TAIPEI (Reuters) - Powered by solar energy generated on its roof, Taipei 101, the world's tallest completed building, is not only a leader for its breathtaking height but also for its eco-friendly features.
Finished in 2004, the skyscraper is a rare example of green design in Asia, a region with the world's busiest construction sector yet one of the poorest records for eco-friendly building.
China alone is said to be building half of the world's new floor space, but the vast majority of these new projects will be energy guzzlers. Environmentalists worry that these buildings will produce high carbon emissions for decades to come.
"Energy efficiency is fast becoming one of the defining issues of our times, and buildings are that issue's 'elephant in the room'," Bjorn Stigson, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said in a statement.
"Buildings use more energy than any other sector and as such are a major contributor to climate change," he added.
In China, 80 percent of the nearly one billion square meters (10.7 billion square feet) of new buildings constructed every year are high-energy buildings that consume 2 to 3 times more energy per unit of floor-space than buildings in developed countries, according to a report by the Asia Business Council.
Beijing and other governments in the region are trying to encourage green construction, but Asia lags far behind Europe which has a 2019 deadline for all new buildings to produce the same amount of energy they consume.
Office buildings use at least 30 percent of an average country's total energy consumption and produce a similar proportion of their greenhouse gas emissions.
Turning buildings green could reduce carbon emissions by 1.8 billion metric tons per year worldwide, according to the United Nations Environment program. That is easier said than done, especially in Asia, where the bottom line is often all that counts.
Asia's price-sensitive builders baulk at the steeper materials and construction costs for green buildings, about 5 percent higher, for features ranging from alternative energy systems to fixtures such as low-energy lights and reinforced glass that cuts down on heating and air-conditioning costs.
Despite the initial higher cost of environmentally friendly construction, architects say that it pays for itself after 5 or 10 years due to lower energy and water bills.
Apart from the energy savings, developers usually get higher rent yields if their buildings are 'green'.
"Asia is the latecomer," said Peter Halliday, vice-president of Siemens Ltd Taiwan. "It's true that the developers are (still) holding back on green buildings, though over the life of a building you get your money back."
Experts hope that pressure from Western firms for 'green' office space that includes features ranging from low-energy lights to waste recycling, might change that in the coming years.
"There are an increasing number of multinationals and large overseas corporations that require green-rated buildings," said Tan Loke Man, head of the Malaysian Architects Association.
"This will be the case as more and more companies become more environmentally concerned."
China aims to reduce energy use by 60 percent in new buildings, offering tax rebates as incentives. But "enforcement is always an issue in China," said Janet Pau, from the Asia Business Council, which monitors green construction.
"China needs to do more. They need a more coordinated building policy," Pau added. "Buildings last for decades and just by being there, they will slowly be damaging to the environment."
The government's efforts, as well as demand from foreign firms for green office space, has spurred several high profile projects that may kindle interest in low-energy buildings across the region.
The Shanghai Tower, in China's commercial capital, will minimize wind resistance and energy consumption when it is completed in 2014 at a cost of $2.2 billion.
The building will house 54 wind turbines to power heating and air-conditioning, along with a rainwater collection system.
China has 166 projects registered by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). By contrast, India has LEED certificates for 56 building projects and South Korea 49.
LEED criteria include bike storage, low-water landscaping, recycled materials in new construction and waste reduction.
Other energy efficiency measures includes simple improvements such as window insulation. Windows, for example, are the greatest sources of heat loss and air leakage, accounting for 11 percent of total losses of energy in buildings.
Developers can reduce the carbon footprint of buildings by using zero-carbon materials, such as recycled wood, bricks and metal. Opting for local materials rather than those that require transportation also helps reduce the environmental impact.
The message is slowly seeping in, helped by corporate responsibility programs and government aid.
Taiwan's Chinatrust Bank broke ground this year on a super-green T$15 billion ($450 million) new headquarters in Taipei. Of that, T$852 million was for eco-friendly features.
The complex, due to open in 2012, will include low-power air-conditioning, site selection designed to reduce car trips and a campus that's 52 percent open space including a public park, said Chinatrust Secretary General Thomas Chen.
Chinatrust will offset the costs of making the complex green in three to four years and rent out a third of the space, likely to multinationals.
"As far as I know, no space in Taiwan is as green as this one will be," Chen said.
The Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore offers incentives of up to about $4 per square meter for new energy-efficient buildings. It, too, hopes to win multinational tenants.
"Once a government gives more incentives, things get done," said Kendrew Leung, a managing director with Savills Property Management in Hong Kong. "Now green building is a trend but not a must ... It takes time to make it a habit."
(Additional reporting by Leonora Walet in Hong Kong, Shen Rujun in Shanghai, Niluksi Koswanage in Kuala Lumpur and Laurence Tan in Singapore; Editing by Megan Goldin)