“Green” bond to fund multi-storey car park

Massachusetts State College Building Authority issues US$94 million bond for plans branded “pathetic” by watchdog

Green or greenwash? University garage will have Bronze environmental rating (Pic: Flickr/magro_kr)

Green or greenwash? University garage will have Bronze environmental rating
(Pic: Flickr/magro_kr)

By Megan Darby

A US public authority plans to build a multi-storey car park with money raised through a “green bond”.

The Massachusetts State College Building Authority issued a US$94 million bond in December to fund “environmentally sustainable” projects on university campuses.

These include a design centre, science building and – controversially – a garage for 725 cars.

Sean Kidney, CEO of the Climate Bonds Initiative, branded the plans “pathetic” and “not good enough”.

The Climate Bonds Initiative acts as both cheerleader and watchdog for the growing green bond market.

It aims to get the US$80 trillion global bond market flowing towards solutions to climate change. That means assuring institutional investors like pension funds that green projects can offer the safe, fixed returns they are looking for.

It is also working with scientists on standards to make sure bonds labelled “green” really cut greenhouse gas emissions.

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Some US$36.6 billion worth of green bonds were issued in 2014, the think-tank estimates, three times more than the previous year.

“All our discussions about green bonds and climate bonds are about how we shift capital fast,” Kidney told RTCC.

“We are not going to be prissy about getting everything exactly right, because it is better to be moving than not. But while we are moving, we need to have a science-based discussion about what is a good investment.”

He is “not convinced” the Massachusetts project is up to scratch.

The building authority, which is responsible for nine state universities and 15 community colleges, has six criteria for describing a project as “green”.

Energy and water use are on the list, but notably, emissions performance is not – the most relevant measure of climate change impact.

Design standards

More tangibly, the authority promised to design the new buildings to certifiable standards. These look “sort of pale green”, said Kidney.

The main buildings will be done up to a minimum “Silver” level under LEED, the US Green Building Council’s certification system.

There is mixed evidence on the efficacy of this standard in cutting emissions.

A 2013 study found that while Gold certified buildings in New York outperformed others 20%, Silver buildings actually did worse than average.

More recent analysis by the US Green Building Council of data from Washington DC showed LEED buildings used on average 11% less electricity than non-LEED buildings.

Plans for a new car park at Salem State University

Plans for a new car park at Salem State University

Garages are not covered by LEED at all. The four and a half storey car park proposed for Salem State University is to be designed to at least Bronze standard in the recently launched Green Garage Certification.

Kidney expressed scepticism any project that encouraged car use – unless it were entirely for electric vehicles – deserved a green label.

Edward Adelman, executive director of the MSCBA, insisted building the garage would not increase the number of trips by car.

“At least in the States, everybody seems to need their own car,” he said. “We are reducing a tremendous amount of congestion. This is seen as an environmental benefit relative to the current condition.”

The building authority has been using the LEED process since 2007, he said. It has pursued energy savings for economic reasons.

“Our joke is the building authority was green when green was just a colour,” said Adelman.

Marketing the latest bond as “green” helped attract new investors, he added, saving “a modest amount” of money.

Adelman rejected the suggestion this was an example of greenwash: “I would encourage people to look at the actual criteria and draw their own conclusions.”

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