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Green finance: the driving force behind the net zero building revolution

Sustainability By Simon Wyatt, Partner, Sustainability – 12 May 2021

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Simon Wyatt

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By Simon Wyatt and Richard Twinn

Originally posted in Building.

While those of us who specialise in sustainability have been pushing the green agenda for years, it has only been in the last few that we have seen a significant increase in the demand for net zero carbon. After years of slow progress, the built environment is now finally starting to respond to wider public demands and aspirations for real sustainable development. This is largely because the investment community has finally woken up to the inevitably destructive consequences of climate change, and the risks posed to their portfolios and assets.

Major investors are becoming increasingly vocal about what they expect from the businesses and assets they invest in. Last year, a group of 137 investors representing US$20 trillion in assets called on large companies to set Science Based Targets (SBTs) or risk losing out on investment. And just last month a group of 38 investors managing US$8.5 trillion in assets announced they would be using the Institutional Investors Group for Climate Change’s (IIGCC) Net Zero Investment Framework to help them achieve net zero by 2050.

Now, with COP26 on the horizon, and green finance being one of the conference’s main themes, it is important for the built environment to understand what this means for us. If developments want to access funding and maintain their values, we need to take note and adjust building design in line with these new investment requirements.

There are a raft of frameworks and reporting processes that have sprung up over the past few years but let’s start with the two headline-grabbing ones mentioned above.

Science Based Targets is a global initiative coordinated by a group of organisations including CDP, World Resources Institute (WRI) and WWF which encourages businesses to set carbon reduction targets in line with the latest climate science. They are currently consulting on what net zero carbon targets should look like for businesses and it is already clear that organisations will be required to take responsibility for not just the impacts of their own operations, but also their ‘value chain’ emissions. This covers a raft of things including purchased goods and travel, but for an individual building it mostly means embodied carbon.

The investment community may not realise it just yet, but by pushing SBTs they will effectively be requiring developers and contractors to measure and reduce embodied carbon in line with the climate science. In case you were wondering, that means a minimum 50% reduction for all buildings by 2030. Needless to say, we should probably be getting started on that.

The same principle of Science Based Targets is also now getting applied to the operation of buildings through the Carbon Risk Real Estate Monitor (CRREM). This is highlighted by the IIGCC’s Net Zero Investment Framework as the main tool for assessing real estate and is already sending shivers down the spines of investors with its graphs forecasting stranded assets over the next thirty years.

The idea behind CRREM is that you can plot your building’s performance against a science-based trajectory for that type of asset, and when it exceeds its ‘carbon budget’ it becomes stranded because it is no longer in line with the Paris Agreement. If this happens, the asset will potentially attract a ‘brown discount’ from investors and start losing value. Developers can avoid stranded assets by setting a programme of asset improvements to reduce energy consumption and remove fossil fuel, as shown in the following graph from CRREM that shows potential stranding events for a UK office building.

A number of investment funds are already utilising these tools as part of their acquisition and due diligence process when selecting and valuing new properties. With the more astute using it to offload poor performing assets before the wider market cottons onto the price of carbon.

What is important to note here is that all models like this are only as good as the data going into them. Using a building’s EPC to predict in-use performance is inherently flawed as they were never meant to be a prediction of energy consumption and hence can have a margin of error of plus or minus 50%. That level of inaccuracy means the date of a stranding event predicted by the CRREM tool could be out by up to ten years in either direction!

For investors, that level of uncertainty will be intolerable, and their focus will inevitably shift towards data based on how buildings are performing in-use. In March this year, the government published a consultation on the introduction of mandatory operational energy ratings for commercial buildings, so investors will easily be able to judge our industry based on outcomes, not our modelling.

So how should we be reacting to these drivers? Well, embodied carbon and in-use performance are hardly new ideas and there is already a growing movement across the industry creating guidance and initiatives to help. These include the UK Green Building Council’s (UKGBC) Net Zero Carbon Buildings Framework, London Energy Transformation Initiative’s (LETI) Climate Emergency Design Guide and Embodied Carbon Primer, RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge, and the Better Buildings Partnership’s (BBP) Design for Performance initiative.

The problem is that many of these initiatives are still viewed as ‘leading edge’ or ‘best practice’. The question has always been, ‘how do we bring the rest of the industry along with us?’ For years most who specialise in sustainability have argued for greater legislation to drive this, but it appears that the key driver for delivering real change will be finance. As investors start to become more demanding of the building industry over the next few years, very soon they will expect, and more importantly fund, nothing less than net zero carbon.

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