The migration of people to urban centres in search of economic opportunities puts strain on urban infrastructure such as water supply and sanitation, transport and energy, and particularly housing. Population experts estimate that by 2030, 1.4 billion people will be living in cities, of which, 1.3 billion will reside in developing countries. This urban population growth has long-term impacts on both the environment and natural resources.
According to Kaarin Taipale, contributing author of the Worldwatch Institute’s – State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, governments have developed various policy tools to promote sustainability, which reduce the negative impacts cause by urban population growth.
Residential and commercial buildings are major energy consumers, responsible for 30-40% of all carbon emissions, a similar share of total solid waste and 12% of fresh water used. The number of buildings and construction will see a spike as urbanisation reaches record levels. Taipale, an urban researcher from Finland, states that the introduction of laws and policies are the most cost effective and efficient answer to sustainable construction and building use. The goal of these policies is to minimise the environmental footprint of buildings and negative social and financial effects.
“Policies can control (via restrictive regulations), motivate (via incentives), or call for attention (via awareness-raising), and successful policy packages may combine all three characteristics,” notes Taipale.
Many construction companies are jumping on the band wagon by superficially labeling buildings ‘green’, without investing in real sustainable technologies. Described by Taipale as “light-green buildings”, these account for a fraction of total worldwide construction. Strict enforcement of ambitious building regulations and fulfilment of measurable targets is the best way to move past greenwashing says Taipale. She suggests that the “best policy” should include four dimensions:
- Process – The process usually includes design and construction, but the entire lifecycle of a building should also include demolition. Some suggest that the planning and construction should be overseen by a designated sustainability coordinator as a prerequisite for a building permit. In addition, a mandatory “maintenance diary” can be used as a tool to monitor the ways a building is serviced and renovated.
- Performance – A holistic approach should include the entire building performance and not just individual parts. It is not sufficient to specify the thickness of thermal insulation without setting minimum energy performance standards. Some of the evolving core criteria to measure building performance include greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water use, and waste production. Policies can set minimum standards and benchmarks to ensure performance targets are met.
- Sustainable infrastructure – The quality of infrastructure determines its efficiency and thereby levels of urban sustainability. This helps to save resources and provide equal access to basic services such as fresh water and sanitation, energy, communication, and public transport. For example, National water legislation can provide safe drinking water at a fair price.
- Resource use – Sustainable resource use should include financial, human, and natural resources. Renewable energy is the best way to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change by reducing local air pollution and health hazards. Energy efficient performance requirements for new construction and refurbishment help ensure building efficiency is aligned with renewable energy production.
Sustainability starts with design, but setting targets that include maintenance and performance monitoring backed by multiple policies is the only sure way to change light-green constructions to sustainable buildings.