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NEW YORK CITY-The global focus on sustainability seems to have shifted from fad to finance, as financial results continue to increase in importance for those dealing with green buildings, said the latest Global Property Sustainability Survey from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

The RICS surveys its members across the globe each quarter to track their clients’ interest in ‘green’ issues. The bottom line was the most important factor driving respondents’ sustainability agenda, with energy efficiency the most important issue overall. However, different countries have different priorities, the survey notes.

“The most important trend is the [attitude of] the US versus other countries,” says sustainability expert Paul King, former vice president of sustainability for Bovis Lend Lease, and a frequent RICS speaker.

Germany, Brazil and China place the greatest importance on sustainability, while US respondents were the least positive–just 9% of respondents saw environmental issues as very important, with 13% declaring them not important at all.

“Considering the depth of the current downturn, it is encouraging to see that so many countries are still placing a level of importance on sustainability,” Ursula Hartenberger, RICS global head of sustainability policy, said in the results announcement. “The fact that this is being driven by clients wanting to improve their bottom line shows that the economic argument for energy efficiency and green buildings may be growing in strength.” She continued, “It is [worrisome] that some countries still seem slightly indifferent to the issues, and particularly with the Copenhagen summit on climate change coming up next month, it is a concern that the US still does not appear as on board as other major economies.”

The US economy is likely a major factor, King notes. “The recession’s impact trumps all other factors,” King says. Demand for green building had been growing, and likely would have become a standard but for the economic decline. Now, “it isn’t that green building has slowed, but rather that green building is fully dependent on the level of activity in the greater construction economy.”

Not surprisingly, than, energy efficiency was the most important for all countries. But coming second for respondents from China was air and water pollution, while US, UK and Hong Kong respondents cited transport issues as their second most important issue.

Fatigue may be another factor. “It is not unexpected that attention has eventually moved away from climate change issues,” King observes. “We have had several years of strong media interest and coverage of the subject, and both business and media attention tosubjects tend to be bubbles of interest, which eventually fade.”

Also a factor is strong marketing on the part of US energy producers to redirect the conversation from the need for conservation and alternative sources to their effects on jobs, trade and economic growth.

“These aren’t people who are just going to roll over,” King says. “This is a decades-old struggle between the energy industry and the environment,” noting that renewable energy is expensive and requires a lengthy payback period. “Organizations will not embrace clean energy technologies that do not offer cost advantages; the recession has reinforced this.”

Manufacturers benefited from the early enthusiasm for sustainable technologies, even selling products at a premium. Now, however, cost is king, and smart companies can and will adjust, King adds.

“That’s what innovation is,” King says. “I do believe we’re on the road to that. What we need is regulation if we want to eliminate the really inefficient equipment.”

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