Is “Green” about the Environment or Money?

USA Today recently ran a series of articles, under the lead “GREEN INC. Environmentalism for Profit,” regarding the US Green Building Council and their LEED certification process.  LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and is a self-proclaimed “voluntary, consensus-based, market-driven program that provides third-party verification of green buildings.”  LEED standards come in four basic flavors: LEED Certified, LEED Silver, LEED Gold, and LEED Platinum.

The stories make several points of interest, among them that the LEED standard, while “voluntary” and entirely private, is required by more than 200 federal, state and local government agencies.  And many of them provide meaningful incentives for developers who achieve LEED ratings.  USA Today reports that the Palazzo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas received a $27 million tax credit over 10 years due to Nevada’s delegation of the responsibility for determining who should get tax subsidies to the US Green Building Council.

It should be remembered that the US Green Building Council does not have a complete monopoly over environmentally friendly construction standards.  Many states, including California, have adopted “green building codes, and there is at least one other private organization, Build It Green, has a program of rating developments.  Build It Green’s GreenPoint rating system also provides certification of residential developments, and is also used for marketing purposes.

California also has a statewide standard in the CALGreen Code, adopted in 2010, which sets minimum construction standards with a goal of reducing the overall carbon output to the environment.  This is one part of the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sources, mandated by AB 32, a state law which mandates rolling back greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020.  The CALGreen Code has both mandatory and optional provisions, which are implemented at the local level by city and county building codes.  In the case of Los Angeles, for example, the local building code incorporated essentially all of the CALGreen Code standards and essentially replaced the LEED-based standards with the new state code, while applying them more broadly than CALGreen required.  Several other cities also have adopted local codes stronger than the CALGreen minimum requirements, including San Francisco and San Jose.

The tone of the USA Today articles was somewhat disparaging toward the US Green Building Council standards.  The articles questioned how the LEED standards were created, are administered and the methods used by developers to receive certification.  Regardless of those factors, the question now is whether the LEED certification matters any more?  Or has it reverted to its origins–a marketing tool?