China Launches Green Building Council: An Interview with Kevin Hydes, World GBC Chair

Let's do some math: China's government-mandated need to reduce pollution and energy consumption + the country's slowly rising environmental awareness + its thriving spirit of entrepreneurship + China's construction market, which builds nearly half the world's total new buildings every year, and by 2020 will account for 40 percent of the country's total energy consumption.

Yep, the answer is green buildings. At least in theory. Those four things can also add up to a lot of greenwashing too. Or they can simply add up to nothing at all.

Hoping for real results, yesterday Qiu Baoxing, China's vice minister of housing and urban-rural construction and the government's leading advocate for green building, announced the launch of the China Green Building Council at a big conference in Beijing. The public-private partnership will be responsible for, among other things, administering the country's new indigenous green building labeling system. The group would also be responsible for helping to police buildings (he had typically stern words for some local governments) and for drumming up public awareness, which Qiu said was key.

After the jump, more from Qiu, and an interview with World Green Building Council chair Kevin Hydes, who was in attendance."We need to mobilize all social forces, all the forces in our society, not just rely on our ministry," he told a plenary session that included researchers, representatives of foreign clean-tech companies and officials from the US Department of Energy. "The urbanization of China is the world’s greatest. Whether we can achieve green growth is not in China’s interests but in the interests of the world."

China's new green building standard, which was launched late last year, is meant to complement better known labels like BREEAM (UK) and LEED, which are currently only used in office buildings for multinationals or upscale apartments. Alongside basic energy efficiency rules meant to pressure developers from the top down, the new Chinese label offers a market-based incentive that can promote green building from the top down. The labeling, which addresses land-use, energy, water, construction materials, and indoor air quality and uses a 5 star system, could be effective considering the growing need for developers to differentiate their buildings in an increasingly competitive market.

"My biggest concern right now is figuring out how to improve energy-saving awareness among residents, who care only about price and location when they buy apartments," Qiu said. The central government plans to spend 1 billion yuan ($140 million) to promote energy efficient construction nationwide this year, said Zhang Shaochun, vice-minister of finance. Qiu insisted that if buyers paid 100-150 yuan more per square meter, they could benefit from serious resource efficiency. While most home-buyers in China's cities aren't interested, this tid bit, noted by China Daily, was interesting:

Research by the ministry found 68 percent of Beijing residents said after visiting the site of an energy-saving pilot program in Tangshan, Hebei province, that they would pay more for BEE spaces. Before visiting, just 30 percent said they would pay extra.

For now however, pilot projects and energy saving buildings are still hard to come by in China. At the provincial level, they're as mythical as the dragon. To rectify that, the finance, development and new environment ministry also joined the ministry of construction in announcing a new law that will name and shame cities that fail to meet standards and will revoke licenses of any firms that violate regulations. The law, which went into effect yesterday, will hinge as always on enforcement.

Meanwhile, the green construction market could be huge. Qiu estimated its current value at 1.5 trillion yuan ($213.77 billion). That may explain in part why the US Department of Energy sponsored the green building conference. DOE official John Mizrach spoke about the department's zero energy homes program in a presentation that, despite its subject matter, managed to be one of the day's drowsiest. Prince Charles, by contrast, delivered a rousing video rallying cry, while Hank Dittmar, who leads the Prince's foundation on the built environment, spoke of a holistic approach to green building that touched upon urbanism and local culture.

Watching all of this happily, and with a healthy dose of skepticism, is Kevin Hydes. He's the chair of the World Green Building Council, the former chair of the USGBC, and a founder and director of CanadaGBC. We spoke to him on the sidelines of the conference.

Is the China Green Building Council getting off to a good start?
What to me is exciting is that they have been given something to do. A lot of times these organizations start with not much going on. They’ve actually been given the authority to manage the Chinese labeling system. Again, just on the issue of scale—in China, they’re building the US every three years basically—imagine the amount of energy savings you can capture with better windows alone.

Of course, this isn't going to be one inspector going around looking at these buildings. This council is supposed to be connected directly into the provincial infrastructure.

How will it differ from other green building councils?
Typically, we say there are three stakeholders involved: corporate, government and academia. Our Japanese counterpart is headed by Dr. [Shuzo] Murakami, making this a fairly academic group. The US has taken a business-like course. China meanwhile is definitely government-driven.

I think the Chinese government is going to be—well, first of all it’s the only way it’s going to get done in China. It’s like this across Asia-Pacific, we’re dealing with Singapore, Malaysia, many countries—the belief is that the only way you're going to get green buildings is if you’ve got mandatory standards that are imposed by government. Western Europe is interesting, it’s probably closer to China’s view, where it’s going to be regulation that will drive change.

But what we’ve also seen in China is that they’re going to engage private sector leadership. Yes, there's going to be mandatory standards, but a lot of it will depend on the private sector leading the way. We say all the time it’s carrot sticks and tambourines. Carrots, sticks and celebration. Here we definitely need all three.

What are the building blocks still missing in China?
We’ve been working with the Chinese for some time, and they have a fully engaged system with all the ministries on board, all the experts. They’ve written a white paper on their green building labeling system. I think the pieces are in place. Now the government has given its official support. Surely, what’s next is moving quickly to implementation. I see no reason why -- well, it’s just like when they built the new airport, they had 50,000 people working on it, but in San Francisco, we would have had 5,000. I mean they’re just dealing with more people and more capacity. Sure, it’s going to take some time. But I think the time between pressing the button and implementation is smaller than it would be elsewhere.

We often hear that China lags behind in terms of construction quality and expertise. But does China offer opportunities for energy efficient construction that other places don’t?
You only learn by doing. And China’s doing more than anyone else in the world. You have to believe they’re going to learn more, and in turn they’ll be able to share more. They can borrow ideas from anybody, bring in partners from around the world, and as they build more buildings, they learn more from the international community very quickly.

What role can multinational companies continue to play? And is the international community doing enough?
To your first question, there’s technology and technique. What we see here is a lot of technology. I do think that there’s clearly strong partnerships between foreign companies and local partners. And there, technology transfer and capability transfer is as important as sustaining the ideas through this market.
As far as the international community... I was in Bali at the UN FCCC meeting in November. Ten thousand people showed up for two weeks to talk about the next Kyoto. For two weeks, it was dedicated to the supply side issue, clean coal, hydrogen, nuclear fuel cells, renewable energy. These are all important, but there was no discussion, or very little, about the demand side, which is clearly the easiest way to get the biggest amount of savings.

One thing we can do is to encourage all of our members to work with their national governments to build building centric climate change policies. It’s not easy, but it’s the easiest way to make immediate reductions in carbon. We're going to convene a meeting [at the next UN climate change conference] in Poland in December and I hope governments, including China’s, will show up and we can sign a global treaty related to this. A lot of it’s going to be based on climate change policy as well as other things. But there’s no point in fixing up supply side if you don’t talk about demand.

Do you think China would sign on to an international treaty related to green building?
Well, in Bali they did agree to work on the next road map. There’s probably more influential initiatives going on here now than any other country in the world. The issue’s going to be implementation. But the time is now.

Links

On Treehugger:
The Green Dragon Media Project
Beijing green building
Building a green China
China Daily
Speech by Qiu Baoxing, February 2008
China Green Building Network (in Chinese)

Tags: Beijing | China | Green Building