- Real estate (including commercial) accounts for approximately 40% of global carbon emissions.
- Decarbonizing the real estate industry will require trillions in funding, plus cooperation and swift action.
- The future of office occupancy hinges on landlords’ and operators’ ability to decarbonize.
In 2020, the real estate industry accounted for 36% of global final energy consumption and 37% of energy related CO2 emissions, according to the U.N.’s 2021 Global Status Report For Buildings and Construction.
With the consequences of climate change becoming increasingly apparent, decarbonization is rising to the top of the real estate industry’s agenda. Tenants are demanding sustainability and regulators are rolling out reporting standards.
Decarbonizing will enable the real estate industry future-proof itself against the impact of climate change, while creating new sources of revenue. But what will it take to achieve net zero in an industry that has one of the highest carbon footprints?
Decarbonization will require a reallocation of capital.
The decarbonization of real estate has been significantly underfunded, but this is starting to change. Astute real estate investors are already making climate-informed decisions in order to position their portfolios for a net zero world.
In July 2022, the LA-based venture capital firm Fifth Wall — which specializes in real estate technology — announced that it has raised $500 million for a climate fund to help decarbonize the property industry.
Figures by JLL show that the industry has invested just $94.6 million into climate technology R&D over the past decade.
However, as Brendan Wallace, co-founder and managing partner at Fifth Wall, explains, the cost to retrofit existing U.S. commercial buildings in order to decarbonize the infrastructure on which they run is estimated at $18 trillion.
Retrofitting an existing building is often better than building anew, because the process is cheaper and requires fewer carbon-intensive materials. All new buildings should aim for net zero operational and embodied carbon emissions.
Environmentally damaging properties pose a risk to borrowers and lenders, as well as the environment. Wallace describes the real estate industry as “the single-biggest lever we can turn on to mitigate climate change.”
Fifth Wall’s fund will invest in software, hardware, renewable energy, energy storage, smart buildings and carbon sequestration technologies. CBRE Group Inc. and British Land Co. PLC are among the many real estate firms who have pledged their commitment.
Demand for green property finance is growing, and real estate lenders are starting to offer loans based on sustainability credentials. For example, ING’s “green building incentive” loan funds energy efficient retrofits on multifamily and commercial buildings.
Writing in Property Week, The Europe Chief Executive of the Urban Land Institute, Lisette van Doorn, says the “lack of regulatory consistency makes it hard to measure and act on climate risk, whether in development, acquisitions, operations or, importantly, retrofitting existing buildings.”
Van Doorn explains that while investors are recognizing “the business and wider reputation case for change,” and regulatory requirements are indeed emerging at city, state and national levels, “we still lack a global standard” for decarbonization.
The lack of global — and even national — uniformity can be seen in energy codes for buildings, for instance. In the U.K., residential and commercial property require an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC). This rates the energy efficiency of the building from A (the best) to G (the worst). All buildings for rent and commercial buildings for sale require a minimum EPC rating of E, and this will extend to all leases from April 2023.
The U.S. lacks a national energy code for buildings. States and municipalities adopt their own codes, the guidelines for which can be based on national model codes, or their own.
The real estate industry needs to work in unison to be “heard” by regulators and decarbonise efficiently, says Van Doorn. “To achieve the targets set and show leadership to other industries, cities and regulators, the industry must join forces and collaborate.”
The Urban Land Institute is a global nonprofit research and education organization with “reach and focus across the real estate value chain.” Its Fast-track to Decarbonisation programme aims to consolidate and accelerate real estate’s approach in Europe.
Christian Ulbrich, the global chief executive officer and president of JLL, also recognises the need for global cooperation on decarbonizing cities and real estate.
“Around the world, city governments are often leading the charge. From New York City to Paris to Singapore, many cities now have a raft of targets and actions covering new and existing commercial real estate. While this momentum is to be applauded, it brings with it issues of its own.”
Published in May 2022, JLL’s Decarbonizing cities and real estate research report helps property leaders navigate the complex global landscape of net zero commitments, regulations, reporting requirements and incentives across 32 global cities.
To expedite the race to net zero, each cog in the real estate wheel needs to set its plans into action without delay.
There are lots of ways that real estate designers, developers and managers can decarbonize. Architects can embrace the circular economy model and be proactive about specifying sustainable products, for instance.
Transitioning to renewable energy can help a building reduce its operational CO2 emissions while increasing its energy efficiency and reducing its energy costs. Natural additions such as green roofs can act as insulation and support local wildlife.
McKinsey & Company suggests a three-step approach for “real estate players” who want to approach decarbonization strategically.
The first is to “understand the starting point” by quantifying baseline emissions for each building. Establishing a portfolio’s carbon footprint can help leaders establish “how far there is to go to reach zero emissions” and work out the priorities.
The second step is to set targets: will absolute emissions be measured, or emissions intensity? Will targets be set at the industry level or asset level?
According to McKinsey & Company, “players should develop a ‘house view’ on targets that achieve business, investor, stakeholder, regulatory, and other objectives.”
“Identifying decarbonization levers” comes next, followed by “executing the plan,” and “tracking and improving.”
Impact on the future of offices
Ultimately, the commercial real estate industry needs to put net zero at the forefront of its vision if it is to meet customer demand for sustainable buildings and incoming regulations — and the next few years are critical.
The Paris Agreement’s aim is to keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C. To achieve this, emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. This will require a collective effort. Real estate players who ignore net zero are putting their capital – not to mention the planet – at risk. They are also putting their ability to attract and retain tenants at risk.
If the future of work is to include offices, landlords and operators need to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. As David Goatman, Department Head of Knight Frank’s Energy, Sustainability and Natural Resources explains in a research article:
“Beyond being simply the ‘right thing to do,’ there is now growing evidence that a strong emphasis on ESG fundamentals enables companies to differentiate themselves, gain a competitive advantage, and accrue financial benefits. The real estate choices an occupier makes will either facilitate their net zero carbon journey or impede it.”