As we witness the mass mobilisation of Extinction Rebellion and its supporters we need to ask ourselves what will come next. Never mind the inconvenience, this is an important moment, and it is worth noting that the strategies being used by this highly structured campaign are almost identical to those employed by the Suffragettes in the early part of the 20th century. Look where they got us.
The gathering momentum of the global campaign for climate action is starting to express itself in ways that will translate into the need for more rapid change in the way we develop and manage the built environment. Following Extinction Rebellion’s April campaign, on 1 May 2019, the UK Government declared a climate emergency, joining a range of other institutions such as universities and heritage organisations. Perhaps more interesting however, well over half of the UK’s principal local authorities have now followed suit, making this one of the fastest growing environmental movements in recent history. The number continues to rise. Planning committee members and council officers are starting to consider planning applications through the lens of climate emergency. This is important because it will set precedent for future policy. A nominal improvement to the minimum standards for energy efficiency won’t be an acceptable sustainability measure for a new development any longer. Neither will a conditioned BREEAM score in a planning permission tick the “green box” in a nod to an organisation’s CSR policy. National and local planning policies now acknowledge that climate change will lead to more extreme weather conditions, so new developments, in their design and construction, must not only minimise their environmental impact but also provide resilience to climate change.
At a recent international climate conference, Professor Mark Macklin, Head of the School of Geography at the University of Lincoln and Director of the Lincoln Centre for Water and Planetary Health, said that the time for talking about sustainability is over. The science is settled - now we must adapt. Climate resilience and adaptation needs to move up the agenda to evolve the historical concept of sustainability.
As Patagonia, the well-known outdoor company with a 45-year history of environmental activism based on fundamental ethical standards launches its Action Works programme - a digital platform that connects local communities with grassroots organisations working to save the planet – its Director of Environmental Initiatives, Mihela Hladin Wolfe, asserts that departments in businesses uniquely tasked with overseeing sustainability are not effective, as more people demand action on the climate emergency. She believes that there is ‘no time’ for traditional CSR departments anymore or for sustainability professionals to sit outside of the boardroom.
We need to redefine sustainability.
The real estate industry has taken a very narrow view of what it really means to be sustainable for too long. An energy efficient, green building is only part of this puzzle. Its wider interactions with, and connections to, people and the natural world make up much of the bigger picture. Broader concern remains about the lack of consideration being given to the interdependencies between the building and the activities that actually go on inside it. In part this is a reflection of the developer/tenant/funder paradigm we use to create new buildings, but there needs to be a better way to bridge the gaps between construction and operation so that operational performance matches the ambitious targets set at design stage. All too often, design intent is not being delivered in the longer-term working performance of our buildings.
CBRE’s own Asset IQ delivers a programme that optimises systems performance across the whole building and minimises energy use whilst maintaining positive user experience. It’s a powerful tool and makes a big contribution to saving energy but the buildings of the future need to do even more. They need to be smart enough to learn and predict when things will fail. Our approach to creating smart buildings should not be limited to the building services but also applied to the building fabric and the equipment inside it. In the industrial and logistics sector, manufacturing and industrial processes are often energy and water intensive so these buildings need to be capable of supporting the management and continual improvement of systems and processes, and also be designed to be resilient and adaptable to changing operational needs, whether that’s a functional or a technology driven change.
Another key challenge in responding to the impact of climate change will be how we repurpose existing buildings or reuse existing sites to minimise the need for new construction and new development land. According to the UK Green Building Council, the built environment now accounts for approximately 40% of carbon emissions, so regeneration of the natural environment as a land use strategy is perhaps one of the biggest steps we can take now to draw down carbon and benefit from natural climate solutions.
Buildings are a large part of the problem but they also represent an opportunity. Adopting a fabric-first approach, teamed with smart building technology and a smart energy strategy for new or existing buildings must become a minimum requirement of any project. By designing from the inside out, floor area and land take can be minimised, both providing a fully optimised building and an efficient operational model. Onsite generation, battery storage, electric vehicle charging and trading, and demand side response strategies provide opportunities for industrial occupiers to make cost savings in use, and generate an income stream. These strategies also provide resilience in the network by adopting more efficient ways of using existing resources. The growing availability of green finance and sustainable investment funds will further unlock access to the capital required to kick start projects with these objectives at their core, and in the pursuit of a net zero target.
Net zero will drive developers and building owners to perhaps look for places where they can install photovoltaics on neighbouring buildings or other parts of their portfolio, and start to produce energy as well as consuming it. E.on describes the emergence of the “prosumer” as key to actively shaping climate neutral environments. This would allow constrained, energy intensive buildings to obtain renewable energy from lower intensity buildings with large roof areas such as industrial and logistics buildings to help them towards net zero.
Unilever recently announced that 38% of its grid electricity has been supplied through corporate Power Purchase Agreements and green electricity tariffs. Where PPAs and tariffs have not been feasible, Unilever has purchased Renewable Energy Certificates. Renewable electricity covers Unilever’s factories, offices, R&D facilities, data centres, warehouses and distribution centres. The company also generates solar electricity at facilities in 18 countries and 16 of its manufacturing sites are completely carbon neutral in their energy use.
Looking beyond the plot boundary remains a challenge for most developers and occupiers because it can add cost, risk and delay to projects. If we are able to combine the strength of emerging climate focused planning policies and government action with the power of the consumer who, for example, is already creating a growing demand for their pension funds to invest ethically, there will be a top to bottom drive to improve and minimise the impacts on the environment both locally to the site and globally in respect of overall planetary health.