Climate Action

Building green partnerships

Jane Henley, CEO of the World Green Building Council, spoke to Climate Action about the council's activities in developing countries and the Sustainable Cities Initiative

  • 29 January 2014
  • William Brittlebank

Jane Henley became the Chief Executive Officer of the World Green Building Council (WGBC) in February 2010. She had previously been Chief Executive Officer of the New Zealand Green Building Council, which she helped establish in 2005. She spoke to Climate Action about creating sustainable cities and driving a market transformation in the construction sector.

Can you tell us about your path to becoming the CEO of the World Green Building Council and what drives your passion for driving the green building agenda?

We spend, on average, 95 per cent of our time in buildings. They shape how we feel – both physically and emotionally. My dream is that property developers and city planners work together to become the heroes of our urban future. Many of us want to live in vibrant, well-connected cities and we have a long way to go in many countries to deliver that in a sustainable way. Our sector has a very large environmental footprint and creates social and cultural footprints that last decades.

Creating sustainable cities is the biggest societal opportunity I see in the world today – and our only barrier is in believing that lowest-cost development is good economics. Shifting the development model to one focuses on system-wide thinking requires a combination of good policy, public demand and industry capacity. We have some examples – at the country, city or building level - where this magic happens with amazing results. Our challenge is to make this business-as-usual within this decade.


What are the key focus areas for WorldGBC at the moment?

The World Green Building Council is a network of more than 100 national organisations, and 25,000 visionary companies with a single mission: to transform the building industry and ensure our buildings and cities are healthy, efficient, productive and sustainable.

The challenge we face is unprecedented.  By 2050, the global population will grow to 9.7 billion people. Around 70 per cent of those people will live in cities.  India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country. Life expectancy will improve in the world’s least developed countries from 58 years in 2010 to 70 by 2050.  Forty-nine of those countries, including those in Africa with higher fertility rates, will see their populations double. Nigeria’s population will exceed that of the United States.

In this context, the world’s greatest challenge will be to build cities and communites that are sustainable, resilient and liveable, while we also reduce our impact on the environment.  The WorldGBC is working locally with our GBC network to define and deploy best practice green buildings, help governments shape policy and build a culture of cross-sector collaboration. We’re looking at how to scale the local to the global to protect the natural environment, enhance the health and well-being of individuals and whole communities, improve energy security and resource efficiency, and create green growth and jobs.  It’s a big task!


In your experience, what are the current challenges in terms of the private sector implementing green building solutions?

The biggest challenge is the lowest or least cost development model. This has very short term horizons of ownership and therefore little care for the long-term impact on the environment. An owner/occupier will be in for the next twenty years – and get all the benefits of it being sustainable. The reality of our work is that these projects are not the norm. We have an amazing foundation of knowledge of HOW to build green all over the world – the challenge today is now helping the public understand the benefits of green building and create demand so that investors and developers begin to see that it’s risky NOT to build green.

In light of WorldGBC activities in developing countries in Africa, South America and Asia, how are you managing the balance between the shift to green with the need to address the genuine needs and aspirations of the large proportions of the population that do not have access to basic amenities and services e.g. clean water, adequate healthcare, and electricity?

It’s not an either/or equation – we can have both. Many developing nations are learning lessons from the failed business model in developed countries and want to avoid expensive retrofitting by building it ‘right’ from the start.  We are also seeing governments in developing regions recognise that green building programs, when managed correctly can help lift millions of people out of poverty through resource conservation, job creation and skills development.

The Cato Manor Green Street project in Durban, South Africa, in which 30 low-cost houses gained a green upgrade, is a great example of how green building programs can deliver a range of socio-economic, health and environmental benefits

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Green interventions, such as solar water heaters, insulated ceilings, heat insulation cookers and efficient indoor lighting, were found to deliver a far higher return on investment to the public purse than similar investments in new electricity generation capacity would deliver. In fact, if green retrofits were undertaken for South Africa’s three million existing low-cost houses, the reduced consumption of electricity and water would save R3 billion each year and 3.45 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. The retrofit program would create 36.5 million person days of work and put money back into the pockets of those who need it most.  This case study is a beautiful illustration of why simple retrofits should be considered a national investment priority.


The World Green Buildings Council has set up a Sustainable Cities Initiative – creating a green building support system for cities. What has the response been to the SCI so far and what have its particular success been?

The Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI) is a new effort that sprang fromour partnership with C40 Cities. SCI is a platform to build and strengthen relationships between GBCs and C40 member cities, so that we foster more joined up thinking in how we build and retrofit our cities.

Cities are more resource-constrained than ever, so our goals are two-fold. Firstly, we aim to share experiences of successful partnerships between the private sector and city governments. For example, we recently released ‘A New Era in Building Partnerships’ which presents 11 case studies of innovative collaboration around the world. See:

We are also in the process of creating a series of ‘market briefs’ for each of the C40 member cities and several other cities. These one-page market snapshots cover each city’s current green building policies, as well as gaps, and local green building market statistics. These will be an important reference for city staff and policy makers, along with developers from any location, to instantly know what the green building state of play is in that city – and to be able to make comparisons with other cities. These will be complete in early 2014.


Which cities would you like to get involved in the initiative and which provide the most opportunity in this area?

The biggest opportunities are always where the most change is needed, which is usually where the most growth is happening at the quickest pace. At the sametime, we want to see cities that already have excellent green building policies and programs – places like Vancouver, Singapore, San Francisco and Melbourne – to be involved.  This will enable peer-to-peer learning and continue to push best-practice benchmarks.

The SCI has partnered with C40 networks and pilots are underway in Melbourne, Singapore, Bogota, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo. How are these pilots going and have you run into any obstacles?

We all met in Singapore in September and it was a rich sharing experience. Although the challenges of each city varies, many of the underlying issues remainthe same. Some examples are: challenges between long-term planning process and election cycles; and how to work with industry using PPPs and other financial models for the city to share both risk and reward with the private sector. Opportunities to understand different perspectives and build trust are ‘gold’ as we work together to create a better future.


The WorldGBC Congress 2013 was held in Cape Town recently. Can you tell us a bit about the conclusions that were reached there and how they will inform future WorldGBC initiatives?

Our mission is to transform the building sector towards sustainability. We are now incorporating a timeframe to our mission – within this generation or by 2050.

We are looking at where we want to be in 2050 and how we will actually get there. What needs to change?How do we measure our impact on the pressing challenges of our time, such as carbon, energy, waterandhealth?These are the questions we are asking, as we developalong term strategy with our new Corporate Advisory Board (see It’s vital that the actions we take are real, practical and measurable – and that they can be embraced by governments, businesses and our GBCs. We are now demonstrating that partnership really is the new leadership, with new frameworks to work with business and government.