Making cities better: voluntary programs aren’t enough

How did this roof become green? Ryan Somma, CC BY-SA

Voluntary programs are all the rage. From ratcheting up cybersecurity to fighting obesity, firms in the United States and elsewhere voluntarily make pledges to do better than governmental regulation.

Firms are rewarded for doing so. Governments may stall the introduction of mandatory regulation, clients may be more inclined to buy their goods, and investors may consider them a safer haven for their money.

Cities: both perpetrator and victim of climate change

Voluntary programs are particularly used to improve cities. Traditional building codes and zoning regulation are often slow and not effective in responding to urban problems. Governments, corporations and civil society groups expect that voluntary programs will do better.

Take climate change. Cities are responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This makes cities a key cause of climate change.

Yet, three decades of regulation requiring architects and developers to build efficient buildings have not resulted in impressive results. Buildings, and their occupants for that matter, still waste energy, water and other resources by the gallon, and produce greenhouse gasses by the megaton.

Climate change will also affect cities severely. More extreme weather events are expected in the near future. Hurricane Sandy was likely just a glimpse of things to come for city dwellers.

It makes sense, then, to prepare cities to such events. Increased resilience of buildings and infrastructure requires, however, enormous investments from governments – and from firms and households.

Because it is not certain when, where and how severely climate change will exactly affect cities, policymakers face severe opposition from businesses and households when they propose mandatory upgrades of buildings and infrastructure.

Voluntary programs for better cities

It is because of the problems of mandating a response to climate change that the world’s major cities have turned to voluntary programs to improve urban sustainability and resilience. They are supported by corporations and civil society groups in doing so.

The expectation is that through collaboration between government, business and civil society, self regulation will be more effective than traditional governmental intervention. Globally, a wide range of such programs is now in place.

But is this trust in voluntary programs justified? My research finds it is not.

I have studied 60 such programs around the world. Yes, some of these have resulted in energy use reduction or improved resilience of buildings. Yet, the size of that reduction and the number of buildings whose resilience has been improved is marginal, at best.

A program that looks good on the outside…

One example tells it all. In 1993, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC, a non-profit made up of representatives from the building industry, government and civil society groups) introduced its building certification program LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design).

Building certification works a little like the energy ratings you find on your appliances at home. It helps to showcase the environmental credentials of buildings. In this respect, LEED is a simple and elegant idea: it allows for an easy comparison of a building’s environmental performance (in terms of energy, water and material use) with other buildings.

This makes building certification very attractive. It is easy to grasp that a Gold or Platinum certified building is somehow better than a Bronze of Silver certified one – let alone a non-certified building.

LEED is now in use as a standard in 135 countries and regions. Around the globe 20,000 projects have been LEED certified, in the US alone this translates into 900 million square meters (or 9.68 billion square feet) of LEED certified space.

LEED is considered the world’s most influential voluntary program for improved urban sustainability. The United Nations recently awarded it a top global environmental prize.

… but falls apart easily

But what do these mind boggling numbers actually mean? The current built-up space in the United States is about 32 billion square meters (or 344 billion square feet.) Thus, at best 3% of built-up space in the United States is LEED certified. For having been in business for 20 years this is not an outstanding achievement.

But let’s take a closer look at what this 3% actually means.

The majority of LEED certificates are in the lower categories of Bronze and Silver. These are seen as not requiring much from participants. Sometimes not more than what government regulation requires.

Only 6% of certificates in the US are issued in the challenging Platinum category. These buildings move far beyond governmental regulation. But they represent a mere 6% of that meagre 3% coverage or 0.18% (1 in 550) of built up space in American cities. This does not constitute major impact.

Voluntary regulation still a valuable part of urban governance

Time and again I find marginal performance in the 60 voluntary programs that I have studied, including other certification schemes, revolving loan funds that provide funds for building retrofits, and office to office competitions that challenge office users to improve their environmental performance. Still, there are important roles for them. Three stand out.

First, they challenge companies to push the envelope and raise the bar of what is considered “normal” practice. LEED, for instance, recognizes the use of highly innovative sustainable building materials by those seeking LEED certification for their buildings. In doing so, voluntary programs stimulate innovation and the search for technological sollutions.

Second, they attract considerable media attention. Since 2002 the New York Times has reported 250 times on LEED. Such coverage spreads the word that highly sustainable and resilient buildings are neither more costly nor more difficult to build than conventional ones.

Finally, they help develop regulation that actually works. By test-driving an initiative for a number of years, governments and business can tweak and improve a voluntary program. LEED does result in Platinum certified buildings. This indicates that it is possible to meet this goal.

Where next for voluntary programs?

For voluntary programs to have a real impact, policymakers need to be brave and start mandating those that have proven to work. Only then will the small pockets of outstanding performance like LEED have the backing to have significant impact on cities and transform them into places that are able to combat climate change.