26/02/2014 07:23 GMT | Updated 28/04/2014 06:59 BST

Time to End the Silence on Zero Carbon

In just five years' time, every new office, hospital, school, library, supermarket - or any other building in the UK for that matter - will have to be built to ambitious new environmental standards... or at least that's the plan.

Back in December 2010, the Coalition rightly committed to the policy that all new non residential buildings should be 'zero carbon' from 2019, one that it inherited from the previous Labour Government. Yet more than three years on, it has failed to progress the steps towards this ground breaking target. But why should we be so worried?

Given that our existing non domestic buildings account for almost one fifth of the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions, we certainly don't want to build any more sub-standard, leaky and energy inefficient properties, creating a further headache for ourselves when we inevitably come to refurbish them further down the line. There is clearly an environmental imperative to this.

But more than that, there is a "very strong economic case" for building to more ambitious energy efficient standards. That's the message from a new report by the UK Green Building Council published today.

The report, produced by an industry Task Group made up of a range of companies from across the buildings supply chain, argues that acting now on a zero carbon standard would allow the UK construction and property industry to gain a head start over the rest of Europe and take the lead in expertise and knowledge on low carbon buildings. Estimates suggest that innovation in the non domestic buildings sector could save £13bn in avoided energy costs by 2050, and create export opportunities that could contribute £1.7bn to UK GDP by the same year. A very strong economic case indeed.

We can capitalise on this potential by building support for a clear and ambitious definition of what 'zero carbon' actually means. Up until now that has been a major part of the problem. Although there are now details about what this definition looks like in the residential sector - where all new homes will have to be built to this standard from 2016 - industry still lacks clarity for non residential buildings. Government should create a clear 'roadmap' to 2019 and beyond detailing how industry will be able to meet the zero carbon target and enable it to invest in innovation and skills.

This is after all what industry wants. It is ready and willing to deliver better, more efficient buildings, but is waiting for Government to create a level playing field to support the case for upfront investment. Such is the strength of this feeling that business leaders from more than 20 companies across the built environment, amongst them the construction firm Balfour Beatty, property developer British Land, energy supplier E.ON and retailer M&S, have today written to Communities Minister Stephen Williams urging the Government to push ahead with the zero carbon agenda as a priority.

Part of Government's problem is that it has tangled itself up in knots on so-called 'red tape'. It seems unable to grasp the idea that sometimes, smart regulation can actually be good for growth. The current environmental narrative so often focuses on reconciling 'green' and 'growth'. Surely this represents one of the best ways of doing so?