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Profits versus planet

Is construction putting efficiency and profit above sustainability?

Jonathan Porritt is a straight talker. The former Friends of the Earth director, now heading up environmental pressure group Forum for the Future, is not shy when it comes to putting his point of view on the environment.

So, asked last week to deliver the Institution of Structural Engineers two yearly Maitland lecture, it was a fair bet he would have some strong opinions on what the construction industry should be doing about creating a more sustainable society.

His attack on Sir John Egan's Rethinking construction report, the long awaited blueprint for bringing quality and efficiency into the industry, was merciless. 'Egan's report needs to be completely rewritten,' he claimed. 'By neglecting to mention the single most important factor for the future (sustainability), it has rendered itself null and void' (see News).

The construction industry is certainly one of the biggest consumers of raw materials. The Government's recent consultation document on sustainability, Opportunities for change, estimates the construction industry consumes 6t/employee each year. In all around 70Mt of waste are generated each year but only between 12% to 15% is recycled. The 1995 White Paper Making waste work set the target of increasing the re-use of waste from 30Mt a year to 55Mt by 2006.

Opportunities for change also notes: 'Measures to improve the efficiency and profitability of the construction industry are also directly relevant to the cause of sustainability, as one of the priority targets is to reduce all forms of waste.' Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said as much when he launched the Egan report. But as Porritt pointed out, most would agree that Egan will force the industry to rethink how it does business. More efficiency should lead to less waste and move the industry closer to sustainable development.

Porritt believes there is confusion about what sustainability means to engineers - is it self-sufficiency or is it simply operating more efficiently with less waste? The reality is probably somewhere in between.

For Porritt, any improvements in construction's efficiency will owe more to a desire to boost profits than to save the planet.

Porritt went on to point out that Prescott agreed to reduce climate change causing gas emissions by 8% between 2008 and 2012 at last year's United Nations Climate Change convention at Kyoto. These targets are serious, said Porritt, and they will not be easy to hit. Just doing nothing will lead to a 30% increase in CO2 emissions by 2001, he claimed. The issues need to be tackled now, he said, suggesting that a 20% cut in CO2 emissions by 2001 was a realistic starting point.

'We are at the dawning of a revolution, the likes of which most people don't even understand. Without serious changes in legislation, the chances of the Government hitting its targets is zero,' he told his engineer-dominated audience.

Porritt sees engineers as the key to the development of a sustainable future. He has absolute faith in their abilities to solve problems, but fears their efforts will be misdirected into tackling the wrong issues.

'Engineers will always come up with a solution - but often they are asked to solve the wrong problems,' he said.

Planning, design and construction of infrastructure is so often carried out with the 'arrogant assumption that humans were parachuted on to the earth and owe nothing to the previous 150,000 years,' Porritt said. He cited New York's water supply problem as an example. There, he claims, engineers would prefer to spend 'trillions of dollars' on new water treatment and delivery systems rather than much smaller amounts cleaning up polluted industrial and agricultural land in the once plentiful catchment area.

For Porritt, changing the attitudes of the construction professions through education is vitally important. Egan's failure to refer to sustainability or Options for change in his report indicated to Porritt just how far the construction industry's thinking is from his.

'Few professionals have had exposure to sustainability during higher education. We couldn't possibly claim that higher education is providing the skills required in their careers,' he said.

For Porritt, professional institutions should take a lead in changing attitudes by introducing a sustainability element in continuous professional development training. 'So much could be done with so little extra effort.'

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