Despite the success of the Green Mark Scheme, it bears remembering that green buildings are not a panacea for the environmental profligacy of the urban environment. ESI's Augustin Boey comments.
Singapore is in the throes of a green building revolution.
The Building and Construction Authority's (BCA) Green Mark Scheme, a green building certification scheme intended to make Singapore's building industry more environmentally friendly, has been making big inroads in the city-state. A sizeable 13 percent of Singapore's buildings have been Green Mark certified since the Scheme's launch in 2005. The longer-term national target to have at least 80 percent all buildings certified by 2030 appears to be secured by a combination of incentive schemes and legislated requirements for new and existing buildings put in place by the government.
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com)
However, despite the success of the Green Mark Scheme, it bears remembering that green buildings are not a panacea for the environmental profligacy of the urban environment. They are, in other words, a necessary but insufficient step to be taken to create a sustainable city.
Of course, it needs to be recognised that greening buildings are an important urban sustainability policy. Green Mark-compliant buildings are characterised primarily by higher energy efficiencies, among other features, over non-compliant buildings. Certified buildings can attain around 20 percent to 40 percent energy savings over their lifetimes.
These energy savings are significant as the buildings sector is responsible for 30 percent to 40 percent of worldwide energy consumption. There is little doubt that ongoing improvements in building energy efficiency are an essential ingredient in the quest for sustainable cities. Indeed, Singapore's National Climate Change Strategy 2012 includes the promotion of green buildings as the nation's key climate change mitigation strategies.
While this green building movement has evidently secured the "hardware" dimensions of building sustainability, it leaves the "software" aspects relatively untouched. A certified green building, which may be more energy efficient and contain environmentally-friendly features not found in normal buildings, does not guarantee more environmentally-friendly and sustainable lifestyles on the part of its occupants and users. The propagation of certified green buildings thus does not necessarily mean the achievement of a truly sustainable built environment.
The problem is simple: Although the physical elements of building sustainability are integral to green building certification assessments, such as energy efficiency and water conservation, are relatively easy to quantify, it is much more difficult to assess more intangible things such the degree to which the users' behaviours and lifestyles are environmentally-friendly. These softer elements are nonetheless essential for a sustainable built environment.
The Green Mark Scheme does not entirely omit these softer elements in its assessment scheme. Points are awarded in the Green Mark's assessment criteria for such things as providing guides to building users on the building's environmental-friendly facilities and features and how they can maximise the environmental performance of the building. A single point is awarded to buildings that provide such a guide but no points are awarded for subsequent user compliance. Only a small proportion of the total points in the assessment scheme are allocated to these behavioural-oriented initiatives.
To be fair, while this might seem like an egregious oversight, changing the behaviour of building users is not one of the primary aims of the Green Mark Scheme. It is, after all, only one initiative in a more holistic compendium of climate change and environment-oriented policies.
Nevertheless, as the process of greening buildings in the region has typically been led more from the top rather than from the grassroots, it is still pertinent to emphasise the fact that engineering and design improvements in themselves are only half of the urban sustainability equation. Green building certifications are important but not enough, and behavioural and lifestyle changes on the part of building users are absolutely essential for truly green buildings.
Attaining a sustainable urban environment requires important changes in how urban dwellers go about their daily lives. Merely living or occupying a green building does not necessarily imply a lifestyle change in its users towards more sustainable behaviours and energy consumption patterns. For instance, the certification of a green building is not a guarantee that its occupants will use more energy efficient appliances or recycle their waste.
This matters because many features and facilities in green buildings, such as electric vehicle charging points or recycling bins, only produce environmental benefits if building users adopt the appropriate environmentally-friendly behaviour. There is also the possibility that, in the absence of sustainable changes to user lifestyles, the energy savings from the buildings' improved energy efficiency will be squandered through higher energy consumption, in what is widely cited as the "rebound effect".
Although the magnitude of the rebound effect tends to be overestimated, this points to the importance of providing sufficient information and incentives for users to adopt more sustainable behaviours and thus achieve the intended environmental performance of the buildings they occupy.
Neither green buildings nor the adoption of sustainable lifestyles, in isolation, can guarantee a sustainable and climate change resilient urban environment. To be sure, green buildings in Singapore have a significant role to play in driving sustainable growth. More than S$1.6 billion of annual energy cost reductions are expected to be achieved by the ongoing green building initiative. For a sector that contributes up to 40 percent of global carbon emissions, this is nothing to scoff at.
Still, it is important to recognise the limits of the green building project and to look also at the behavioural side of the urban sustainability equation.
Measures to encourage partnerships between the people and the public and private sectors provide one avenue to address the issue. For example, Panasonic and government agencies are currently collaborating in the Punggol Eco town to test-bed a home energy management system that aims to improve the energy efficiency of participating households. The importance of promoting both more environmentally-friendly buildings and behaviour/lifestyle change, in tandem, in the face of climate change and environmental degradation cannot be overemphasised.