Increasingly worrying climate predictions, limited carbon allowances and a rapid rise in public awareness – a lot of things have happened over the last ten years and we’ve all learnt a lot. Against this backdrop, the DGNB has evolved and moved forward, and we face a number of completely new challenges as 2020 gets underway.
written by: Prof. Alexander Rudolphi, DGNB President
Thinking about the last decade and how it has affected buildings, a public audience has created something new – something we all stand to benefit from significantly, now and in the future. Working through its members, partners and experts, the DGNB has developed tools that have proven their worth in practical terms, spawning better buildings that will stand the test of time. We know this from our experience on more than 5000 certified projects. We now feel much more comfortable dealing with life cycle assessments, issues relating to material properties, product performance, and the availability and assessment of data – the kind of information we didn’t even have access to ten years ago.
But at the same time, climate change is now a lot more urgent. As each year ticks by, the goals that have to be met become more pressing. Our climate researchers are constantly having to revise their forecasts and we hear one piece of bad news after another. The climate emergency can be seen all around us. Since Paris, however, we have at least had benchmarks and clear numbers, something for the global community to use as guidance. If we do want to achieve the very minimum and hit the 1.5°C target (which would still have consequences), we have 420 gigatons of CO2 to go. For the building sector here in Germany, this means we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by roughly 50 million tonnes every year – before 2030 (!). How existing buildings are renovated will play a crucial role in this. And the magnitude of this task becomes all the more clear when you realise that renovating the average home can cut carbon emissions by between three and four tonnes per year – for a single flat.
Unfortunately, our biggest problem is still what it always has been: politics. Instead of passing laws that reflect the above-mentioned targets and key benchmarks, politicians seem to be happy to fiddle around with instruments that became obsolete some time ago – such as the Building Energy Act (GEG/Gebäudeenergiegesetz). More about that particular issue in the last paragraph.
Last but not least, public awareness is now much stronger than it used to be, partly driven by the coverage of research findings and things like the school climate strike movement. This paves the way for the concepts – and the demands – of the DGNB.
Still waiting for sustainability to become the new normal
Despite all this urgency, despite significant progress in the construction and property industry, over the last ten years we’ve still not taken the next important step and made sustainability the ‘new normal’. That said, according to BNP Paribas Real Estate, nearly 30% of capital invested in commercial construction now flows into certified buildings. That’s a significant share of investment, but it’s still less than half, and it still only applies to new buildings. With ratings of 180 – 250 kWh/m², around 50% of existing buildings in Germany are still operating on an appalling level of energy consumption. This has to be our big challenge now, but at the same time this is a realistic and effective chance to make reductions.
We need politicians…
To make sustainability routine, we need the right standards and policies. If the statutes fail to include key benchmarks such as environmental impacts or life cycle considerations, and these factors are not a central part of any requirements laid down for government grants or approvals, all endeavour will be purely voluntary. The point is that there are two sides to this equation. On the one side there is our effort – all those important developments, pilot projects, many good examples. On the other side of the equation is what people consider to be ‘normal’ – the standards applied in the planning and approval processes. We need the politicians who are involved in such legislation to be where we are. And when regulations are introduced, they need to correspond to the right goals, which have changed radically in recent years.
… and instruments, plus the right incentives!
Another important reason why the crucial step hasn’t been taken towards normalising sustainability has to do with people’s ability to make things happen. To move forward, you need the right incentives – such as rewards for cutting a certain volume of carbon emissions. But to do that, you still need the right instruments. There are all these goals, requirements and imperatives floating around regarding 2030, but I can tell that a lot of people are finding them all too much. This is one reason why we’re actually well prepared: we have systems for the buildings sector. We offer a catalogue of practical steps to be taken, steps people would have difficulty getting their heads around on their own. And bottom line, these practical steps do a pretty good job of addressing the things that are more than likely to happen. Thanks to clear controls and factors that are measurable!
Moving forward: the topics we’re concerned with
Thinking about the years to come, I see this area of conflict – between the regulations introduced by politicians and actually getting things done – as a major challenge for us at the DGNB. We need to convince the powers that be that they must act as soon as possible and implement the fundamental requirements of sustainable building and renovations. The goal should be to make buildings more sustainable and – importantly – ensure they retain more value. We also need to bring the general public on board. Thankfully, we live in a democracy. We need a public majority behind us and acceptance when it comes to the important steps we want the politicians to take.
In other areas, we need to keep simplifying our assessment instruments so they become an everyday normality – whether they’re used for a life cycle assessment, a material environmental impact assessment or issues such as closed loop recycling. When I say this, I’m thinking of programmes that are self-explanatory, underpinned by robust information – tools that make it easy and quick to plan and check things, tools that are understandable to everyone. And last but not least, it’s incredibly important that we foster innovation. Conventional technology will not allow us to achieve our climate protection goals. As Einstein once said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Mandatory goals – a question of survival
For me, there’s no doubt that these goals are an absolute must when it comes to sustainable development, quite simply because for our children, if not us, this is a question of survival. We’re just about managing to muddle our way through the whole issue at the moment, but in ten years’ time, these goals will be bearing down on us like a ton of bricks. I’m not so much worried about whether we’ll achieve these goals, but how. When things become more urgent, when it’s too late to take corrective actions or we can no longer afford to – how nice will we then be to one another? Will the solutions we come up with be socially acceptable or, for that matter, fair? What we need is an underlying system built on democratic principles, a basis for genuinely sustainable development. We need everyone to feel happy about things and a livelihood for everyone.
I sometimes feel like I’m professionally hotwired to be optimistic in my role at the DGNB. Yes, I am optimistic, because thanks to the commitment of the many people around me in recent years we’ve been in a position to develop the instruments we need and prepare them for practical application. We also succeeded in reacting immediately to the issues and demands raised in Paris and quickly integrated the sustainable development goals (SDGs) into our own system. Why? Because from the outset, these goals were covered and addressed by our holistic evaluation strategy. For me, this shows that we were well prepared.
Slowed down by the regulatory process
One thing I often get to hear is that the things we demand ‘can’t be implemented because of the regulatory framework’. Apart from the fact that you could ask who actually defines how the regulatory processes work, we can’t afford to give in like this just because a set of rules was handed down to us by previous generations. One thing this affects at the moment is the Building Energy Act (GEG) currently being thrashed out in the Bundestag (the German federal parliament). The current version of the bill is missing a golden opportunity to meet climate protection goals. It looks like the structures and targets of the previous Energy Saving Ordinance will simply be kept in place until further notice – and valuable time will be wasted! If it really feels like it’s impossible to throw the previous, no longer future-proof rules overboard, I would suggest we explore a second avenue for approving, promoting and assessing buildings – an approach with clear goals based on climate impacts, which not only looks at required building resources, but also social requirements, i.e. it captures the entire life cycle. An approach that paints a realistic picture of how energy is supplied and, importantly, an approach that’s based on defined reduction targets and not just some or other reference values.
That way, people could decide for themselves what they want to do (without doubling up effort) and gain more certainty when it comes to planning. That’s the very least we can expect.