In the past, businessmen used either the word “free” or “new” to draw attention. As it could be costly to use the former to promote products, they often used the latter to attract customers. While “new” is still a favourite, there are now two more words that are being used to sell things: “green” and “eco”. As such, it is increasingly common to see terms like green homes, green cars and eco-refrigerators. In addition, there are eco-towns and eco-cities.
Unfortunately, there is no standardised meaning when green or eco is used as a prefix for things in Malaysia. Indeed, there is no certainty that a product with either of the two words as a prefix is really ecologically friendly. For instance, can a hotel claim to be green if it installs big and small flushes in its toilets? If a house uses solar panels and reduces its electricity bills by 25%, can it be termed as a green home?
What are eco-towns or eco-cities? Are they really green in reality? Are they friendly to people?
Eco-towns or eco-cities are generally defined as settlements that are built to meet the highest standards of sustainability. This means low- or zero-carbon footprints. Among the main characteristics are recycling systems for not only solid waste but also used water and the minimal use of cars for daily travel needs. And according to well-known Finnish professor Eero Paloheimo, “it should also be economical in all aspects.”
For example, in England, four eco-town projects approved in 2007 had the following characteristics: All homes are, at the most 10 minutes’ walk from schools, shops and other local services and have safe bicycle storage; employment opportunities are available locally or at least accessible by public transport; and no more than 50% of all journeys starting from eco-towns are by car.
Today, the showcase of an eco-city project in the making is Masdar City in United Arabs Emirates, scheduled for completion in 2016. This new city will only rely on solar energy and other renewable energy sources. It will have zero-carbon and zero-waste ecology. According to its planners, the plaza will be covered with huge solar umbrellas called “sunflowers” that will capture heat and provide shade during the day and fold at night to release heat.
But plans do not necessarily become realities. Even well-publicised projects have turned sour. For example, Dongtan was much touted to be the “first eco-city of the world” by transforming a marshy backwater island near Shanghai into a gleaming community of energy-efficient buildings. Waste was to be recycled as fuel and the waterfront lined with sleek wind-mills. Planned to showcase China’s commitment to sustainable development during the Shanghai Trade Exposition in 2010, the project was abandoned even before the gates to the expo were opened.
In Penang, the ill-fated Penang Global City Centre (PGCC) was also touted to be a zero-carbon eco-city. Despite its ecological label, the RM25 billion (US$824 million) project on a 104 ha plot faced widespread opposition from non-governmental organisations.
There are, however, success stories. A good example is Kawasaki City in Japan. Long known as a polluted city, it is today an exemplary eco-city with a Zero Emission Industrial Park. The city has also taken on the role of a promoter of green cities by establishing Kawasaki City Global Knowledge Centre to conduct research on and promote activities that reduce global warming.
Malaysia has yet to have a bona fide eco-city. The so-called eco-city projects are no more than ordinary property development projects with some attention to environmental concerns. Most, if not all, are sited in locations that compel the use of private vehicles to get anywhere, including schools, markets and even having a cuppa with friends. Furthermore, not a single developer of eco-towns or eco-homes has shown evidence that the project was carbon neutral during the construction stage, from earth-works to construction and the use of paints.
In this context, it is commendable that the Malaysian Institute of Architects and the Association of Consulting Engineers Malaysia have jointly developed a Green Building Index (GBI) to ensure some semblance of uniformity and standards. However, it is disappointing that the certification of green buildings can be costly. Greenbuildingindex Sdn Bhd charges Green Building Index Registration fees that range from RM5,000 to RM45,000 per project, depending on the size. The fees for projects above 100,000 sq m are negotiable.
For two professional bodies whose members have made a lot of money from property development partly as a result of legislated professional titles, one would have thought that the custodian of the index would provide free services to promote the development of eco-homes and eco-cities.
More importantly, it is of concern that properties with the “green-” or “eco-” prefix come with hefty price tags. The price of properties in self-proclaimed eco-cities is simply beyond the means of the middle class. For example, the price of apartments in an “eco-city” project near a popular shopping centre in Kuala Lumpur is reported to be RM800 per sq ft. An apartment measuring 1,300 sq ft will cost more than a RM1 million! Can a project be classified as ecologically sustainable when a large portion of the population is denied access? It is useful to note that in England, the first batch of eco-towns must consist of between 30% and 50% social housing as part of the Government’s drive to tackle the housing crisis.
While it is a progressive step for Malaysia to promote sustainable development, it is also important to be vigilant against those who use green- and eco-labels as money-making machines.