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Monday, August 02, 2021

A pale green habitat

India’s high scores on green building yardsticks obscure problems that cannot be addressed by one-time certification processes. The residential sector has much ground to cover on matters of environment friendliness

Written by Manisha Natarajan |
July 20, 2021 5:35:24 pm
Industry experts say if you add all the different certifications, including those given by GRIHA (Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment), we should currently have a certified green building footprint of 12-13 billion square feet. (Representational image)

How green is India’s green building footprint? Pretty impressive according to the rating agencies and India’s world ranking on green buildings. India is currently ranked third, outside of the United States. China and Canada are the only two ahead of India according to the US Green Building Council LEED certification. LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is the most widely used green building rating system globally to measure a building’s commitment to energy and water efficiency, sustainable design, materials and resources and indoor environmental quality, amongst others.

India also has its home-grown certification for green buildings under the aegis of Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) known as IGBC or the Indian Green Building Council. IGBC ratings are most widely used by builders and institutions. IGBC has set a target of 10 billion square feet of certified green buildings by 2022 for India and the latest figures shared at a NREDCO organised webinar, IGBC revealed that as a country we have achieved more than 75 per cent of this target with 7.83 billion square feet of green buildings in 2020. In the same virtual gathering, there was much celebration of these rankings and hope that India could well be a global leader by next year.

Industry experts say if you add all the different certifications, including those given by GRIHA (Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment), we should currently have a certified green building footprint of 12-13 billion square feet.

Impressive? Not really. This square footage does not even add up to 5 per cent of India’s total-built environment. Rankings and goals notwithstanding, we have a long path to cover before we pat ourselves on our backs. Let’s dive into the big gaps which need urgent plugging in this journey to global leadership on green buildings.

What do ratings do? They essentially give credibility to a building’s sustainability performance by providing a third-party verification. In a world that is racing to a net zero carbon dioxide emission target by 2050, ratings are required by governments, corporations, and builders to ensure that a certain level of quality is achieved. Green-building ratings come in handy for large global companies to decide on commissioning or renting a building. For the developer or owner of the asset, it is an important communication and marketing tool to showcase their commitment to sustainability.

While ratings and certifications are great metrics for promoting energy excellence and differentiate high performing buildings, they are a job only half done, without continuous measurement of energy, water, and sustainability performance of any building. According to rating agencies, gold and platinum rated buildings save 20 to 30 per cent of energy and reduce water consumption by 30 to 50 per cent.

The question that begs an answer is: How often and how transparently is this measured? A building’s life cycle is 40-100 years. A one-time rating with no targets to continuously improve energy performance and move to renewables, is far from ideal.

Annual audits that are transparent and accurate on energy, water and waste must be provided by all rated buildings. An analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment some years ago revealed that while the business of certification is booming, when it came to post-commissioning sustainability performance of the buildings, there were substantial gaps. Even the largest of developers do not commit to annual audits to measure the performance of buildings.

Go one notch below the top layer of corporates and developers, and a building’s green parameters start to dilute significantly. Most buildings that house small and medium enterprises meet the energy compliance set out by the local building codes or the nationally prescribed Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) — and no more.

This gap is not hard to fix. If every institutional investor and financier mandates annual audits and demands reliable energy and sustainability performance of assets they fund, companies will fall in line. In the US and Europe, this is already a significant movement. Medium and small enterprises who are unlikely to go for green ratings, will require a much tougher law-based push. The energy building codes across different states of India set the bar on energy conservation reasonably high, but completely miss out on other aspects of environment and green. Annual audits of energy, waste and water performance and their reporting should be made mandatory by every building owner and occupier.

The elephant in the room, when it comes to India’s green building footprint, is the housing sector. Roughly 75 per cent of India’s real estate sector is residential and 25 per cent is commercial and office. Most of the green certified buildings are commercial. Even in states like Haryana and Maharashtra which offer extra floor area ratio or FAR area for different ratings of sustainability, only a handful of developers are motivated to go in for ratings for residential projects and incorporate best practices in energy, waste, and water. Projects advertised as green, flaunt open spaces, trees planted and jogging tracks — more lifestyle-related choices.

A majority of single homes and a plethora of residential projects across the country get away with complying with government prescribed building laws and there’s almost nil attention on any kind of annual inspection or audit to see whether the rainwater harvesting pits are not clogged, or solar rooftop installations, abandoned.

This needs to change significantly before we start cheering India’s world ranking on green buildings. A vast majority of India’s residences are independent homes and low-rise floor apartments. We need to make rooftop solar a compelling proposition for every homeowner. In a sun-kissed country like ours, imagine the ground we will cover in the journey to net zero if this happens. Various state governments have tried to come out with some incentives for rooftop solar installations but with little impact.

Consider how easy it is to buy a car today which costs Rs 5-6 lakh. All you do is make a call and every car is at your doorstep for a test drive. You narrow your pick, have a bank call you for a loan which is approved at 7-8 per cent cost of finance and you drive out of the showroom with a car.

On the other hand, the process of installing a 5-kilowatt solar system at a cost of about Rs 5 lakh, which is sufficient for a household’s energy consumption, is tedious at best. There is hardly any awareness of state government schemes incentivising rooftop solar. For those who are conscious enough to get one installed, the odds are stacked against them. You must seek permission for the installation by a state government department, organise net metering for extra solar power generated to be added to the grid and chase the billing department for that discount to appear in your final electricity bill. There is virtually no financing available and if at all you want a loan, you apply for a personal loan which is the most expensive of all retail loans. It really makes no financial sense to go through all this trouble for electricity bills under Rs 20,000 a month.

India’s rooftop solar policy needs urgent attention on all fronts — more consistency in gross and net metering regulations, adequate financing, and cheaper credit. There is no reason why a new sub-category cannot be created under existing home loans by banks and housing finance companies to encourage installation of solar power by households.

All these steps, if taken in earnest, hold immense potential of mitigating CO2 emissions from the day-to-day energy use in lighting, heating, cooling homes and buildings. These are the “operational carbon emissions” of buildings, which account for the largest chunk or 28 per cent of emissions annually, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Then there is the other 11 per cent of carbon emissions which goes unnoticed. The emissions released in manufacturing of building materials like steel, cement, and tiles, transporting materials to construction sites, and the actual construction process. Known as the “embodied carbon of a building”, these are rarely spoken about and barely captured in the green building ratings systems. Right now, it is safe to say, as a country we’ve started a journey which is commendable. But we have miles to go before we celebrate the square footage of India’s green buildings.

Natarajan writes on Real Estate and Sustainability Trends

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