Getting to net zero isn’t possible without cutting building energy consumption

04 Nov 2021

By Nicola Esposito

colleagues working at desk

Substantial numbers of real estate firms – and their tenants - are now committing to ‘net zero’ goals to contribute to the achievement of  Paris Agreement targets. For example, the forthcoming results of a CBRE UK survey of clients shows that 63% of landlords and 47% of occupiers are already thinking about how they achieve this in their own decision-making about buildings.

For some landlords, the answer may seem obvious: buy renewable energy. That is definitely part of the solution and we’ve written about how we advise clients on that here. But unfortunately, there is good evidence that this solution won’t be enough, because there isn’t (and won’t be) enough renewable power to go around. Indeed, the UK Green Building Council argues that, for offices, a 60% reduction in office energy demand will be required in addition to total decarbonisation of the electricity supply.

The good news is that, while it will take time for the renewable energy supply to grow, we can take immediate action today to reduce energy demand in our buildings. And it makes sense to start there, to reduce the call on the energy networks in the first place (as well as saving money).

We take a structured approach to its strategic advice to clients on achieving ‘net zero’ targets which recognises that renewable power cannot be the only (or even the main) long-term solution.

We ask whether buildings really need all the energy they are using, before we ask whether it is being used efficiently, and before we ask where that energy comes from. We believe that a ‘net zero’ strategy which skips straight to efficiency questions or supply questions is much more likely to fail.

Our approach looks carefully at things like:

  • Whether building operations can be adjusted to better reflect actual usage – for example on/off timings for plant
  • Whether building systems are working together or fighting each other – for example, identifying simultaneous heating and cooling. Making building systems talk to each other better can be a simple first step.
  • Whether the building is using a specific strategy or is just operated using ‘standard practice’ – for example, does the building really need 3 hours warm up on Monday morning?

These simple steps can usually be implemented with negligible capital expenditure, and without any change in user behaviour or comfort levels (although those can often be changed too, with effective change management, adding to energy use reductions).

We find that even in allegedly high-performing buildings, savings can be achieved. For example, we were able to achieve a 15% energy reduction in one Central London office block which had been rated as BREEAM Excellent. It may seem counter-intuitive that a building with strong energy efficiency credentials can be made to use significantly less energy, but buildings are becoming like cars: to get the best out of a high-performing car, you need a high-performing driver. And, as with high-performing cars, constant monitoring and tweaking of settings is necessary. We offer a range of solutions, including our real time building monitoring and management platform, AssetIQ.

Only at this stage do we consider the efficiency of the plant, equipment and fabric of the building, which is often (in our view wrongly) the first port of call for landlords. Reducing demand is the most reliable and sustainable long-term strategy – but once the energy requirement has been slimmed down, the efficiency with which that energy is converted into heating, lighting and power can then add further savings. This is much more traditional territory for building engineers and we regularly put together sophisticated packages of upgrades for clients which are sensitive to plant lifespan, cost/benefit analysis and user type.

When it comes to your ‘net zero’ target, CBRE offers a full range of ways to start in the right place.

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