevron, and BP Global are starting to spend considerable amounts to promote their newly found environmentally sensitive images.
The initially subtle shift in public awareness of environmental issues has gradually evolved into a strong demand for energy conservation and environmental resourcefulness. Corporate pioneers who staked an early claim in this newly created sustainable frontier are already profiting by saving costs and responding to a change in the global consumer mindset.
Green Roofs In Germany
Germany has contributed a great deal to the high performance technology knowledge base. Perhaps the country’s greatest claim to green fame is its mastery of green roof technology, which involves the installation of soil and vegetation that protect the fragile roof membrane. Green roofs developed in Germany have demonstrated multiple benefits: slowing of water discharge; support of surrounding eco-systems; water recycling; reduction of building energy costs; and a 40 year life span.
Germans continue to enhance this technology from which they have reaped financial and environmental benefits for nearly 40 years.
A brief review of sustainable initiatives in foreign markets reveals that various countries have already jumped far ahead in the race toward a sustainable economy. But how does the U.S., which consumes the most energy and resources in the world, stack up against other countries in terms of sustainable progress? And how does this impact facility management operations in an increasingly global marketplace?
Since 1975, both U.S. and European Union economies have shown considerable growth. However, while the U.S. has almost doubled its consumption of oil, European Union countries have maintained about the same levels. While their economic growth has continued at a slower, but sustained, pace, Europeans have kept their oil needs in check by pursuing innovation, rigorous energy policies, and programs aimed at energy and fuel conservation. As a result, the European Union has been able to cut its energy consumption by a much greater degree than the U.S.
Within the European Union, Germany stands out as one of the world’s most determined champions of sustainable technology. This nation leads the world in wind power production; its 13,000 wind turbines produce more wind energy than Denmark, Spain, and the U.S. combined.
Germans have also mastered other key sustainable technologies and techniques, such as natural ventilation, building integrated solar panels, double-skin façades, thermally efficient building envelopes, and green roofs. In the U.S., wide implementation of sustainable building systems remains in its infancy, due mostly to the lack of government sponsored incentives and funding programs and a somewhat conservative marketplace.
Second only to Japan in the production of solar panel technology (i.e., photovoltaics), Germany accounts for one third of the world’s demand for solar cells. This production has reduced the cost of solar technology in both countries and allowed for their broad integration into the economy.
Germany expects to use renewable energies, including solar, wind, geothermal, and biofuels, to generate half its energy by 2050. While this in itself is an incredible goal, the real wonder is this nation’s ability to employ creativity and determination to overcome energy related challenges imposed on every highly developed country. For example, some German trains are powered on electricity produced by solar panels installed along strips of land owned by railway companies. This produces electric energy on-site at no additional cost and avoids an expensive grid system.
The Network Of Industrial Ecology
Some countries are beginning to link industrial output and the natural environment in a conscious, holistic way. One example in Kalundborg, Denmark, is a partnership between a power plant, an oil refinery, concrete manufacturers, a fish farm, and others.
The power plant channels recycled waste heat steam to other buildings and homes to reduce owners’ energy consumption. Excess gases produced by the oil refinery are sold to other companies, while a chemical company buys sulfur extracted from the gas. Waste heat from the refinery warms the waters of a trout farm, which sells fish sludge to local farmers. These are just a few of the ways these organizations financially benefit each other while respecting the environment.
The United Kingdom is becoming a leader in “green urbanism,” which involves conscious sustainable development of individual buildings, neighborhoods, and entire cities. Inefficient and costly suburban sprawl is systematically discouraged through a combination of economic measures and planning requirements.
One example of this approach is London’s Beddington Zero Emissions Development, which does not emit any carbons into the environment. “BedZED” is a mixed-use development with closely placed apartments, office spaces, and various community amenities. The site incorporates green roofs, a wind-driven natural ventilation system, solar technology, and other high performance building systems.
London also recently introduced the world’s first zero emissions office development. The site provides all the building’s heating, cooling, and power needs. Also, since January 2004, London and eight other European cities have been testing zero emissions fuel cell buses that emit only pure water vapor.
Asia: Sustainability As An Economy Booster
Asian countries have long recognized the importance of maintaining the balance between human and natural environments. Their societies traditionally have been open to a sustainable approach to life and work, making it easy to translate centuries old practices into modern systems and policies that continue to fuel further expansion of their economies.
Japan is a virtual center of global sustainable development. Its industriousness has promoted the rapid spread of green technologies throughout Asia and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world. Although the Japanese economy—the second largest in the world—trails that of the U.S., Japan leads in sustainable technology development and implementation. It has spearheaded global initiatives and policies to save energy and reduce global warming while setting an example by actions taken within its own markets.
The Dollars And Sense Of Sustainability
In 2001, the U.S. federal government bowed out of the Kyoto Protocol, quoting “excessive cost to the U.S. economy” and declined to participate in an international agreement among 122 countries to reduce global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2012.
However, about 130 U.S. cities in 35 states are actively supporting and implementing the Protocol on a local level. Cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York are among the supporters. Such cities have embraced sustainability for a simple reason: it is the way of the future and it makes financial sense.
Much of Japan’s sustainability success stems from its understanding that “voluntary sustainability” does not produce results as quickly or effectively as government required initiatives. Carefully crafted financial incentives and tax breaks are in place to stimulate corporate competition in sustainability and reward those companies that excel in energy efficiency of their operations and products.
In June 2005, the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MLIT) created guidelines that encourage all government offices to reduce greenhouse gases that cause global warming. To increase demand in sustainable condos, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) developed a mandate in October 2005 that requires all advertisements for large scale residential facilities to include information about their sustainable performance.
Japan, a highly cost conscious nation, would not have launched any of these initiatives if it did not recognize the financial benefits of sustainability.
Meanwhile, officials in China expect that 25% of public and residential buildings in large cities will receive “green” upgrades within the next five years. In that same period, all Chinese cities are anticipated to reduce building energy use by 50% (65% by 2020).
Also, China has started to apply the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building design guidelines and certification program. In October 2005, an apartment complex near Hong Kong became the first commercial building in the country to receive LEED certification.
China’s willingness to recognize and adopt sustainable technologies developed elsewhere will likely propel its economy closer to the top during the first half of the 21st century.
Recently, China introduced a monumental project in green urbanism aimed at providing “green” direction for its rapid economic development and urbanization. Plans call for development of six brand new ecologically and energy efficient cities, three of which have already been approved for construction. Proponents compare the cities to living beings that produce and recycle their own energy. China hopes to transfer 400 million of its rural inhabitants to these new cities by 2030, and it is clearly aware that such gigantic shifts may not be possible without sustainable technology and focus on energy efficiency.
These groundbreaking projects in green urbanism will influence major cities around the globe and catapult China’s economy. Moreover, they will further educate the general public—especially the Chinese—about sustainability, which is why China nicknamed the 2008 Olympics the “Green Olympics.”
Implications For U.S. Corporations
The above examples indicate that sustainability has already become a global phenomenon. Corporations and facilities managers in the U.S. would be wise to create their own long-term sustainable strategy now. Such plans would be beneficial for several reasons.
First, a growing number of federal, state, and local governments in the U.S. are beginning to mandate energy and environmental standards on building construction. For instance, most federal agencies, including the General Services Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Navy, Army, and Air Force, are already requiring LEED guidelines and certification on all new construction.
Recently, the City of Chicago developed a policy that effectively requires publicly funded structures to install green roofs and other sustainable technologies. Currently, leaders are considering making these requirements a part of the local building code. When that happens, facility professionals that turned down sustainable options during current construction will have to pay more to retrofit in the future.
How Sustainable Facilities Bring Money Back To The Organization
- Decrease facility operation costs by reducing demands for energy
- Decrease maintenance costs as a result of staff members’ ability to spend more time on other tasks
- Increase opportunities to conduct international business with economies that place a high value on energy efficiency and conservation
- Reduce employee absenteeism and enhance productivity
- Convey a message to building occupants and the surrounding community: “we care about your perception and your future.”
Another reason that sustainability is a smart investment is the skyrocketing cost of energy. This year, winter heating bills of small business owners are expected to rise as much as 40%. Some are starting to ponder what increases lay ahead five or 10 years from now. Facility professionals who still specify “cheap” energy guzzling systems today may face economic hardships tomorrow.
Finally, developing a corporate sustainable action plan positions organizations to profit in a less direct way. It prepares an organization for ongoing changes at home while potential foreign partners that place a high value on sustainable principles will look to form partnerships with like minded U.S. organizations. Those who do not adopt sustainable practices may be perceived as outdated and inefficient in their approach and operation.
Combating The Myth
Some still see energy efficient technologies and sustainable building design as exotic, but impractical novelties. They continue to clutch the myth that sustainability is merely a passing fad and an unjustified way to increase costs that produces little benefit.
However, mounting global evidence suggests the opposite. Entire societies are changing their course toward a more environmentally conscious, efficient, and profitable future. Sustainability is already reshaping domestic markets; so, it is important to understand this phenomenon and embrace sustainability before falling too far behind.
Vujovic, LEED AP is director of sustainable design at Legat Architects, Inc., a Chicago, IL-based full service architecture firm. He is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council and the Healthy and High Performing Schools Task Force. Ogurek is a member of the sustainable team at Legat Architects.