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PHOENIX-The economy may be “horrid,” but green building is a bright spot, with said speakers at the International Council of Shopping Centers’ CenterBuild conference, being held here through Saturday. And benefits will go well beyond saving energy for retail developers and stores.

The greatest CO2 emitters are buildings, responsible for 40% of emissions, presenting an enormous opportunity for builders. Even as other sectors are struggling, sustainable building is growing at a 30% annual rate, making it the fastest-growing sector in the building industry, said David Gottfried, CEO of Berkeley, CA-based Regenerative Ventures and a founder of the U.S. Green Building Council. “The growth in this world right now is green,” Gottfried said.

CenterBuild is held annually for developers, designers and construction professionals in retail real estate. And retailers are leading the way in greening this sector, particularly since it can be profitable, said Joseph Feldman, managing director and senior research analyst of New York City-based Telsey Advisory Group: the pioneering ‘green’ Wal-Mart in Lawrence, KS, posted higher-than-average sales for the chain.

Wal-Mart is not alone in pursuing sustainability, he reported: Target is starting to place motion sensors in their stores that will dim lights in unoccupied aisles. The Gap and the Limited also are making efforts at energy efficiency, with the latter replacing roofs at three distribution centers to make them more energy efficient.

Even comparatively small efforts, such as Lowes’ decision to replace all of the lights in its stores with energy-efficient models, add up over time. “It’s relatively easy to become green,” Feldman said, noting that “green” retailers “mostly are the leaders in their spaces.” But the extra interest could be a double-edged sword.

“Companies need to be careful not to overuse the green logo,” Feldman said. “There are enough watchdogs out there that the minute a Wal-Mart trips up, they’ll be all over them. Green is here to stay.”

That is supported by the growth of the USGBC, and the soaring interest in LEED certification or equivalents worldwide, Gottfried said. LEED is now developing a specific designation for retail; currently retail stores and shopping center developers can apply under the new construction or existing building standards. The standard will be up for member ballot this month, with a market launch expected in spring 2009.

The interest in standards also is expanding worldwide, with 13 countries–including India, Mexico, Brazil, Japan and Australia–now having green building councils. Another 50 nations are creating councils.

“It’s a United Nations of councils,” Gottfried said. Even the Chinese government is trying to impose more green regulations on its manufacturers, Feldman reported.

But all of this interest still may not be enough. Just complying with LEED certification will not be sufficient to reverse climate change, he noted. More developments and retailers must pursue Platinum status or zero-energy or water use status. “LEED awarding credits for [performance] 20% to 30% above average is just limiting the damage,” Gottfried said.

Instead, developers should be examining the possibility of becoming a net producer of energy by using the surface area of parking lots to generate power. Transportation issues must be considered–New York City is one of the greenest in the world because of its vast mass transit system, reducing reliance on the automobile. As the world becomes increasingly urban, such techniques and systems will become even more important for developers.

“We can recapture rainwater, using it to recharge aquifers,” he said. “Nature has no waste. As we design our cities of the future, we have to think about these concepts.”

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