Can the biggest CO2 emitters become beacons for change?

Public awareness about climate change, and the resulting emergency, is at its highest level. The climate crisis – the need to halve CO2 emissions every decade for the next 30 years to keep global warming temperatures below 2⁰C – is now seen as a higher priority than migration and terrorism.

Real estate is responsible for between 25-30% of global CO2 emissions contributing to global warming, which means that the sector has to act. Some companies are already taking a lead. Grosvenor and JLL have recently set net zero targets for their companies, but the urgent question remains about how fast we can get there for existing as well as new properties. These targets are just for energy use and this is not the only area where CO2 emissions need to be reduced – food, waste, transport and refrigerant gases are all important sources of these greenhouse gases.

In the commercial property sector, half of CO2 emissions come from less than 5% of the UK offices. These are properties over 50,000 sq ft. In London, some of these are obvious skyscrapers, like the Shard and the Leadenhall Building, while others are more obscured, like the groundscrapers One New Change and One Bishops Square. There are about 1,300 properties of this size in the City of London.

In New York City, these properties have already been targeted with legislation to reduce emissions with fines to be imposed if the properties don’t reduce their energy consumption. These properties in the UK could become pariahs because of climate change, like the oil and gas companies have already become. They could alternatively become lighthouses for the exponential change which has to happen.

The climate crisis – the need to halve CO2 emissions every decade for the next 30 years to keep global warming temperatures below 2⁰C – is now seen as a higher priority than migration and terrorism

To brand a property as an exposition of action on climate change provides an opportunity to build a community within a property. A community which could engage with several hundred, if not several thousand people in a single property. Done well, this could provide a memorable experience covering food, travel, energy, waste, fashion and technology.

What we eat today will be fundamentally changed by our climate. Extreme weather events will affect what food we can produce and get access to. We will have to eat less meat, but we don’t have to go all out and be vegan. It’s likely we’ll eat more food grown in factories – either lab grown meat, insect protein or vertical hydroponic farms. This changing diet presents an opportunity for new experiences. In a commercial property, food will be consumed in lots of different ways, in kitchens, in canteens, in pop-up street food stalls, via Deliveroo and in local outlets both in the building and nearby. Community events about climate change, the food we eat and the food we waste – one third – does offer a creative opportunity to speak with hundreds, if not thousands of people in a property. It could also make the property a destination worth commuting to every day.

Travelling to and from the office does produce CO2 emissions. For many professional services firms, business travel is the largest source of CO2 emissions. With the growing popularity of flexible working and the use of other co-working spaces and cafés there are more reasons not to commute to one property everyday. So making that office a desirable destination is becoming more important for retaining lease value and lease length. Investing in that property and that community has been shown to increase property value and reduce voids. To support low carbon travel, this could mean getting up-to-the-minute information about public transport to the tenants. It could also mean installing electric vehicle charging stations and increasing them over time. Making the property easy to access on foot and secure, and offering easily accessible bike stores and showers should be the norm by now. Perhaps a cycle club could be part of this new Expo Lighthouse community.

Energy, on the face of it, is a less engaging topic for the people in an office community. It is invisible, generated offsite and most of it is consumed by the HVAC equipment enclosed behind ceiling and floor voids. The HVAC is critical to the experience of the tenants though. It is possible to both reduce the energy consumed and improve the comfort levels for this community. Telling people about this effort by the FM team as well as buying electricity from solar and wind farms is another way of demonstrating the change taking place. It could also encourage the community to do more, either at the office or at home by switching to a renewable energy provider and reducing their own consumption.

All of these topics for an Expo Lighthouse have the opportunity to spark the imagination, to generate conversations and to bring a community together.

Climate change is happening and it is going to have more adverse effects if we don’t change our properties. We really have only two options, one is to face the change with a lot of pain and the other is to recognise that the change doesn’t have to be bad. It is in fact an opportunity for better, more desirable, buildings which provide an excellent experience for the people who use them.

Sonny Masero is a former winner of EG’s Tech Academy and sustainability expert

See: EG Sustainability hub