Blueprint for green embassies

French Embassy Secretary General Bruno Aguesse, First Counsellor Olivier Lacroix
and Ambassador Sylvie Bermann at the Sustainable Embassies Seminar held at the Ambassador’s
Residence on the eve of COP21

Ahead of important climate change talks in Paris, the French Ambassador Sylvie Bermann hosted a seminar on sustainable embassies to share best practice on how missions can reduce their carbon footprints. Sheila Reid reports.

Diplomatic missions worldwide emit almost three million tones of CO2 according to estimates by the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health. But by doing simple things, such as turning off the lights, turning down thermostats, reducing waste, using less water and cycling to work – diplomats can reduce their carbon footprint by up to 30 per cent.

Just three days before the opening of the annual climate change conference – COP21 (21st Conference of the Parties) – in Paris, the French Ambassador, Sylvie Bermann, held a ‘green’ seminar at her residence in London.

The aim was to present the French Government’s Environmental Charter to colleagues from other diplomatic missions in London (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Malta, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden Switzerland and the USA). It was also an opportunity to hear how some of them had tackled the issue of reducing their environmental impact.

An Environmental Charter for the French Embassy
Olivier Lacroix, First Counsellor at the French Embassy, explained France’s Environmental Charter. In the run-up to COP21, Quay d’Orsay, France’s Foreign Ministry issued a directive on ‘green embassies’ with three major objectives: firstly put in place simple measures aimed at reducing their carbon footprint; secondly to raise employees’ awareness of environmentally responsible behaviour; and lastly to affirm France’s commitment to sustainable development.

Plan of action
In the UK, the French Embassy set about putting those objectives into practice by taking measures to make the existing buildings more sustainable and secondly to include energy and environmental performance criteria in its new facilities.

Getting staff to modify their behaviour is key to the green charter. In London staff have been urged to play their part by cutting down on waste by recycling; reducing their energy use, such as switching off lights and computers and turning down heating; and using public transport where possible.

Retro-fitting current buildings with environment-friendly equipment is also simple to do. In the short term, network printers and low-energy bulbs will be installed, and thermostats checked.

Over the medium term, the plan for current and future buildings will be to fit dimmer switches and install dual-flush toilets as well as installing a bicycle rack outside the Embassy.

In the longer term, the aim is to overhaul the car fleet and buy green vehicles and carry out a feasibility study on installing heat pumps and solar panels in buildings.

At the Residence, Ambassador Bermann is keen to turn over some of the garden to growing vegetables in an effort to make it more sustainable.

Green embassies
Secretary-General Bruno Aguesse presented an overview of actions taken by other embassies and high commissions to reduce their carbon footprint. He said London’s most sustainable missions all had four things in common: staff were trained in eco-friendly behaviour; consumption was reduced by cutting down on waste and lowering their energy usage; new environment-friendly equipment was installed; and old buildings were refurbished to new environmental standards.

In general, the embassies were intent on improving their management on paper, water, electricity, heating or cooling systems and transport with the aim of both cutting costs and reducing their environmental impact.

Recent initiatives taken by various embassies have been the refurbishment by the Austrian Embassy and Australian High Commission; collective commitments by France and Switzerland; installation of new equipment to reduce emissions, such as boilers and AC units by Germany and Spain; promotion of public transport and cycling by the USA and France.

Green directory
Aguesse suggested that embassies and high commissions could work together to achieve their greening goals by sharing the names of companies offering green services for the benefit of the others, such as recycling companies or manufacturers of photovoltaic (PV) cells. They agreed to do this.


The Bees Knees
The relocation of the Canadian High Commission to its new home at Canada House on Trafalgar Square required a complete overhaul of the grand old building. The Facilities Manager decided it was the perfect opportunity to go all out and implement ‘green’ strategies.

The High Commission now has a green roof with a sedum covering that absorbs water and a ‘green wall’ filled with plants that are watered with an automatic system. The plants attract bees and now there are hives on the roof with a colony of 40,000 bees. The High Commission has its own bee-keeping club and the first batch of honey will be available next spring!

Canada House now has a building management system with computerised lighting and motion detection (staff find that if you don’t move around, the lights will go off!). The heating is now energy efficient and there are LED lightbulbs everywhere – even in the chandeliers.

The office has tried to go paperless and staff have iPads to cut down paper use. Parking places have been removed and bike storage installed – 20 out 300 staff now cycle to work. The High Commission uses an energy broker called Carbon 2018 to help keep energy costs down.

The best part is that not only is the High Commission doing its bit to save the planet, but lower energy and water bills means it is also starting to save money.

PHOTO CREDIT: Christie Tucker/Canadian High Commission


Sweet success
The USA is building a brand new embassy in the Nine Elms area of south London, due for completion at the end of 2016. The edifice of glass, affectionately known as the ‘sugar cube’, is already taking shape and will set the benchmark for sustainable embassies worldwide. At the heart of the design competition – won by architects Kieran Timberlake – was using the latest in energy-efficient building design and technology, explained Larry Richter, facilities manager at the US Embassy.

Building a mission from scratch has allowed for the use of cutting edge technology so that the embassy will, in fact, be carbon negative. The new US Embassy will harness geothermal energy from the ground and there are now 30km of tubing under the new embassy with enough heat and power to serve this building and neighbouring ones.

The photo-voltaic (PV) panels on the roof, maximizing the use of natural daylight and ‘smart’ occupancy sensors will cut energy usage. Charging stations for electric cars are also being installed. The Embassy is expecting to get a LEED Platinum rating which is the top US rating.

But it’s not just the embassy building that is green. Smart meters are being installed in all 300 of the US residences across London. As most people never see a bill there is no incentive to reduce usage. The smart meters will show who uses the most energy and it’s hoped this will incentivise savings.

The US Embassy also uses an energy broker who is taking responsibility for all the residences, so instead of 300 bills there is only one. This saves back office time and means the Embassy is now on the best tariff, resulting in “several hundred thousand dollars” in cost savings, said Richter.

So apart from reducing the carbon footprint, saving taxpayer’s money is a happy by product of going green.


On the boil
But many diplomatic missions in London occupy listed buildings where they face severe limitations on renovations. A lot is still possible, however, Nick Baker of Nick Baker Architects told the gathering of diplomats. He explained how his firm refurbished and installed ‘green’ services in the Grade 1 listed Austrian embassy.

While many aspects of the building couldn’t be changed – such as the windows, which meant no double glazing to reduce heat loss – but clever installation of PV and solar panels in the roof and efficient boilers meant that the embassy now has a 34 per cent reduction in energy use overall.

Carbon budgets
Since 2008, the UK government introduced ‘carbon budgets’ for each department and the results across the UK network of embassies has been impressive.

The biggest savings came from cutting back on flights, either by video conferencing or flying economy. In the very first year of the carbon budget, the Brazil network of posts reduced their emissions by 57% while the British Embassy in Ankara saved a whopping £78,000 by cutting air travel.

Subtle adjustments in temperature regulation also made a difference: Abuja cut its carbon footprint by 22% largely by setting a threshold of 24C for the air conditioning.

Washington reduced its electricity and gas consumption by 12% in three months simply by turning off equipment at night, fitting timers and motion sensors, all of which saved £18,000.

By cutting its emissions by its target of 30% at the Foreign Office HQ in King Charles Street, the FCO expects to save around £500,000 annually on energy bills.