The carrot and the stick

Stuart Matthews did not hit the switch for earth hour, or water day


I’ve just deleted a hefty collection of emails singing the praises of earth hour, another one of the now ubiquitous green ‘awareness’ events. This one attempts to coerce the guilt-ridden middle classes and corporately worthy into turning off their lights for 60 minutes.

Presumably the darkness is designed to remind them of what it was like to live in a pre-industrial age, in, if you will, a world lit only by fire (incidentally the title of an interesting book about Magellan). It can’t possibly serve any other purpose, except perhaps to let some supporting celebrities be green by association. It certainly won’t save the planet.

Nor will the more serious, less celebrity, world water day. With obvious regional relevance, it tries to remind everyone that we use too much fresh water and don’t recycle enough. If you are wondering how we use too much water, just look for the nearest green grass and think about how it got there.

While awareness is nice, to really make a difference, you need the heady combination of compulsion and incentive. In my few short years in the Middle East I’ve lost count of the green-related announcements that have come from organisations claiming everything from carbon neutrality, sustainability and 100% recyclability. We’ve had announcements, decrees, guidance and checklists.

Leed, Breeam, Estidama and Qsas are all trying to make their presence felt, but it’s still a case of picking one and seeing how you get on. Not unexpectedly, most developers choose the one that will give them the best rating, not necessarily the best building.

The new kid on the building block is due out this month. Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) has announced it will release its Green Building Regulations Stage II, which will apply to all new builds in Dubai.

As the head of Dewa said, Dubai wants to be the first city in the GCC to officially apply green building standards. The implementation of the full regulations will herald the arrival of the much needed compulsion.

Unsurprisingly, given the authority’s remit, the guidelines, developed with Dubai Municipality, are designed to reduce the consumption of water and energy in new buildings across the emirate. Changes that reduce power and water consumption can have the most direct impact on the environmental fortunes of the region’s built environment. The implementation of existing technology can bring immediate benefits, which will far outweigh turning off the lights for an hour.

If you’re really lucky, the regulations will also compel your clients to actually build the way many of you are already designing. But what about the incentive? If there’s going to be a stick, there needs to be some carrot too. Assuming that saving the planet isn’t enough motivation for developers, in a taxed environment there would be ‘tax-relief’. Essentially government-funded kick backs would reward environmental performance that reaches exceptional levels.

In the Middle East, where we all enjoy a tax-free lifestyle, what are the options? A Salik refund would be a popular choice in Dubai, but faintly counterproductive. Rent relief, however, could be a winner. A government rent subsidy could encourage ‘green’ buildings to fill up first and cover the slightly greater up-front costs the developer faced in the build.

While this is wild speculation, I’m trying to make a point. Change won’t happen by itself. Where genuine green building is concerned, developers need to be told what to do, compelled to do it and then encouraged to take it further, by themselves.

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