Fighting climate change with real estate innovation


The boom in people working from home during the pandemic has seen a huge increase in residential CO2 emissions. Stuart Richardson looks at how researchers, manufacturers and thought leaders can pave the way for net-zero housing that will save money and the environment.

The recent release of the UN’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2021 report on climate change has reinforced the urgency of creating and implementing cutting edge solutions to carbon emissions in major development industries across the globe. Recent footage of devastating wildfires in Greece and Turkey, floods in China, Germany, Russia, and the USA, and record-breaking heatwaves in the US Pacific Northwest that caused an unprecedented loss of marine life have all served as a troubling reminder of the consequences inaction on energy emissions will bring.

The report leaves no room for doubt: temperatures are rising around the world and human industry and development are the major contributors to this change. In its own words: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land.”

But it is not all doom and gloom. In fact, the report makes clear that while the situation is both urgent and deadly serious, it is still within the boundaries of human effort to start to turn things around.

“If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe,” António Guterres, UN secretary general, notes, echoing the report’s conclusions. “But, as today’s report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses.”

Building a better future

There has been a growing consensus across the real estate industries that sustainable development and operations are the way forward for over a decade now, but it has only been during the past few years – due in no small part to the Covid-19 pandemic and working from home becoming a default option for millions more people – that the true scale of what could be accomplished if net-zero energy buildings (NZEB) and low-carbon buildings became the industry standard has become clear. Put simply, it could be nothing short of revolutionary in the ongoing fight against climate change.

Firstly, however, it is important to clarify exactly what is meant when we talk about net-zero energy and low-carbon buildings. These are structures that combine energy efficiency and renewable energy generation to consume only as much energy as can be produced onsite through renewable resources over a specified time period. They can be – but are not always – produced with materials that were themselves carbon neutral to create. In this article, however, we will focus on the sustainability of using the buildings themselves.

Despite an understanding that building materials have been produced in environments that are not net-zero, and that these materials are already in many buildings that can still be made net-zero, this is not a change that will occur overnight. Rather, we must focus on the challenges that can be overcome in the short-term, while acknowledging that there is much more work to do in the sector going forward.

At NetZero Buildings (NZB) – an off-site manufacturer offering turnkey solutions for new net-zero buildings – they aim to do just this with education, running a carbon literacy training programme for their staff which is accredited by The Carbon Literacy Project. The aim is to motivate and inspire employees to face the challenges ahead with a clear vision of what is at stake, as well as what can be done.

“Climate action is not something that can be dealt with later and that is why our team at NetZero Buildings is dedicated to reversing the effects of climate change,” explains NZB CEO Stephen Murphy. “We have a responsibility, not just as an organisation but as a country, to make conscious actions.”

It is a perspective shared by the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), the central advisory body on sustainable building and real estate development across the United Kingdom. Reacting to the publication of the IPCC report, UKGBC’s chief executive Julie Hirigoyen outlined how the scale of the challenge was proportional to the scale of the opportunities presented.

“With 21 to 22 per cent of the UK’s total carbon emissions (including imported emissions) directly controlled by the built environment sector, it is clear our sector has a significant role to play,” she explained. “Tackling this challenge will be tough, but it also represents a huge opportunity to deliver valuable green jobs and better, healthier places. Built environment businesses can, and must, lead the charge.”

The good, the bad, and the NZEB

Every country is facing its own unique real estate challenges when it comes to net-zero and low-carbon development, and the UK is no exception.

“The UK’s homes are some of the oldest and least energy efficient in Europe, and they must be decarbonised if we are to meet our net-zero target,” says Jenny Holland, public affairs and policy specialist at the UKGCB. “However, currently householders are not incentivised to act – in part because energy efficiency is not properly rewarded in the homebuying market.”

It is a complication within the national market that requires specific solutions. Thankfully, a number of forward-thinking ideas are being offered up, not least from the UKGCB itself, which published a report outlining how a stamp duty incentive could help transform the energy and carbon performance of the nation’s homes.

“Decarbonising our housing stock is important not just for tackling climate change, but because it makes our homes cheaper to run and healthier to live in. A stamp duty incentive would build a thriving retrofit market, supporting green jobs, boosting household spending, and bringing down fuel bills,” Holland explains. “And crucially, it would embed energy efficiency into the decision-making process of homebuyers and drive a value differential in the property market as a whole.”

There are also issues in the supply and demand that spin off from both this lack of current building and upgrading incentive, and the overall complications of securing products that are still in their relative infancy. These things often compound to produce a frustrating lack of access at scale.

“The immaturity of some parts of the supply chain make it more difficult and costly to produce net-zero buildings,” agrees Anna Biggs, project coordinator for Advancing Net Zero at the UKGBC. “But you are supporting the development of a market which later you will be dependent on – future proofing assets for a decarbonising world, making the building a more profitable investment in the future, and reducing the risk of devaluation as the economy decarbonises.”

So, the nature of net-zero and low-carbon building is, by its own necessity, the very factor that will overcome the initial obstacles that are in the way of full adoption. The future is green because it has to be, and the benefits of investing in eco-friendly solutions today are massive in both the short and long-term.

Adopt and survive

In a comprehensive, industry-wide report published late last year titled Unlocking the Delivery of Net Zero Carbon Buildings, several key points were identified as being crucial for ensuring the widespread adoption of net-zero and carbon neutral technologies and processes in the UK. These include early decision making to ensure net-zero goals are set and accomplished, better communication between lifecycle stakeholders – including ensuring buildings designed to operate at net-zero actually perform at net-zero – and development of the supply chain, including better access to low-carbon materials and processes at reduced prices.

All of which makes perfect sense on paper, but is there more that can be done around the real estate industry to make sure that moving towards these aims is as frictionless as possible?

“Driving innovation in other industries – for example, additional capacity for renewable energy in the UK or through the materials supply chain in concrete and steel – will have positive effects,” Biggs adds. “The extreme weather events this summer are all prevalent examples of us needing to adapt our whole built environment. Climate mitigation is intrinsically linked with adaptation to a changing climate.”

So whatever path lies ahead, it needs to be paved across the vast network of interconnected industries that fuel our national and global economies. After all, there is still everything to fight for.

“The thought before was that we could get increasing temperatures even after net-zero,” explains Professor Piers Forster from the University of Leeds, one of the co-authors of the 2021 IPCC report. “But we now expect nature to be kind to us and if we are able to achieve net-zero, we hopefully will not get any further temperature increase. If we are able to achieve net-zero greenhouse gases, we should eventually be able to reverse some of that temperature increase and get some cooling.”

It remains to be seen what world leaders will decide to do in the fight against climate change when they meet in Glasgow for the COP26 global climate summit in November. Whatever they settle on, however, it is clear that the real estate market represents both a fantastic opportunity for investment in green solutions, and one of the major pillars in the likelihood of our future successes in the push towards net-zero living.

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