The voluntary program series, Part 4: Government as knowledge broker for low-carbon buildings

First published on the Fifth Estate:

In this post I will address a second dominant type of voluntary program for low-carbon buildings, which seek to generate and share knowledge on how to develop and use low-carbon buildings.

The programs I have studied all set ambitious targets in terms of the number of low-carbon buildings they seek to realise, or carbon emissions they hope to reduce. At question is: Can such ambitious targets be realised while achieving large-scale uptake?

Examples of voluntary knowledge generation and sharing programs

This type of voluntary programs comes in an even broader suite of designs than the certification and classification programs I discussed in the previous post. The following examples give some idea of the breadth of these programs.

Better Buildings Challenge, US

This is a voluntary program launched by the US Federal Government in 2011. It brings together the federal government, state and local governments, educational organisations, housing providers, and firms (mostly large corporations, including manufacturing, retailers and fast-food companies). Participants commit to a least a 20 per cent improvement of the energy efficiency of their buildings over the course of 10 years. They receive rewards such as federal government recognition, media attention, financial and technical assistance, and best-practice sharing through a peer network. It is part of the larger Obama Administration’s Better Buildings Initiative, which seeks to catalyse private sector investment in commercial building upgrades.

Green Office Challenge, Chicago

This is a voluntary program launched by the City of Chicago Council in 2008. It challenges office users to reduce energy and water consumption, to produce less waste, to implement sustainable procurement practice, and to commute by public transport, bicycle or foot. To ensure that participants take action, it organises office-to-office challenges. Participants use software to keep track of their own performance and the data they fill out are compared by the program’s administrators (and made visible to other participants) to gain an understanding who is performing best.

Energy Leap, the Netherlands

This is a cluster of voluntary programs led by Platform 31, a quasi-autonomous agency partly funded by the Government of the Netherlands, bringing together the Ministry of Housing, Planning and Urban Development, the Ministry of Finances, and the social housing, private housing and commercial property sectors. Energy Leap has a variety of incentives in place for the realisation of pilot low-carbon building projects for creating knowledge on improved urban sustainability and for experimenting with various innovative governance programs: monetary rewards, administrative support, information, leadership recognition and the ability to build close links with policymakers.

Better Buildings Partnership, Sydney

This is a voluntary program launched by the City of Sydney in 2011, bringing together the city’s major property owners. It aims to reduce the carbon emissions and waste produced by these owners, and their energy and water consumption. Together these major property owners own over 50 per cent of all commercial property in Sydney’s CBD. It requires them to reduce their existing buildings’ carbon emissions in 2030 by 70 per cent based on 2006 levels. In return the city provides information, involves these property owners in policymaking processes, and acknowledges their performance in national and international forums.

CitySwitch Green Office, Australia

This is a voluntary program launched by the City of Sydney in 2010 to bring together the council and office tenants, and which became a nation-wide program in 2011. It is administrated by local councils and state governments and serves as a platform for office tenants to learn about energy efficiency, share information, network and showcase good practices. A yearly awards ceremony recognises leading practice in different categories. By participating in the program, office tenants come to agreements with councils about their future environmental performance. Certain councils provide financial support to office tenants, while others facilitate meetings and ensure an ongoing supply and distribution of information.

Knowledge creators and knowledge brokers

What binds these programs together is that they all seek to generate knowledge on how to achieve and use low-carbon buildings; they all require participants to share their experiences in this area with others; and governments act as “knowledge brokers” in transforming these experiences to transferable knowledge. They often do so by documenting these experiences as case studies and best practices on publicly available websites.

“Government continues to be important in the transition towards a low-carbon built environment,” a program administrator from the Netherlands told. “Market conditions are often absent, mainly because of a lack of knowledge about what can be done at firm level, a lack of demand from consumers and a lack of supply from producers.”

Parties other than government often do not have an incentive to take up this important role as knowledge broker. At the same time, the parties who create this knowledge (property developers, owners and users) all have an interest in seeing experiences translated into knowledge. It either puts them in the spotlight as being a leader in their sector, or it gives them access to experiences and lessons learnt by others.

Yet again, overall poor performance

In terms of performance, knowledge generation and sharing programs have not achieved a lot in terms of absolute reduction of emissions by comparison with the scale of the problem at hand.

“[In 2014, CitySwitch signatories] achieved reductions of over 85,000 tonnes of carbon emissions and 75 GWh energy, delivering a savings of over [AUD]$14 million to [participants] and energy savings equivalent to the energy use of 12,712 average homes,” the CitySwitch national administrator said in 2015. But what does this number mean?

The 75GWh savings by 650 participants in 2014 corresponds with a 13 to 16 per cent reduction of their 2011 energy consumption – when CitySwitch was launched Australia-wide. At first glance this is a moderate improvement in building energy efficiency, but it is not overly impressive when keeping in mind that Australian office tenants are reported to waste 50 per cent of their energy in ways that can be easily addressed.

When contrasted with the full Australian office market’s energy consumption of 2011, the program’s performance is just 0.8 per cent of 2011 consumption. The national administrator has, however, a strong incentive to frame this performance as a considerable success, as most programs would. The reasons for doing so are logical.

Local and national program administrators depend on external funding for the program. Particularly at local council level, administrators have to give an account of how funds are spent and what has been achieved. This gives administrators a strong incentive to present performance data in the best light possible. Another incentive is that positive numbers may attract new participants. Thus, there is every reason for administrators to present a narrative of success.

In almost all knowledge generation and sharing programs I found a similar pattern. The relative energy saving achieved by the US Better Buildings Challenge is about 0.3 per cent of all commercial building related energy consumption. And only 0.6 per cent of all commercial buildings in the US participate in the program. Yet, the program is marketed as a success by its program administrators. Similarly, the Chicago Green Office Challenge has achieved a reduction of less than 0.01 per cent of all commercial building related energy consumption in Chicago. But again, the program is marketed as a success. Administrators would also no doubt argue there is also value in helping to keep participants motivated and engaged, especially in difficult political circumstances.

The way forward for knowledge generation and sharing programs

Knowledge generation and sharing programs have bold ambitions. They seek to generate knowledge on state-of-the-art approaches for reduced building related resource consumption and carbon emissions. They seek to spur leadership. And they seek to achieve considerable numbers of low-carbon buildings.

Leading performance and generating knowledge on what is possible at the forefront of sustainable buildings while achieving large-scale uptake appears contradictory. If a program indeed meets its ambitions of a large-scale uptake of best practice, the question rises, “Why didn’t participants do so without the program?”

Governments are right in taking up a role as knowledge broker. A glance at the websites of these programs reveals that much knowledge is now freely available on how to develop and use low-carbon buildings. Governments need to continue to build out this role. There are not many parties in the construction and property sectors that are willing to take up the role of knowledge broker, yet most parties are in need of the knowledge generated and shared.

Governments should, however, stop creating an illusion of success in terms of low-carbon buildings achieved through these programs. When compared to the real problem of building related resource consumption and waste production, these programs have not achieved a lot in comparison to the scale of the problem to hand. Some solutions will be provided in later posts.Raised hands

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