Navigating the net zero journey to 2050

Sustainable Buildings Monitor insight | ISG 12 May 2021 / By Debbie Hobbs

Society’s most challenging issues are being viewed through a new lens following the extraordinary global efforts that have led to the record development of vaccines that are dramatically tipping the pandemic balance in our favour. The sense that anything can be achieved if we collectively collaborate and innovate was certainly evident during the discussion to launch ISG’s Sustainable Buildings Monitor, however the central message from all panellists was the immediacy of action required to mitigate our impact on the environment.

Tackling an issue of the scale and complexity of reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 can feel insurmountable, but the energy and optimism of the panel suggested that the precedent has now been set for global cooperation on issues of profound importance to future generations. Alastair Mant from UKGBC, The Crown Estate’s Jane Wakiwaka, Mathieu Elshout from PATRIZIA and ISG’s Debbie Hobbs framed the discussion from a lobbying, asset management, investment, and main contractor perspective.

Debbie Hobbs kicked off the discussion reviewing the definition of net zero to bring some transparency to the current energy and carbon performance of our commercial building stock. This, she described, as a pivotal moment, as we've finally got world leaders talking about the need for better environmental policy and it’s vital we get it right this time. To permanently embed the roadmap and the pathway, we need two things. Firstly, we need to know where we're going, and the second element, which defines the purpose of this research paper – is where we're actually starting from.

The UKGBC has neatly set out the 2050 net zero challenge, predicting how much renewable energy will be in our electricity grid by this date. Compare this to energy use, and the scale of the challenge is an 80 percent reduction in our present-day energy consumption.

Understanding whole life carbon is essential to tackling the issue – there is the ‘construction carbon’ that’s embodied in materials and emitted during the construction process, and the ‘performance carbon’ resulting from operations, maintenance and dealing with buildings that have reached their end of life. The latter element is where Debbie believes the challenge really begins. We can design and deliver buildings that are net zero – but only if they are operated and maintained throughout their lifecycle to be zero carbon.

Data from the Sustainable Buildings Monitor indicates that the energy consumption of commercial buildings ranges from 236 to 370 kilowatt hours per metre squared. So that's where we're starting on our journey, an average of 284 kilowatt hours per metre squared. We know we've got to get to between 55 and 70 kilowatt hours per metre squared to hit net zero – this is our 80 percent reduction in the UK and we've only got 10,462 days to get there. To end on a positive note, Debbie reflected that we know how to achieve these performance gains – we have the techniques and the processes to do it. What we really need are the action plans to start bringing portfolios into routines where assets can be continually upgraded.

On the question of how we drive the radical behavioural change needed to realise our net zero carbon future, Mathieu Elshout recognised a consensus response as crucial. He would look to the large investors, or the investor community in general, who are already pivoting towards a more Environmental Social & Governance (ESG) agenda as a hedge against climate change risk. Investors are putting pressure on the whole chain to further improve, and they are being affected, and are also influencing change with regulatory and supervisory authorities. Central Banks all over the world are running climate transition stress tests to understand to what extent investors are exposed to carbon. The higher the carbon footprint, the higher the risk.

Alastair Mant set out three enablers for gaining real traction and momentum for change. His first point was the importance of corporate and government commitment that needs to be commensurate with the scale of the challenge, secondly – the collection and interpretation of robust data, and finally, individual desire to see this through. Ambition he sees as critical to make this major transition – if major organisations are pushing government, it gives our leaders the confidence that business is backing them to actually go a little bit further.

At the UKGBC there is now a requirement for all Gold Leaf members to commit to net zero – a real corporate commitment to climate action. To Alastair’s third point – he’s passionate that this is not just an issue for a sustainability manager – this is key to everyone’s role and we need to get comfortable asking difficult questions of ourselves to check if we’re really doing enough.

Conjuring the image of the peloton, Alastair sees collaboration as crucial to this endeavour. Learning together and getting through those challenges to identify best of breed solutions, with brave leadership making a dash for the front, but then passing back those learnings to enable everyone to catch up, which facilitates the next knowledge break out. We need to emerge from our risk averse nature in construction and move forward with power and purpose. Jane Wakiwaka recognised the major significance of sector disruption, with seismic shifts in sentiment and expectations around how organisations and governments respond to the climate change and net zero agendas. In the last year alone, Jane is looking at profound questions on how we ensure that real estate as a sector remains relevant and doesn’t become obsolescent, with sustainability playing an important role in how we avoid this.

She believes while it's incredibly important to have the right set of government policies and interventions, it’s also important that as an industry we lead by example and don’t just wait for policies and legislation to come forward. Initiatives like the NABERS scheme is a great example of the industry coming together, as it moves us towards assessing design performance, not simply design compliance. Collaboration is again key and Jane raised the role of the supply chain and how there is a collective responsibility to challenge back to clients that aren’t as actively engaged in the climate debate.

On the fundamental issue of robust data collection and interpretation, Debbie highlighted the remote monitoring that is taking place across a number of ISG schemes, especially across the company’s net zero portfolio, to help building occupants actually achieve net zero in operation. We can certainly deliver these net zero buildings as an industry, but how do we ensure that occupants actually operate and maintain assets to optimise their performance? So as an industry we need to be thinking not only about the design and construction, but also realistic plans and strategies for end-user operation over the full lifecycle of the building.

Alastair reinforced this point with the UKGBC’s goal of establishing a whole life carbon roadmap for the UK built environment, that the organisation is set to publish in November. Building on the ideals of the Sustainable Buildings Monitor, this will help measure and chart progress to provide a clear vision forward and is the largest collaboration ever of UK built environment organisations in terms of working on low carbon and climate change. It will also look at the required skills and training needed to accelerate us on this net zero journey, and the important role of regulation.

The issue of robust measurement and verification drew a considered response from Jane, who was definitely in favour of a certification scheme or accreditation for net zero, but indicated the challenge at present was with the rigour of the process and methodology for robustly assessing whole life carbon. The real danger, she believes, is with multiple standards competing and discrediting the overall impact of the goal to develop a unified standard. It’s essential though that we don’t procrastinate while we work through the details, we must seize the initiative and move forward at pace. This includes as a landlord, The Crown Estate has an opportunity to engage and partner differently with customers to meaningfully reduce energy demand from its portfolio. In addition, via its development activities, Jane has access to a broad range of differing sectors, so there's a real opportunity on how the company resources and procures right across its supply chain, with real opportunity to change and inform those conversation drivers.

Mathieu stressed the international dimension to this challenge, mirroring a key finding drawn out from the Sustainable Buildings Monitor – the demand for consistency of measurement and interpretation of data. He sees these consistent standards as the essential facilitator for global investment decisions, enabling accurate comparison of risk to avoid the spectre of committing to stranded real estate assets. Securing accurate data for Mathieu’s 1,400 asset portfolio is a challenge – both culturally and technically. He need tenants to adjust to sharing energy use data with landlords and this can be challenging across different sectors. Without this robust data, it hampers the sector’s ability to benchmark and optimise for carbon efficiency.

Fund managers also have a central role to play in outlining why investors should be backing net zero enhancements to assets. It’s taking the time to make the argument for the capex vs opex debate and the reputational risk of not making built assets conform to net zero standards.

Turning to the need to explore radical solutions to accelerate our trajectory, Debbie ventured that changes to the procurement environment could stimulate demand for net zero solutions. If we change contracts to reward over performance on environmental criteria, then we’re rewarding positive behaviour and stimulating change. Currently there is too little invested in building performance, it’s mainly about programme and budget and contractors rarely return to see how a building actually performs. ISG is changing this narrative, but Debbie believes having ‘skin in the game’ on building performance could be game changing for the industry.

The more we use technology to monitor buildings the better data we extract to provide the learnings to take us all forward. Having rigour in data analysis means if buildings don’t perform, we can interrogate to optimise efficiencies – this could simply be user error or something more significant, but the fact is we take ownership and make the change required. Alluding to ISG’s Performing Places platform, currently in beta testing, Debbie believes tools like this will bring benchmarking and optimisation to a new level with the opportunity for live building energy targets based on actual occupancy and weather conditions providing instant alerts to facilities management teams. Against the backdrop of the global pandemic, Alastair provided a real cause for optimism following the UKGBC’s early concern that climate change would disappear off the global agenda against the onslaught of COVID-19. But this hasn’t happened at all and its membership has grown during this period and there is renewed vigour to move forward on net zero and take real leadership in this cause thanks to a reset in consciousness on what is important to us all. Echoing the consistent views of the panel, he sees now as the time to grasp the nettle and not take a retrograde step.

On the issue of the cost implications of net zero, Debbie believes that transparency and openness will unlock the financing to deliver what is required. The solution is both private and public investment and establishing credible sustainable KPIs to stimulate capital inflows from the investment community. Mathieu added that ‘Impact Investment Funds’ will become increasingly important with their focus on improving buildings and managing them effectively for a financial, societal and environmental return.

The clarion call from all panellists was the need for immediate action on establishing those clear and unambiguous data sources and verification methodologies to enable effective benchmarking and building performance measurement. Echoing the insights from the Sustainable Buildings Monitor, this data will underpin investment decisions, drive positive behaviours and collaboration, and act as the catalyst for those regions and sectors that currently underperform to assist our collective journey towards net zero by 2050.



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