Climate Change - what's our role?

Greta Thunberg (the 16-year-old Swedish climate change warrior) and the BBC series Earth from Space* got me thinking.

I appreciate that environmental activists’ primary focus is our use of plastic, deforestation, carbon emissions and national energy generation strategies but, as property people, what is our contribution to addressing what WWF claims to be ‘... the greatest environmental challenge the world has ever faced'.

As a Property Management (PM) consultant, I thought my conscience was clear. We have smart/intelligent buildings. We deploy smart energy and building management systems to help us track, monitor and manage a building’s energy consumption. Building Intelligence (BI), which allows buildings to learn, adjust and manage the lighting, security, heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) and air quality of discrete zones, is now capable of meeting the needs of a group of specific users on one part of the floor, the whole floor, or the entire building.

I feel a certain sense of smugness because we PM professionals are collectively meeting both occupiers’ and environmental goals (to a lesser or greater extent). What we do, ticks all the boxes. We:

  • Help enhance the productivity and wellbeing of users
  • Optimise the services deployed across the building
  • Maximise the efficiency of resource/energy consumption.

I know that building owners are now looking beyond their four walls and considering the impact their asset has on the national electricity grid and the environment. Underpinning this is the management of energy costs by connecting a variety of subsystems (which typically operate independently) and enabling them to share information in order to optimise Total Building Performance.

Finally, designing buildings has also changed dramatically in the last few years. There is now far greater awareness of increasing buildings’ resilience to extreme climate conditions – from droughts in the US, to flooding/tsunamis in Asia, to cyclones and hurricanes in the Caribbean and Africa.

That is why I thought I could look Greta Thunberg in the eye without feeling the need to apologise.

But then I came across some research which concluded that when it comes to meeting agreed carbon targets, developers get it, owners get it, but occupiers ‘... still have to pull their weight.’

The trend towards new build and retrofitting older buildings, to ensure they meet an ‘excellent’ BREEAM** sustainability rating is gathering momentum – I know, because my Building Consultancy colleagues tell me so – and MEES restrictions on letting properties with poor EPC ratings is also part of the green building mix.

However, my Agency colleagues are at pains to point out that occupiers are handicapped by costs – the cost of occupancy, fit outs, equipment, business acquisition, labour etc - all of which directly impact on a business’s bottom line and in turn its ability to grow.

Another colleague mentioned ‘Green Leases’ i.e. landlords and tenants working collaboratively to meet agreed sustainability goals – such as improving the building’s energy efficiency, reducing waste, managing water usage more efficiently, etc.

However, initial research suggests that there is a lack of widespread adoption of Green Leases, despite quite obvious benefits, such as:

  • Landlord: creation of value in building stock throughout its lifecycle and the ability to meet legislative compliance obligations e.g. their ‘Carbon Reduction Commitment’
  • Lessee: financial benefits from reducing energy consumption, as well as CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and branding benefits from renting a space in a green building, with a Green Lease.

But there is a fear of potential bear traps inherent in Green Leases, which might explain why their adoption is proving so tardy. I learned of a tenant who signed a lease which contained clauses such as:

  • Restrictions on operational hours to reduce energy consumption
  • 24-hours’ notice required if HVAC services are required on a Saturday
  • Only being able to conduct improvement works if they adhered to the building’s agreed sustainability policies

Some would argue that clauses like these, combined with tough trading conditions, explain why Green Leases adoption is so slow. But their critics would argue that we have no choice but to ‘green’ our work environments because time is running out.

But before we descend into a diatribe of excuses, let us not forget that other sectors struggle to meet their low carbon/environmental obligations. For example:

  • The aviation sector alone accounts for 2% of global human induced greenhouse gas emission and yet, less than 50% of the world’s major airlines offer passengers the chance to offset the carbon produced by their flights
  • Road transport accounts for 17% of greenhouse gas emissions, yet there are fewer than 50 hybrid/electric motorway/city enabled car models currently available to European consumers.

There are countless reasons why the business community, consumers and politicians cannot, or will not change their carbon generation behaviours (myself included), but every now and then someone holds a mirror to us. Therefore, let us give the last word to an iconic climate change warrior.

“I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.

I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

The emissions are increasing and that is the only thing that matters. I think that needs to be our focus.

We cannot talk about anything else”

Greta Thunberg


*The series features ‘cameras in space which tell stories of our planet from a brand-new perspective’.

**Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method.

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