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Government gets serious about energy saving

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We should not see last year's Kyoto intergovernmental conference on climate change as just another conference, according to detr chief scientist David Fisk. The difference, he told an Edge debate last week, is in the 'binding commitments' that governments are making to act. For instance, the uk government is now exploring the most cost-effective ways of cutting greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors. A consultation paper on national action will be issued this summer, and legislation will follow. For construction this will inevitably extend beyond Building Regulations - legislating now for new build could not make a lot of difference nationally by the target date of 2010.

Kyoto set specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised countries, an 8 per cent reduction on 1990 levels by 2010 for the ec. The uk contribution to this has yet to be agreed. These gas reductions include methane, nitrous oxide and three fluorine-based gases as well as co2. Also, creating 'sinks' such as planting trees to absorb co2 can be credited; and the reverse, of reducing sinks by forest clearance, becomes a debit.

Specific sector saving targets are expected. But enforcement will be contentious, especially in the us. At Kyoto the us won acceptance for the option of trading in permits to emit greenhouse gases, using market mechanisms to reduce clean-up costs. Although this has not been tried for energy yet, it has had some success in the US for sulphur emissions under Acts on clean air and clean fuels.

In outline, sulphur emission targets can be seen as permits to emit a (reduced) amount of sulphur to the atmosphere. If you emit even less than that permitted, you can sell the permit for the difference to someone else. The anti-lobby predicted high costs of reducing emissions and permit values opened at around $300/tonne as they predicted. But some polluters soon found that finding ways of reducing their emissions and so creating permits to sell was a profitable business. This market activity has pushed down the permit price to $100/tonne where it has stabilised.

In construction in future, there could be emissions targets, say, for office buildings, with an owner able to trade permits once a market developed. There would need to be periodic monitoring of buildings to check performance.

The Edge debate on reducing co2 emissions was organised by riba, ice and cibse. Most agreed that all emissions-reducing options will need to be pursued; there is no one magic solution. The problem has been how to spread best practice beyond a few instances. For example, there are a few effective low-energy offices, but most clients and developers don't see energy as a priority. If the government's commitments lead to targets and their enforcement, best practice is more likely to become normal practice.

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