Special Focus: World Sustainable Built Environment Conference 2017

Sep - Oct 2017

Special Focus: World Sustainable Built Environment Conference 2017

September 10, 2017

World Sustainable Built Environment Conference 2017
by Alakesh Dutta

The World Sustainable Built Environment Conference 2017 (WSBE17) was held in Hong Kong from the 5th to 7th June 2017. It was co-organised by the Construction Industry Council (CIC) and the Hong Kong Green Building Council (HKGBC). Attended by about 1,800 delegates from across the globe, the event brought together several experts and advocates of sustainable urban developments, which included industry practitioners, developers, academics and a significant number of public sector leaders who directly impact various facets of the built environment.

The event eclipsed President Trump’s decision a few days prior, to withdraw the United States from the landmark 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. Aptly, one of the leading voices of the conference was Christiana Figueres (Vice-Chair, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy), who in her former capacity as the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was the architect of the agreement. In her words, President Trump’s decision had in fact benefitted the climate change dialogue by putting it back on the headlines and inspiring nations, organisations and individuals to do more; a thought echoed by most of the speakers in this conference.

The WSBE17 was also part of the marquee events being organised this year to celebrate 20 years since the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Matthew Cheung Kin-chung (Chief Secretary for Administration, Government of HKSAR) spoke about Hong Kong’s efforts over the past two decades in improving the performance of the built environment. He also highlighted the government’s Climate Action Plan 2030+: using 2005 as the base, it aims to achieve a 40-percent energy intensity reduction target by 2025 and reduce carbon intensity by 65 to 70 percent by 2030. These goals are aligned to Hong Kong’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.

Asian cities will be the barometer of the efforts of the global community to arrest climate change and sustain a liveable environment.

The WSBE17 puts the spotlight on Hong Kong together with several high-density Asian cities, which are at the fore of tackling the challenges of intense urbanisation. Asian cities will be the barometer of the efforts of the global community to arrest climate change and sustain a liveable environment. Underlining this, Sean Chiao (President, Asia Pacific, AECOM) said that “the world needs Asia to get it right”. Figueres added that future urban developments will be characterised by three mega-trends: they will be crowded, connected and be driven by the need for clean energy. She emphasised that it is crucial that this community understands
them. The efforts over the past few decades to reduce emissions have been inadequate and have failed to arrest global warming. She declared that the focus of all our efforts needs to shift from reducing emissions to that of total decarbonisation to limit the earth’s temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. She stressed the time sensitiveness of this challenge with a few simple numbers: the earth’s atmosphere can only absorb 600 more gigatonnes of CO2. With current average global emissions at 40 gigatonnes a year, there are just 15 years left.

The building sector is one of the largest sectors for energy consumption and remains critical to this goal of total decarbonisation. With rapid urbanisation predicted over the next 15 years, a large building stock is going to be constructed. If measures are not adopted, the world risks having buildings with environmental performance that are below-par and consequently locking itself out of the decarbonisation target. Hence, roadmaps like the Climate Action Plan 2030+ are steps in the right direction that the built environment needs to take. Similarly, Su Yunshan (Director-General, Department of Science & Technology and Energy Saving on Buildings, Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, People’s Republic of China) reflected upon the numerous efforts undertaken in China to reduce emissions against its own backdrop of rapid economic growth and urbanisation.

The building sector is one of the largest sectors for energy consumption and remains critical to this goal of total decarbonisation.

However, Su also expressed concern that tremendous challenges remain embedded in the Chinese building industry, which need urgent addressing. The main concerns cited are the limited availability of competent skills and technologies as well as the methods of construction used. These concerns are magnified in the cities in the second and third tiers as well as the peri-urban areas, where the majority of the buildings will be built over the next few years, thus raising the risk of a building stock that performs below the neutral levels.

A similar concern was echoed by John Dulac (Technology Policy Building Sector Lead, International Energy Agency (IEA)). IEA’s data shows that majority of the world’s future building stock will be constructed in cities and countries that do not implement or even have strict energy codes.

While reduction of carbon emissions remained the underlying theme of the discourse, Su emphasised the broader need to improve rural infrastructure to stem incessant migration to the cities, which is particularly prevalent in developing Asian economies. The case in point was articulated in several presentations by representatives from across the world. Building rural infrastructure is integral to rural empowerment and provides an opportunity to set development benchmarks—for example, the villages/towns in Europe that are consciously moving towards carbon neutrality.

Speakers also drew attention to the importance of the role of users. Transforming user expectations and behaviours shall become integral to adapting to the new trends of future liveable environments. Researchers presented supporting studies measuring the impact of user behaviour patterns on the performance of the built environment. As a corollary to this, Prof Thomas Auer (Managing Director, Transsolar) reminded that designing for performance must not be at the expense of the quality and architectural design of the space. High-performance environments need to provide a comfortable space for users to be successful. Both the design of the engineering systems and the spatial quality of the architecture are equal contributors to this cause.

WSBE17 was the first edition to change its name from WSB (World Sustainable Buildings) to WSBE (World Sustainable Built Environment). This shifts the emphasis beyond buildings to the larger built environment and urban systems. This is an emerging trend visible in many sessions, together with the need for wellness. Richard Leung Wah-ming (Senior Engineer, Drainage Services Department, Government of HKSAR) showcased several examples of projects that are naturalising the concrete channels of canals and reintroducing the riparian ecosystem. These actions are critical to the environmental performance of the ecosystem as well as the sustenance of biodiversity. Closely associated to this theme is the increasing interest in biophilic design, which endeavours to provide users an access to nature within the built environment.

The theme of the conference—Transforming our Built Environment through Innovation & Integration— highlights these systems and actions that are at a broader level. They consider the entire built environment as an integrated whole.

The event concluded with a strong reminder by Ir Conrad Wong (Chairman of the WSBE17 Hong Kong Organising Committee) about the time sensitiveness of our actions. Figueres called upon the community to return to the next edition in Sweden in 2020 with tangible results as well as clearly defined agendas for achieving the targets set for 2030 by various countries after the Paris Climate Agreement. Collaboration across all sectors, including the private ones, and the leadership of the policymakers were
identified as critical elements for achieving these goals.

Interview with Christiana Figueres
by Alakesh Dutta

Christiana Figueres is an internationally recognised leader on global climate change. As the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) from 2010 to 2016, she directed the successful conferences of the Parties in Cancun 2010, Durban 2011, Doha 2012, Warsaw 2013 and Lima 2014, and culminated her efforts in the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015. She has been credited with forging a new brand of collaborative diplomacy.

Currently the Vice-Chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors, Figueres is working with many other international organisations to ensure that the world bends the curve of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. She spoke to FuturArc writer Alakesh Dutta.

AD: In light of the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, do you foresee a risk that other nations/organisations may follow suit and forego their commitments to the Agreement?

CF: That would be a risk, but I don’t see that happening. What I see is actually quite the contrary—an enormous wave of support, not just for continuing the efforts of the Paris Agreement, but actually accelerating those efforts. We have heard that from almost 50 countries already and I am sure we will hear from more. We have heard it from the leading forces of the real economy in the United States as well.

AD: This brings me to the next question of urban leadership. Several mayors and urban thought leaders are taking a proactive role. Do you think their initiatives can be independent of the direction of the national political leadership?

CF: Well obviously, the ideal situation is to have an alignment all across: all the way from international to national and sub-national, at the state and city levels, and down to the communities. That’s the ideal situation that provides the most effective policies and measures that get the most impact out of the least amount of investment. But that is the ideal situation. You don’t always get that. The situation we apparently have in the United States now is that the federal government will not align itself. But the moment you go down to the states, cities and communities, that alignment will continue to happen and we will get the emission reductions that can be achieved at that level. What is important to understand is that those activities are not being taken forward because of the emission reductions. They are taken forward because it makes the economy more competitive, as you are depending on lower prices, safer investments, more creation of jobs and better energy independence. All those actions are taking place in order to strengthen the economy.

AD: I would like to ask you about your current role as the Vice-Chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors. You were dealing with international leadership while working with the Paris Agreement—what is the role of the Global Covenant of Mayors?

CF: The Global Covenant is also an international alliance. It has about 7,000 mayors of more than 7,000 cities around the world, with almost every country represented. What brings these mayors together is their interest in taking advantage of the climate opportunities in the investments into renewable energy and better transportation, to make their cities more liveable and improve the quality of life for their citizens.

AD: Asian cities face tremendous pressure as large number of people from the rural areas continue to emigrate and strain resources. This is exacerbated with the lack of pace in developing rural infrastructure. Do you think it is essential for governments and agencies to improve infrastructure in the rural areas to mitigate such imbalances?

CF: Yes, definitely. Like everything in life, you can’t go from one extreme to the other. So while the process of urbanisation is a global one, in Asia certainly but also around the world, it is going to be important to continue to invest in the rural areas because you don’t want to force even more pressure on cities. Except for the food that cities will be able to produce for themselves, it is the rural areas that will be producing the food. Thus, it is important to keep them productive from the food, economic and liveability perspectives.

AD: In your speech earlier, you spoke about decarbonisation as something the cities must work towards to. How can cities be inspired to do better? Perhaps with certain incentives to decarbonise?

CF: Decarbonisation is not the incentive. The incentive is to have cleaner air; better transportation; better energy reliance; cheaper and more distributed energy; as well as better access to energy in the rural areas. It is about those kinds of improvement to life rather than decarbonisation itself; decarbonisation is not a motivation to anyone. You have to look for the motivation in the direct positive impact on peoples’ lives.

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