In Georgia, we call a politician with a particularly sugary tongue someone who can talk the birds from the trees. No doubt, little green birds were dropping like apples at this year's U.S. Green Building Council GreenBuild conference in Chicago, where former President Bill Clinton appeared as keynote speaker of the opening session.

While upwards of 28,000 people wearing everything from three-day beards to Italian suits milled about the show, the marketplace reality lags behind. In fact, there are only about 1,000 new LEED-certified buildings and even fewer existing, certified buildings — a paltry 59.

Clinton likely pinpointed the cause of those numbers when he said that the green industry needed to be “operationalized” — or moved beyond good intentions to actualization.

It was a message that rang true throughout the conference, from emerging carbon markets to LEED certification, as major corporate executives championed the green cause.

Clinton announced a joint venture between GE Real Estate and the Clinton Climate Initiative. Launched in 2006, the initiative takes a business approach to fighting climate change.

GE Real Estate also announced that it would embed sustainability into its existing practices, from investment origination to asset management. GE Real Estate holds more than $72 billion in global assets.

“When it comes to climate change, the hurdles we face aren't technological, they're organizational,” said Clinton, “which is why my foundation is partnering with cities, businesses, nonprofits and schools alike to design systems and programs that reduce energy consumption.”

The crux of the problem

Before commercial real estate investors buy into green, a few basic questions need to be answered: What is the marketplace acceptance? Do green buildings lease up more quickly? Do you get a better quality tenant? Are they more likely to stay? Will they pay more money?

“There have not been enough buildings that have this accreditation to create a business model to see what the financial impact is of a sustainable building,” says Dave Pogue, senior managing director of asset services for the western region of CB Richard Ellis. Pogue is in charge of CBRE's initiative to LEED-certify 100 major existing office buildings within the U.S. Green Building Council's Portfolio Program, still in the pilot stages.

In theory, the portfolio program should save owners time and money by standardizing sustainable practices applied across a portfolio, making roughly 80% of the certification process consistent.

Sustainable practices can deal with a range of operational issues including energy use, green cleaning or recycling — items that garner points toward LEED certification. Until there's an industry benchmark, however, the amount of time and money that can be saved in the certification process is just an educated guess.

The future is wide open

Meanwhile, the green engines are turning. CBRE and Jones Lang LaSalle, along with other large companies such as GE Real Estate, ProLogis and Regency Centers, are scrambling to develop best practices in-house and for their clients.

They are not whistling past the graveyard because a view from the bottom line already points to operational cost savings.

Once those cost savings are realized, renovating and repositioning properties will be a bankable effort. Companies that use effective strategies will profit.

Still, it's a tough row to hoe. Green rules are being made at the state and local level with federal legislation likely five to 10 years away, says Diane Vrkic, CEO for Jones Lang LaSalle. In the meantime, individual companies will streamline the processes — with or without LEED.

One complication is that the LEED rules are changing along with new technologies and likely will become more rigorous as time passes. Where it once took 10 to 15 hours to study for professional LEED accreditation, it now takes 30 to 35 hours.

Forward-thinking developers like Forest City Enterprises, Opus and Hines have invested time and money in cutting-edge projects that show what can be achieved with a little foresight.

At some point, however, adventuresome players won't be enough to keep the green game going. Eventually, green codes, financing and ultimately valuations will have to be operationalized — put into practice, not just wishful theory — though it sure has a nice ring to it.

Sibley Fleming is managing editor and green building editor of National Real Estate Investor. She is also the author of seven books. She can be reached at sibley.fleming@penton.com.