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Turning sustainability ambition into action begins with buildings. The built environment is the single largest emitter of carbon, ahead of even transportation and agriculture. In fact, nearly 40% of the world’s carbon emissions come from commercial real estate, with the industry’s total footprint expected to double by 2060.
Yet despite real estate’s outsized environmental impact, the built environment receives only 5% of climate tech investments. It remains an untapped opportunity for companies looking to meet sustainability targets.
Most companies have yet to forge a strategy that connects their building operations and their long-term climate goals. Technology will be the answer for businesses to reach net-zero moving forward, from developing a strategic plan to adopt efficiency improvements, to replacing legacy systems with smarter, greener ones.
Creating a sustainability action plan
Green buildings have been a part of the global consciousness for decades — from the formation of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1993 to rate the sustainability of buildings, to the WorldGBC Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment in 2018 calling on the building and construction sector to decarbonize the built environment.
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However, with outdated energy and equipment operations continuing to hinder progress, not enough companies have a clear roadmap to green their buildings and get their real estate to net-zero carbon emissions.
The first step companies need to take is implementing a data-driven, outcomes-based approach to inform their goals and longer-term strategy.
Companies will likely have to evaluate their monthly utility bill expenses, energy usage, equipment efficiency, water consumption, recycled waste versus landfill waste, and carbon emissions to create a baseline. They can then use that baseline to compare their performance to industry benchmarks and identify milestones they want to reach on the path to net-zero. However, this should just be the start of measuring environmental impact. Organizations should be tracking sustainability performance consistently to know how they’re progressing toward their goals and where to adjust along the way.
From there, organizations must create a strategic sustainability plan, basing goals and metrics on where data is telling them to take action.
Strategies should focus on actionably reducing consumption and emissions in the existing real estate portfolio and ensuring new developments are efficient, making use of renewable energy wherever possible. In a present reality where climate disasters happen frequently and our continued reliance on fossil fuels is severely impacting people’s health around the world, this type of groundwork will pave the way to a more sustainable future.
Technology should drive progress
Once we determine a strategic roadmap, it’s time to get into the tactics and technologies.
Green buildings are also smart buildings, inherently tech-enabled to make real-time adjustments that reduce emissions, use resources more efficiently and optimize environmental and economic performance. The potential for technology to further reduce energy consumption in existing and new commercial buildings is enormous. On average, 30% of the energy used in commercial buildings is wasted, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Fortunately, today’s data collection and analytics tools are more than able to deliver the insights companies need to make proactive decisions, including:
- Internet of Things sensors that provide real-time data on a building’s energy usage, occupancy, equipment and systems can help companies know what exactly needs to be addressed.
- Artificial intelligence can leverage these insights to identify how to make spaces more comfortable while saving energy, improving indoor air quality and bringing fresh air inside, and providing proactive maintenance recommendations to prevent future issues.
Additionally, a large amount of a building’s energy is spent on heating, cooling and lighting — and technology should play a role in making these processes greener and more efficient. Recent research found that sustainability and environment controls are the top technology that companies plan to adopt in their workplaces over the next three years. For example, technology built for lighting and HVAC efficiency takes measurements to make real-time micro-adjustments and continuously optimize equipment. This new-age operation of buildings, driven by technology, is a critical factor in real estate’s ability to reach net-zero.
Greening buildings today is all about smart technology that will power sustainability-built environments. There are many other technologies and building adjustments for companies to consider when creating or retrofitting green buildings, from water controls to solar shading devices. Each organization will need to determine what makes the most sense for its unique strategies and goals.
A green future is profitable
It’s important to note that although there may be higher upfront costs associated with greening a building, they tend to be offset by lower long-term lifecycle costs.
People today also want to live and work in green buildings. Not only do such buildings align with the societal shift towards net-zero, they’re also better for tenant health and employee productivity. And there’s an opportunity for greater gains from stepping up sustainability efforts, with green buildings being less costly to operate, lasting longer and increasing in value over time.
In fact, research reveals that net-zero carbon (NZC) intervention measures directly impact a building’s bottom line and that failing to decarbonize leads to significant financial risk. For many buildings, meeting 2050 decarbonization targets put forward in the Paris Climate Agreement is grounded in retrofitting current spaces, which can also garner higher rents, reduce financial risk and generate higher occupancy rates and tenant satisfaction.
Ensuring buildings are sustainable should be a top priority in every organization’s strategy as they start taking tangible steps towards reducing emissions and reaching net-zero. The time is here to build a more sustainable future — and it starts with the buildings themselves.
Ramya Ravichandar is VP of sustainability products at JLLT.
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