By Graeme Davies

All but the most ardent sceptics accept that climate change is happening and that the main challenge now is to limit it as much as possible. And while much of the headline activity in this area is in the form of renewable energy generation, a quieter yet equally significant revolution is happening in the building industry.

Previously a hugely carbon intensive industry, the construction industry in the UK has been forced through regulation and, increasingly, expediency to address its environmental impact and develop more sustainable ways of operating – skills which it is increasingly selling into overseas markets.

In the UK, government calls for all new-build residential property to be ‘carbon neutral’ during this decade, has focused minds, and in commercial construction too the trend has been towards more environmentally-friendly buildings, especially for forward-thinking builders and clients who consider the ongoing impact of a building’s energy needs on both the environment and their own wallets in terms of soaring energy prices.

A recent study by consultants McGraw Hill put the UK second only to Singapore in global terms when it comes to innovation in sustainable construction. And over half of UK construction firms expect two thirds of their work to be environmentally-friendly by 2015. What was notable was that while a third said they were reacting to client demand, a third also cited the ongoing lower running costs of an environmentally-friendly building.

And demand for sustainable buildings is an international phenomenon too. It is well established in developed economies such as Europe, the US and Australasia, but in the developing world, where pressure on natural resources is often even more acute, the need for more sustainable building is gaining traction.

In countries of the Gulf region and the leading emerging economy nations of Brazil, India and China, sustainable building is increasingly accepted and, equally, demanded. Indeed, countries such as Saudi Arabia, which is founded on oil wealth, are among the biggest investors per capita in sustainable buildings in the world as they prepare for the next stage in their development when the oil riches begin to run dry.

But significant opportunities exist much closer to home, in Wales. For example, the Universities of Swansea, Bangor and Glyndwr have joined forces with Tata Steel to develop new building materials which would help buildings create and store renewable energy through photovoltaic technology. A pilot manufacturing facility was opened last month at Baglan Energy Park near Port Talbot.

Also in the photovoltaic technology space is G24i of Cardiff, which has developed photovoltaic cells which work in low light conditions.

One survey suggests that the global green building materials market could be worth more than $400bn by 2015. This includes sustainable materials such as wood but also cutting edge sustainable technologies.

Such is the size of the opportunity, it is no surprise Wales boasts a host of companies with expertise in this area, from engineering firms who have benefited from the renewable energy boom to those supplying green building technologies.

And in tough economic times, being a specialist provider can help insulate a business to a certain extent. In 2010-2011 the Welsh low carbon and environmental sector grew by 4.5 per cent and was worth £5.3bn.

The Green Alliance reckons there are more than 2,000 companies in Wales exposed to this sector. With significant opportunities at home as regulations on sustainable building tighten-up every year and a growing opportunity to export such expertise to fast growing markets overseas, sustainable technology companies in Wales should be well set to buck the wider gloomy economic picture.

See video on the pilot production facility developing environmentally-friendly building materials at SPECIFIC, Baglan Energy Park near Port Talbot in South Wales.