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What Singapore can learn from Europe's green building journey

Speed is of the essence - every lost year in terms of implementation makes it more challenging to reach building energy targets.

Smart-tinting glass by Halio, installed at a healthcare facility in Belgium, blocks the sun's glare and heat to provide optimal thermal comfort.

RISING buildings and skyscrapers mark the era of modernisation. However, buildings are responsible for nearly 40 per cent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

The world cannot reach its ambitious climatic targets if energy use in buildings is not drastically reduced.

While Singapore has a relatively high penetration rate of green buildings at 30 per cent compared to other Asian cities, there is room to catch up with European cities like Paris and London, at 64 per cent and 68 per cent respectively.

Europe has been the most competitive region globally for green buildings since the beginning due to its strong political leadership role.

This was not by coincidence. In 1990, the first green building rating system, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, presented a systematic method to evaluate green buildings and has now become the standard in local authority planning requirements.

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In 2002, the European Union (EU) introduced the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) to promote energy efficiency in the building sector, which became compulsory for all member states.

In 2010, the EPBD was recast with the ambitious goal to ensure that by Dec 31 this year, all new buildings are nearly Zero Energy Buildings, which was enforced in the national legislation of EU member states.

This means that by 2020, every new building in the EU must achieve a Class A label.

The greater challenge is that 97.5 per cent of the existing building stock will need renovation to reach the same Class A level as new buildings.

Since the task of decarbonisation is enormous, the speed of renovation will need to be dramatically increased. If the EU keeps its current pace of renovation, we estimate that it will take 100 years to decarbonise, which will not meet the EU's carbon-neutral target of 2050.

Hence, the EU's request to member states to submit their long-term renovation strategies by March 2020.

Following the EU Green Deal challenge, Europe's flat glass trade association, Glass for Europe, released its 2050 vision - "Flat glass in a climate-neutral Europe" - on how high-performance glass, as a net carbon-avoidance technology, can save up to 37 per cent of the total energy consumption in the EU building stock by 2050.

Both energy and emissions savings could be even more substantial if technologies like smart-tinting glass become mainstream - combined with low emissivity coatings - to produce the ultimate building energy efficiency solution.

Smart-tinting glass can tint on-demand, from a clear state that looks like ordinary glass to its darkest state of 0.1 per cent light transmission, and anywhere in between.

It blocks the glare of the sun and the heat to provide optimal thermal comfort indoors and enhanced privacy, while keeping the view.

So what can Singapore learn from Europe's green building journey? It is all about speed. Every lost year in terms of implementation makes it more challenging to reach building energy targets.

Speed of technology adoption

The building industry as a whole needs to embrace new and best technologies more quickly. If the adoption rate remains at status quo, we will lose too much time.

The industry and public authorities need to collaborate to implement new technologies diligently.

In the case of a tropical climate as in Singapore, this means using the best technologies to manage overheating, as 60 per cent of the electricity consumption by non-residential buildings is for cooling.

The norm for new and existing buildings

Green building standards are not only for new buildings, or to be viewed as the "easiest" target. New buildings and renovation of existing buildings should be tackled together.

Stepping up on implementing green building standards and certifying buildings to meet green mandates should become an industry norm.

Education, the window to green building adoption

Consistent government efforts are needed to drive industry education towards green building standards adoption.

In the EU, education has drawn public attention to green buildings because of its objectives to improve occupant health and well-being, encourage sustainable business practices and increase workers' productivity. Green building adoption is one of the most effective short-term goals to contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change.

There are already several countries that have a leading role. Germany leads Europe, California leads the United States, and Singapore leads South-east Asia.

We trust that all the actors in the building industry in Singapore will once again embrace this leadership role and guide the region to a more sustainable future.

  • The writer is chief executive officer of Halio International.

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