One step forward, two steps back: A reflection on last week’s WBCSD EEB lab

Door Cécile,
op 22 mei 2015

Last week I was present at the WBCSD’s Energy Efficiency in Buildings (EEB) Laboratory in Amsterdam. And although I am aware that the carbon emissions of buildings “in use” strongly outnumber the carbon emissions of the manufacture of the buildings by a ratio of almost 5:1 (mind you this is a study from 2010!), I can’t help but wonder why we’re still so stuck in the carbon emissions paradigm. Because let’s be fair – the more energy efficient our buildings are, the more important it becomes to shift the sustainability focus from energy to the materials used, and the construction process.

My main issue with the carbon emissions focus relates to the underlying negativity of this paradigm. Carbon emissions thinking is strongly dominated by fear – fear of climate change, melting ice caps etcetera. Let me be clear on this one – it’s not that I dispute global warming and its’ effects – it’s just that I don’t believe that fear is the right driver for the radical innovation that is needed to design and build energy neutral or positive buildings – something that is technologically feasible. What we need in the construction sector is to excite the front runners into developing groundbreaking solutions, rather than pushing the laggards into a domain where every building is just a little bit less bad than the one before, justifying incremental innovation.

I have been privileged enough to have been involved with a number of radically sustainable transformation projects in the Netherlands over the past few years. Our premise was simple: let’s use excitement rather than fear to allow for innovation to arise. Not only did we steer clear from carbon dioxide emissions as a key indicator for sustainability success, we also left out all the notable sustainability benchmarks (BREEAM and LEED) from the tendering process. The interesting thing is that this activated all the partners to actively think about what sustainability meant for them, and leading to icons in terms of sustainable construction.

The World Business Council takes pride in representing the “forward-thinking companies” in terms of sustainability; the limited focus on energy efficiency is in my eyes, however, lacking on this front. The true forward-thinkers have recognized the importance of circular thinking in the construction sector, including resources, materials and construction in the scope of the total sustainability balance of the building. Yet when I search the WBCSD’s website for “circular economy” I get a total of four hits, yes… four.

As our buildings become more energy efficient, the more important it becomes to focus on the materials used and the construction process. More boldly put: the earlier mentioned ratio of 5:1 (CO2 emissions of buildings in-use vs. CO2 emissions of the manufacture of products and the construction process) could reverse entirely in favor of a materials-based focus.

Although I had a great time at the EEB lab sharing my experiences and the important role of excitement as a means to achieve the highest sustainability performance within the construction sector, I’m also a bit disappointed with the outcomes of the laboratory. My main frustration lies in the fact that the important topic of resources and circular thinking were not on the agenda and easily ignored in the discussion. Is this representative of the forward-thinkers in the sustainability community? I don’t want to be guilty of negativity, but I keep wondering: how might I excite the WBCSD into the increasingly important and innovation-laden domain of circular thinking?

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