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Greenwashing in Construction Industry

29 Jul

With India Poised to create “Smart Cities”, a lot of movement is seen at the grassroots level which must be understood and reformed. These are most prevalent in the Peri-Urban and “New Urban” Space where the focus should be the most.

The construction industry is plagued with greenwashing, this is evident all over the world. Let us understand this with a few examples.

Say, a person goes to visit residential or commercial premise which claims that it has designed the building as per green standards.The marketing person over there usually shows them a brochure which has some of the salient features based on the Green Building Certification program they have claimed to have adhered to. An average person, however,does not understand what are the defining features which would make a building ” Green”. Thus takes it all at face value.

Typical green building brochure has the data which talks about energy efficient water fixtures, energy efficient electrical systems and smart waste disposal systems. While the systems which are shown are actually a part and parcel of a green building, they are not necessarily an indicator of the building being actually “green” in the true sense of the term.

To understand greenwash one must have the basic understanding of the term ” Green”. It has nothing to do with the colour spectrum in general. It is a simplistic term that has been coined to indicate that project has adhered to the norms required under Environment – Health and Safety guidelines. Each Nation has their own guidelines for EHS.

If one follows F.E.W ( Food – Security; Energy – Efficiency; Water – Sufficiency; Waste – Management) best practices, the Environment ensures that the Nation is safe from many Health hazards, which plague modern society due to Climate change.

India for one has some of the most stringent norms for environment protection, energy efficiency and water & waste management. And it is not a cake walk for those who are not disciplined enough to follow them correct.

Real estate in India not exactly recognised as yet industrial sector on its own. This allows for many players, who do not have either the skill-set nor the discipline that is required in the construction and building industry. Transparency in real estate is yet to be above suspicion in India.

Now, this brings into play a situation; wherein the pretenders try to copy whatever is trending in the market. For most of these “hobby” Builders, who have come into the market to make a quick buck “greenwashing” is the best way forward to add a premium to their projects.

So they hire Green Building Consultants to provide them with the basic design compliances while on the construction compliances they cut corner. It begins with the material management. More often than not they procure products which do not really conform to the standards that need to have adhered. They would usually go about in a very sly manner. If you would scrutinise the product, the product itself would be green compliant. However and Designs simulations the specifications that the consultant would have given will not be followed. Further, these developers know that it is extremely hard to have some of the points to be proven false.

For example under the Sustainable site compliance, it is necessary to save the topsoil if it is fertile; have a sediment as well as an air-pollution management plan. And a reforestation and forest protection plan. Rare would be a case where trees would be saved, if at all. It is also not uncommon to do under-reporting so that a bare minimum are replanted. Because, as per Green Norms, every tree that needs to be cut, three trees must be planted.

Sometimes due to project design constraint it is not possible to replant all the trees as per rule on site. But there are options available where one can plant a tree somewhere else to compensate for the ones that were murdered ( I use this word because trees, as we all know, are living beings. They just don’t have a vocal cord and limb ) to make way for “human”(?) development.

As none of the Certification programs ask for mandatory third party Monitoring – Verification – Reporting but, in self-assessment and checks by the party which has applied for certification. It is not abnormal to find projects that don’t plant trees on site but also not bother to spend for NGO’s who do so. Further, they plant some Shrubs and pass it off as Tree. Mostly this happens because not many know the difference between a shrub & tree. But another point that most don’t see is that it is difficult to grow Trees on a concrete podium ! Tree have roots which go deep down on earth, unlike shrubs.

It also points to a very curious fact, that the podium and beneath it are a few thousand tonnes of concrete, spread from end to end of the plot. Leaving not even an inch of soil anywhere. So how then are they certified green ? They are complete anti-thesis to the act of sustainable site, a very mandatory point. For no amount of artificial water-harvesting process can ape the actual water retention and percolation process of mother nature. And while on the rain water or ground water harvesting; very few if at all, hire someone who is a professional Hydrologist. Therefore the attempt on any watershed program is more often than not, flawed right from the beginning of the project.

Further, the rating systems; in order to gain popularity & market reach came up with the idea of “Pre-Certifying” a project. Under this, the developer through his chosen Green Building Consultant would promise to comply with all the best practices. Based on design intent and simulation report thereof. Any building can achieve a good rating under the pre-certification program.

And the feather in the cap comes from some of the “Green consultants”, they are a group usually found in every Certification program Chapter member. These super intelligent beings can actually get a project get “Platinum” or “5-Star” certified, even if they have been hired post ground-breaking of the project and even to the extent when the project has reached podium level of construction. For, they have mastered the art of “product based” compliance certification giving design basis a near miss.
They are something like some of our famous “Vaastu” consultants who have a solution for everything.

Thus these people follow the classic Pre-Certification route. Get an “intent” letter in place and lo & behold, the developer now has a Green building, which perhaps is greener than the genuine developer who having understood the constraints and costs may in all his honestly achieve a “Silver” Certificate.

Now having established the methods of green-wash we need to answer the moot point? Is green wash as big a villain as it is being painted to be? The answer is both a Yes and a No.

Yes – because in the short term we are getting the sub-standard buildings which are getting passed off as Better Building Design / Energy Efficient Buildings. As the natural lifespan of buildings is over 50+ years, so with time we will have a huge inventory of non-performing buildings in a resource deficit world. Stringent laws which have to come into force sooner than later as we having passed 407 PPM this June and 2016 having been officially recognised by WMO as the hottest the planet has ever recorded; the pressure is building on all signatory nations of CoP-21 Paris Agreement to implement their NDC’s faster.

India already has their Nationally Determined Contributions for Abatement of Climate Change in place. Four more National Action Plans are being added to the earlier Eight National Action Plan on Climate Change, declared by the then PM in 2010.

Currently, eight ‘missions’ are operational, each of which is a sectoral response to the impacts of climate change. Three of them — on solar energy, afforestation and energy efficiency — seek to slow down the growth of India’s emissions. Another three — on agriculture, water and Himalayan ecosystems — are about initiating measures to adapt to the effects of climate change. The remaining two — on sustainable habitat and strategic knowledge — are service missions and seek to create more knowledge on useful climate responses.

National Action Plan on Solar, Energy Efficiency and Afforestation “Green India” are a sectoral response to the impacts of Climate change. To this Wind & Waste -to- Energy will be added.

The other National Action Plan where on Water, Agriculture & Himalayan Eco-system, to this the new Costal Regulation Zone and National Health Mission is being added. These will essentially be measures for adapting to effects of Climate change.

From a layman perspective, it is hard to recognise the tremendous changes it will bring to the Building and Construction Industry. But if one reads the intent behind each it is not really hard to see what is coming like a juggernaut towards the Real Estate sector.

Those who are smart enough will adapt and adopt. And in this game, the pretenders of today who are greenwashing, having made a false “good” reputation of being responsible developers of Climate Resilient Building would design their next projects with truthful intent.

For, it is not the certification which is big,it is the actual performance of the building. Thus a falsely claimed 5-Star/Platinum rated building would perform poorly than a genuine Silver/3-Star rated building. The buyers would be able to discern this sooner than later and thus it is the market force which will wash away the “green washing” of buildings.

 

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