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Action cannot stop at ‘I’ve installed solar panels’

As featured in EG, Greg Borel explains how the built environment needs to understand the bigger picture when it comes to sustainability.

Green hydrogen? Carbon positive buildings? Drone commuting? Space travel? No one really knows what the world will look like in 2050 – the year by which the UK and several other developed economies have committed to meet net zero emissions. What we do know is that net zero will change everything for the built environment: the way we build, the way we operate, the way we lease, the way we transact, and even the way we develop skills.

While incremental steps help us keep hope alive, action cannot stop at “I’ve installed solar panels”.

It is imperative that the sector understands the much bigger picture. This might include net zero buildings that are built and used efficiently, powered by smart energy networks and green grids; circular supply chains for materials and furniture; and even buildings that are offices by day and classrooms by night.

This level of transformation requires that companies be more strategic, taking stock of the deep momentous change to come and being smart about how to prioritise each step along the way to meet it.

We also need to accept that sustainability goes beyond carbon. Net zero has been a great accelerator of broader sustainable thinking in the real estate industry. Our built environment is more than ever about promoting positive social and community impact and looking beyond a building’s footprint to its wider, positive contribution to the locality and community.

There is evidently a lot to consider, but there’s a key strategic opportunity in working together towards a regenerative economy.

The ESG traffic jam

Any property portfolio that attempts to outpace the sector on sustainability will find itself stuck in traffic. Real estate is a fragmented sector and even the largest REITs cannot overhaul the supply chains by themselves.

We need to stop seeing net zero as a competitive advantage – there is plenty else for developers to compete on: the best working environment, the best engineering, the best design, the best location – and instead learn to work together and embrace new collaborative structures that allow us to mitigate against climate change.

And this applies to existing buildings as well as new ones. According to the UK GBC Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the Built Environment, 80% of existing buildings will still be in use in 2050, making a significant contribution to the built environment’s approximately 40% share of its total carbon footprint in the UK. At the same time, energy demand in office buildings needs to be reduced by a staggering 60% to meet the 2050 net zero carbon target.

Collaboration is essential to accelerate best practice sharing, whether on design or behaviours, and eliminate painful learning curves, particularly for highly inefficient existing buildings.

The fundamental point is that leadership on net zero is not about getting there first, but rather taking the industry on the journey. What would be the point of claiming “net zero” by 2030 if the world is on a 5ºC warming trajectory?

Collaborate on regulation

There will be a handful of global businesses – hopefully more – at the forefront of driving change and collaboration in the built environment sector, but our climate goals won’t be reached until we have strong and clear regulation too.

There are still thousands of businesses lagging behind that hold the vast majority of emissions in their value chains and operations. True leaders in commercial real estate will come together to help shape and amplify the call for such regulation.

Wherever we are by 2050, and even more decisively by 2030, it remains clear that the journey to a 1.5ºC world and a regenerative built environment demands an understanding of the bigger picture. Hand in hand with this comes strategic and holistic thinking, as well as a normal state of radical collaboration. Only then will we meet our ambitious climate goals.

Greg Borel is managing partner at Ampersand Partners and a CUBE Ambassador


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