Should Construction and Urban Projects in Developing Countries Adopt Green Building Certifications (LEED, BREEAM, OTHERS) Created in Developed and Industrialized Nations?
Winners of the “best contribution” awards:
The committee members (David Wachsmuth, Isabelle Thomas, Gonzalo Lizarralde, and Mahmood Fayazi) acknowledge the engagement of all participants and their thoughtful contributions to this debate. They determined that the winners are:
Julien Deschêne First prize – best comments
Mauro Cossu Second prize
Faten Kikano Third prize
Congratulations to winners!
The moderator’s opening remarks:
The Canadian Disaster Resilience and Sustainable Reconstruction Research Alliance (Œuvre Durable for its acronym in French) and i-Rec (Information and Research for Reconstruction) are organizing an on-line debate (and competition) that explores the following question:
Should construction and urban projects in developing countries adopt green building certifications (LEED, BREEAM, others) created in developed and industrialized nations?
Some scholars and practitioners have recently encouraged the adoption of green building certifications, such as LEED, BREEAM, EDGE, PASSIVHOUSE, and others, in developing countries. Others, however, have challenged the appropriateness of adopting these type of certifications – that were originally developed in and for industrialized economies – in developing countries. The former often note that urbanization in developing countries is projected to rise from 46% in 2010 to 63% in 2050, and their population density is expected to double over the next three decades. There is, they argue, an urgent need to reduce the use of resources extracted from nature in such countries. They also contend that green certifications are increasingly adapting to local conditions in developing countries, and thus they are becoming useful tools to: a) decrease negative impacts on nature and ecosystems, enhancing resilience; b) reduce project and operation costs by encouraging the use of durable materials and increasing energy performance; c) mitigate negative social impacts, and d) create awareness about environmental impacts and risks, and stimulate the demand for sustainable solutions.
Critics of this approach often highlight that green certifications encourage the adoption of standards that were developed for developed countries and economies, neglecting local values and principles that suit particular conditions in developing countries. They note, for instance, the significant role of informality, adaptation, and flexibility in less industrialized construction sectors. Critics also deplore that certifications generally focus on buildings and neglect the complex and dynamic interactions between society, nature, the city, and the territory. They also argue that these certifications encourage the use of imported construction components and foreign technology, increasing project costs, carbon emissions, and dependency on industrialized solutions coming from the “North.” The use of imported materials and technology sometimes overshadows the financial benefits of energy savings achieved through green certifications. Finally, the prescriptive nature of green certifications and their emphasis on energy consumption often hinder local and context-specific innovations and overlook social and physical vulnerabilities that might be a priority in developing countries.
In this debate, we invite two internationally-known experts in the sustainable development field to defend two opposite viewpoints. Over the next ten days, our panelists will present their most persuasive arguments, but the result of our debate rests in your hands. Do not be afraid to vote immediately—you can always change your mind. Even better, once you have cast your vote, add your voice to the debate and explain your decision. We look forward to reading the comments of all of those who participate.
Jared 0. Blum
Jared Blum has chaired the Environmental and Energy Study Institute’s Board of Directors since December 2010. From 1990 to 2016, Jared Blum acted as the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association (PIMA). Since 1997, as Vice Chair of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, Mr. Blum has participated in numerous UN climate negotiations, demonstrating business support for the Conferences of the Parties process.
Dr. David Wachsmuth is the Canada Research Chair in Urban Governance at McGill University, where he is also an Assistant Professor in the School of Urban Planning and an Associate Member in the Department of Geography. Dr. Wachsmuth is an urban political economist whose research interests include city and regional governance, urban sustainability, housing policy, social theory, and the politics of urban public space.
The proposer’s opening remarks
Ever since the time of Hammurabi’s Code, society has struggled with creating performance standards for buildings. These efforts initially focused on structural integrity, then fire safety, and—with the advent of electricity—mechanical performance. Now there are several private-sector programs such as LEED and BREEAM that rate and certify a building’s “green” design attributes (low energy and water consumption, use of recycled/recyclable materials, etc.), as well as Passivhaus Institute and Passive House Institute U.S., which focus on super energy efficiency.
All these standards save resources, resources—like water and energy—that are often in particularly short supply in developing countries. The U.S. National Institute of Buildings Sciences reports that green standards can result in energy, carbon, water, and waste reduction savings of 30 to 97%. Operating costs of green buildings can also be reduced by 8-9% while increasing property values by up to 7.5%. Other benefits of green buildings, such as higher productivity, greater climate resilience, and increased occupant health, have been attributed to certain certification programs.
Why should these benefits be denied to developing countries? Given what we know about the toll on human health and the environment from unsustainable energy and building products, it would be irresponsible to watch developing countries make the same mistakes we did. Buildings use about 40% of the world’s energy: it is critical to make them more sustainable if we are to reduce our impact on the environment. Luckily, countries no longer have to choose between economic development and sustainability. From solar panels to insulation, sustainable building technologies and products have advanced tremendously in recent years and costs have gone down. Building performance standards, rating systems, R&D and pilot programs are guiding the way.
We recognize that no one program covers all “high performance” criteria. Indeed, ask a building professional what standard or certification should be used and the answer is likely to be, “It depends.” Even in developed countries, guidance or requirements for building design and performance are evolving, just as society evolves.
The impact of these environmental challenges is felt more keenly in developing countries than anywhere else. Look no further than Beijing, which had to virtually close down before the 2008 Olympics to reduce its appalling air pollution, or New Delhi, which had to close schools and restrict traffic due to critical air quality issues this past year. Emerging economies must be able to take advantage of our research, technology, and indeed our standard-setting processes, to raise the bar for their building stock.
China, which called itself “a forever developing nation” when it opposed the Kyoto Climate Protocol in 1997, now has the third most green buildings in the world. Energy and water use, occupant health, waste management, and site selection are as critical there as they are in the European Union and United States. India has already adopted the LEED India Certification program.
This does not mean that developing countries should necessarily adopt existing programs in whole or in part, but they can and should use the knowledge and lessons-learned the programs represent. They can choose criteria and materials that best suit their unique circumstances, needs and goals. Besides, developed countries’ green standards do not discard building strategies or materials just because they are old. A reflective roof in Africa makes sense whether it is merely painted or made from EPDM. The physics of building performance have not changed, even with new materials and technologies.
The role of national and subnational governments is critical to achieve the successful adaptation of green standards such as BREEAM and LEED, as well as the recognition that each region has different traditions, cultures, materials, and skills. In developed countries, it has been state and city governments, adapting selected aspects of green certification standards to their specific regions, that led the way to rapid green building growth. By using local pilot programs based on programs such as Passivehaus and LEED, and local advisory councils to set achievable higher-performance standards, developing countries can protect their local environment and human health while opening their countries to economic progress. Green building programs provide helpful guidance. They aren’t perfect—they are evolving in the U.S. too—but we have to start somewhere.
The opposition’s opening remarks
The need to radically increase the sustainability of the urban built environment is one of the most urgent collective challenges human society faces at the moment. On a certain level, any good-faith attempts to meet this challenge should be encouraged. And voluntary environmental programmes such as LEED and BREEAM which offer recognition to developers who meet certain environmental criteria for their developments are an encouraging indication that sustainability is increasingly valued in the development industry. But there is plenty of reason to be skeptical of LEED and similar green building standards, particularly with respect to their applicability to the developing world. First, even in the context of wealthy countries, the use of green building standards is likely overrated with respect to their ability to deliver sustainability benefits. Second, all of the reasons to be skeptical of green building standards in the context of wealthy countries apply even more strongly in the context of developing countries, while there are additional reasons for skepticism in the latter context.
What’s the case against green building standards even in a wealthy-country context? First, there is no compelling evidence that LEED certification actually leads to more sustainable buildings and even evidence that it sometimes appears to lead to less sustainable buildings (Scofield 2013). There are significant gaps in the LEED methodology (de Leon 2013; Suzer 2015; van der Heijden 2015), and actual building performance is frequently worse than the projections that led to certification in the first place (Kern et al. 2016).
Second, even if we grant that LEED certification is effective at reducing the environmental footprint of individual buildings, zooming out to the regional scale complicates the question considerably. LEED standards are site-bound, and will give developers credit for using “sustainable” materials even when the transportation costs for these materials cancels out any reduction in carbon emissions resulting from their use (de Leon 2013). Some critics have suggested that the LEED criteria inadvertently encourage urban sprawl by making site-specific demands which are only feasible with large plot sizes (Orr 2014).
Moreover, the greater expense of LEED-certified buildings can have knock-on effects on regional land use that may swamp the building-level sustainability gains with regional sustainability losses. This is because LEED-certified buildings tend to be more expensive there’s an ongoing debate about the expense of LEED certification, but in general estimates find it to add a few percent to the overall construction cost of a project), and more expensive buildings in “eco” neighbourhoods push poorer residents to less expensive neighbourhoods at the urban periphery, where carbon footprints are higher. As Wachsmuth et al. (2016: 396) conclude, adopting a regional perspective on costly building- or neighbourhood-level environmental improvements reveals that “many sustainability gains are simply a regressive redistribution of amenities across places.”
These concerns about the effectiveness of green building standards are even stronger in developing countries, where the cost increases are both likely to be proportionately higher and to fall on a more vulnerable population. Dollar for dollar, urban sustainability outcomes can almost certainly be improved in a more cost-effective and more socially equitable fashion by investing in dense affordable housing and public transit—policies which distribute environmental gains more broadly among the urban population instead of concentrating them in a few expensive buildings (Cohen 2017; Wachsmuth et al. 2016).
Finally, even if we grant that green building standards are effective and worth the cost in developing countries, the simple fact remains that developing country construction should have developing country standards for green buildings. Cole and Valdebenito (2013) found, by contrast, that 80% of the 136 countries where LEED or BREEAM are active do not have any domestic system in place, and instead rely exclusively on one of these two international standards for green buildings. Yet LEED, in particular, is quite inflexible to different local contexts—either cultural or climatic (Suzer 2015). Different places have different sustainability needs, and these should be reflected in building standards if the latter are to be meaningful rather than just a marketing feature for new high-prestige urban developments.
In sum, while building greener cities is an urgent task, certifying greener buildings with LEED or BREEA doesn’t appear to be the most socially just or cost-effective way to accomplish that task in developing countries today.
The proposer’s rebuttal remarks
It is no coincidence that green building certification programs such as LEED and BREEAM began contemporaneously with two benchmark international environmental agreements, the 1987 Montreal Protocol and the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio. The former dealt with ozone depletion, and the latter created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Both of these landmark international agreements were formulated to address the urgency of now, and both of them anticipated the use of technology transfer to reach their critically important global goals.
Skepticism as to whether or not developed countries can create transferable standards for developing countries to use in the built environment is understandable. Concerns about material costs; cultural dissonance; and availability of technology, technical expertise, and skilled labor can flow from a narrow analysis of possible problems. The perfect, however, should not be the enemy of the good.The Montreal Protocol, the most successful international environmental agreement in history, shows that many of the impediments cited above can be overcome. By the creation of a Multilateral Fund made up of seven industrialized nations and seven developing countries, ozone-depleting chemicals are being phased out globally through technical assistance, training, and capacity building in developing countries. In November 2017, the UN Environment Programme announced that developing nations will receive over $540 million from 2018 to 2020 under the Montreal Protocol to continue phasing out harmful chemicals.Why not such an effort in developing countries for green buildings? In fact, as per the Paris Agreement, developing countries have signed on to limit global temperature rise to less than 2°C, and countries from India to Ecuador are taking measures to fulfill this commitment. Since nearly 2/3 of the world’s countries do not have any building energy codes in place, the use of a comprehensive voluntary standard or rating program could fill that gap and address additional critical issues such as water quality and efficiency, safe indoor air quality and waste reduction.
To the concern that this would be too expensive and difficult for developing countries, I say that bold action to use resources more efficiently will ultimately serve more people and cost less in the long run. The Green Climate Fund was established through the UNFCCC in 2010 to assist countries in using new technologies to upgrade building stock. Indeed, the International Energy Agency recommends access to global finance to help developing countries adopt best practices and high-performance technologies and integrate them into their own building traditions. Armed with new knowledge and a growing supply chain, they could leapfrog hurdles and mistakes that industrialized countries are still struggling to overcome, such as a reliance on fossil-fuel energy and over-engineered buildings that consume too many resources.
Some observers view the utilization of a developed country standard, such as LEED, in emerging economies as a form of neocolonialism, or as insensitivity to the possible socio-economic impacts of new approaches to community living. While there’s no question that this type of concern has some validity, localized innovation can address these concerns. For example, the World Bank has developed a new application, EDGE, which is focused on emerging markets and uses some of the LEED categories in a simplified compliance path. What is evolving in developing countries is a partnership of local officials, building designers, contractors and manufacturers. This partnership will be needed to create community resiliency in both developed and developing countries as we confront rapidly changing climate conditions. With resilience planning, natural hazards like floods, droughts, wind, and fires do not have to become natural disasters. USGBC has already recognized the need for resilience by incorporating RELi, a resilient design platform, into the LEED rating system.
The major challenge to both developed and developing countries, and which a globally-recognized, consensus-based process may be able to address, is the future impact of climate change on our communities and the ability of all countries to reap the rewards of sustainable and resilient design and construction.
The opposition’s rebuttal remarks
Mr. Blum and I agree that reducing energy consumption in—and, more broadly, decarbonizing—cities and societies is an urgent task. And at the end of the day, LEED and BREEAM are voluntary programs—developers are free to adopt them or not adopt them as they see fit. And the fact that a large and increasing number of construction projects in the developing world (albeit mostly those built by multinational rather than local developers) are working to achieve LEED gold certification and the like shows that there is economic value for developers in these programs’ existence. If that economic value (which consists partially in realizing some downstream cost savings from lower energy and water use, and partially in increasing the prestige of a development for environmentally-conscious buyers or tenants) motivates some environmental action, that’s something to be applauded.
However, the evidence is at best mixed, at least from the perspective of fighting climate change. (While Mr. Blum discusses sustainability in a broad register which combines environmental and economic considerations, my opinion is that we should evaluate the suitability of green building standards or any other “sustainability”-related policy primarily in terms of its potential for reducing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, as opposed to other considerations such as economic development, as important as they may be.) While many studies have found that LEED-certified buildings have lower carbon footprints than non-LEED buildings, other studies have found the opposite.
It’s possible to imagine, though, that green building standards could be designed to unambiguously reduce GHG emissions where they are implemented, even taking into account the larger citywide or regional context. Then the question comes down to opportunity costs. Given the other possible strategies for reducing urban carbon footprints, is it sensible for developing countries to devote relatively scarce money and attention to these schemes, given the alternatives? Because of course if money and time are no object then we should let a thousand sustainability strategies bloom. But time and money are limited, and governments and societies need to make choices.
So here I want to reiterate the point I made in my opening remarks, that there are far better ways to spend time and money than green building standards if we want to improve sustainability outcomes in the developing world. Affordable housing, public transit, and disaster preparedness are all good options.
Mr. Blum makes the vital point that the impacts of the unsustainability of human society are felt most strongly in the developing world. This fact implies an ethical responsibility on the part of developed nations to mitigate these impacts. But the North isn’t going to do this through its building standards. Because the fact of the matter is that the subordinate environmental position of developing nations has little to do with buildings and much to do with the way the global economy operates. We have a worldwide “spatial division of labour” where high-value, low-pollution economic activities (such as designing iPhones) occurs in rich countries, and low-value, high-pollution economic activities (such as manufacturing iPhones) occurs in poor countries. Poor people tend to live in areas more vulnerable to sea level rise and other climate-related risk, while rich people (and rich countries) can better afford to protect themselves from this risk.
Mr. Blum asks, in reference to a set of benefits ascribed to green building standards, “Why should these benefits be denied to developing countries?” We might well ask the same question about the whole range of social and material divergences between the developed and the developing world, which have led to worse environmental outcomes and greater pressure on the natural environment in poorer countries. These problems aren’t going to be solved with green building standards, but we might begin to solve them with equity-focused urban environmental policy, and that’s where I think we should be investing our scarce time and money.
The proposer’s closing remarks
In my closing remarks on this interesting debate, I first want to compliment my colleague Dr. David Wachsmuth. His scholarly research and reasoned prose in dissecting the possible drawbacks of applying developed-country green-building standards to emerging economies gives me optimism that a consensus among sustainability practitioners, local community developers, and public officials can be reached.
My initial thesis still stands. The robust nature of the process used in developed countries for creating LEED, BREEAM, Passivhaus, etc, is a transparent paradigm for developing countries. No one profession or industry or type of public official controls this process….not in the United States, European Union, Australia, or anywhere else. Consequently, the building science used to develop the recommended certifications has validity in the deserts of Southwest USA and the Sahara, and from Bangkok to New Orleans.
My colleague Dr. Wachsmuth is concerned about misuse of resources by developing communities that invest in “green standards.” So many other critical needs could be potentially ignored. I share his concern, which is why my view included reliance on local assessments as to what standards from a LEED-type “menu” are necessary, and which ones provide economic and social value justifying the initial investment.
What is not debatable is the essential actions that developed and developing countries need to take together to adapt to a climate future for which existing building and community development practices are unprepared. For that, all tools should be welcomed.
The opposition’s closing remarks
This has been a thought-provoking and productive debate, and I’ve learned a lot from the discussion so far. My basic perspective on the question remains fairly straightforward: the evidence for the efficacy of green building standards is shaky at best, so, in a context of scarce time and money, developing country policymakers should focus on more consequential urban sustainability strategies—in particular expanding access to dense affordable housing and public transit. Green building standards are voluntary, so developers who wish to pursue them should be free to do so, but in my view they don’t pass the “opportunity cost” test to warrant any public investment of resources.
For my concluding remarks I want to touch on some of the points raised by commenters, who I think in many cases have managed to identify the issues at stake most clearly. Kent Thomas says “I’m from the Caribbean and I think we are often unable to economically achieve the standards of BREEAM and LEED and can only do so for our greatest engineering feats (aka most expensive ventures with long design life).” This comment gets to one of my concerns with LEED in developing country contexts—that it allows high-prestige projects with large budgets the opportunity to make some targeted efficiency improvements in the designs in exchange for the certification, but that these opportunities are far too scarce in poor, resource-constrained cities to be a sensible broader policy objective.
Faten Kikano made a criticism of the building-centric nature of LEED and BREEAM that I think is worth thinking about: “While certifications apparently concern ‘buildings’, they actually implicate economic and socio-cultural dimensions, and may therefore represent in some cases serious drawbacks for vulnerable populations.” What broader social relations are implicated by these standards?
Kirk Renaud offered a rebuttal to my critique, which also pointed to the need for clarifying my central argument: “David, I respect your concerns, but while you clearly agree that the need for global sustainability is urgent, you point out some minor flaws of certification programs without offering any alternatives at all. Given the need to avoid wasting precious time while the planet heats up, aren’t we better taking a few less than perfect steps forward rather than doing nothing while Rome burns?”
With all respect to Kirk, I do think I’ve been offering an alternative to the certification programs, which is not to worry about them and to focus on more equity-focused urban sustainability interventions which I believe will achieve better sustainability outcomes and be better responsive to the economic and social context of large developing-world cities. Public transit and affordable housing are the ones I pointed to which I think are likely to be broadly applicable across cities I noted developing world, but there may well be others worth prioritizing in specific contexts.
In fact, Mauro Cossu offered a much clearer articulation of this position in his comment than I managed to do in either of my interventions: “The problem for the urban poor is not the access to the house itself, but to maintain their social networks and the connection to their places of economic opportunities. They have other priorities: access to work, health care and education. So, the location of affordable houses is fundamental, if not more important than the quality of the houses themselves. Integrated urban solutions should not focus on green housing but also, and above all, on land and transport policies. Walkable cities, for instance, are more sustainable than cities characterized by land consumption and sprawl as a result of a car-dependent development. To conclude, a city is not a collection of houses and urban sustainability is not measured by the increase in the number of green housing units. What needs to be measured are the levels of accessibility that are determined and guaranteed by real ‘capabilities’ (Amartya Sen) that the inhabitants have to reach the places of their interest: workplaces, social and leisure sites.”
That’s a conclusion I can endorse!
The moderator’s closing remarks
Green building certification systems are imperfect solutions to today’s environmental challenges. But this should not discourage professionals and decision-makers from adopting them in developing countries.
This is the main message conveyed by participants in our latest Œuvre durable-i-Rec international online debate about the adoption of green building certification systems in developing countries. Participants in this debate (and, likely, voters too) consider that the most important action in a climate-changing world is “to begin the journey”; that is, the journey towards sustainability awareness and environmental protection. Given this context, the debate quickly focused on a significant ethical dilemma: deciding whether implementing imperfect solutions is “good enough”, or else, whether developing countries should aim at higher objectives and—probably more complex and difficult to implement—strategies to achieve them. This dilemma has profound ethical implications and raises crucial questions for today’s professionals: is “the perfect the enemy of the good” in the field of environmental protection and the fight against climate change (in other words, is “green” enough for substantial change)? How “just” and “good” must our intentions and actions be in a world largely constrained by economic, political, cognitive, and administrative barriers? Is a modest step in the journey morally worth it —given that the journey is increasingly difficult? Is there an intrinsic value in our engagement in the journey, regardless of the context in which our actions are taken?
The result of the debate was tight. Whereas 55% of voters defended the adoption of green building certifications systems, 45% of them raised serious doubts. Yet, given the increasing acceptance of LEED, BREEAM, and other international certifications, it is probably not surprising that most participants emphasized the positive outcomes of standardizing environmental principles in both developed and developing countries. There was, in fact, a rapid shift in the distribution of votes. After the first round, around 55% of participants consistently defended the adoption of green building certification systems in developing countries. Some participants identified common drawbacks, limits, and side effects of green building certification systems developed in “the North”. But the impact of their arguments on the general perception regarding the effectiveness and value of certifications was limited. Most participants consider, in fact, that green building certifications help create awareness about environmental issues. As such, they play a fundamental role in the journey towards sustainability.
Mr. Jared O. Blum, an expert in environmental issues in the US, believes that the implementation challenges of green building certification systems can be, and are already being, addressed. Dr. David Wachsmuth, an urban planning professor at McGill University, questions the very pertinence of these certification systems and their capacity to produce long-term, wide-scale (one feels tempted to write “sustainable”) change. In a world with sufficient resources, “any” solution (regardless of its impact scope) would probably be welcome. But in a context of scarce resources and limited public and political attention to environmental issues, Mr. Wachsmuth argues, we cannot afford this strategy. Instead, developing countries should focus on socially-just interventions in, for instance, affordable housing and transportation.
What about green certification systems in the face of climate change, disasters, and risks? Mr. Blum argues that these considerations have been already recognized, and a resilience design platform, called RELi, for instance, is now incorporated into the LEED rating system. No need for developing countries to “reinvent their own wheels”, believe Mr. Blum and some participants. They see an opportunity to leapfrog technology and construction in developing countries, avoiding development stages largely characterized by pollution and environmental degradation. Mr. Wachsmuth and some commentators remind us of the ethical responsibilities of developed nations for environmental damage — effects that are now felt most strongly in the developing world and among poor communities. Mr. Wachsmuth and some participants are looking for local solutions in an industry and a construction sector significantly framed by informal solutions, urban inequalities, and informal businesses. The scholar concludes: “These problems aren’t going to be solved with green building standards, but we might begin to solve them with equity-focused urban environmental policy.”
Unsolved questions still remain, which probably require more hard evidence. Are developed and developing countries fighting the same enemy (in other words, do they face the same environmental problems)? Do certifications have the same effects in developing and developed nations? Do developing countries produce stronger impacts on the environment than developed nations? Regardless of their position in this debate, and their answers to these questions, all participants seem to believe that we have a significant ethical responsibility towards both society and the environment. This is an encouraging result.
The Œuvre durable-i-Rec international online debates have been a great success. Throughout six debates, the online platform has been visited more than 14,000 times. This last edition was no exception. The debate on green certification systems received more than 1,500 responses in social media, and the debate site was visited more than 1,500 times by 700 people from 65 countries. The activity received more than 144 votes and 30 comments. I want to thank Mr. Blum and Mr. Wachsmuth for their stimulating arguments, for their interest in this debate and for the time and effort they devoted to this activity. I also acknowledge the significant contribution of participants and voters. Participants such as Tushar, Kirk, Raphael, Monique, Leyla, Derek, Mauro, Julien, Barry, Faten, Olusanya, and others offered interesting perspectives on this issue. I look forward to reading your comments in the next Œuvre durable-i-Rec international debate.