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Property developers are getting serious about capital carbon

Alan Silvester, Senior carbon management consultant

Capital carbon has long been talked about by property developers when discussing development schemes, but serious action to reduce its impacts has rarely been undertaken - until now.

The construction and operation of buildings accounts for 39% of the global energy-related CO2 emissions, and of this, capital carbon makes up 11%. The buildings and construction industry needs to significantly contribute to the world’s goal of limiting the level of global warming to well below 2°C. As buildings are becoming more operationally efficient, capital carbon is set to account for almost half of the total new construction emissions between now and 2050. Developers need to act on driving it down.

Professional industry bodies such as the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and the Green Construction Board (GCB) have been pushing the message for some time. At a September 2019 UKGBC event on Net Zero Whole Life Carbon to promote the ‘Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront’ report, the room was packed with players from across the industry and the debate proved lively.

Despite greater recognition and rewards for whole life cycle carbon assessments in rating systems such as BREEAM, there has been very little regulation enforcing the management of upfront carbon emissions. That said, the UK’s local planning processes are starting to look at this, for example through the new draft London Plan.

An encouraging industry response

The business benefits of reducing capital carbon in buildings are also becoming clearer. Evidence of reduced costs, growth for the local community through local supply chains and jobs, improved resilience to future resource and materials scarcity, a smoother planning process, lower future penalties on high embodied carbon buildings and an improved reputation are all boosting the motivation of forward-thinking developers.

It is hoped these initiatives and benefits, as well as the moral obligation, will further entice investors and developers to consider their capital carbon emissions. Leading commercial property owners have signed a commitment through the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP) to tackle climate change risks by delivering net zero carbon real estate portfolios by 2050. This commitment requires them to publish their own decarbonisation pathways by the end of 2020. The handling of embodied emissions for their new developments will be an essential component of this.

Certain major developers are addressing this issue in their strategies through the setting of targets. For example, UK property company British Land’s 2020 sustainability strategy makes a commitment to cut embodied carbon emissions of its major developments by 15% compared to the concept design.

Leading shopping centre provider Hammerson has already committed to becoming net positive in its carbon emissions (including embodied emissions from materials and energy used in construction) by 2030. Additionally, commercial property development and investment company Land Securities is addressing its supply chain emissions by specifying materials with recycled content, replacing concrete with cement, using metals with low manufacturing-related emissions and by sourcing heavy materials locally.

Behind all these activities is the requirement to be able to accurately measure and report these carbon emissions. To assist developers in this process, there is an increasing number of tools on the market that help measure and report them. Mott MacDonald’s own Carbon Portal tool enables us to produce detailed carbon footprints for the materials and energy used in our clients’ developments and quantify the savings made through design changes and adopted efficiencies.

The road ahead

The industry has made a good start, but with the scale of the challenge facing the buildings sector, further action is required. The sharing and use of data in benchmarks such as the RICS embodied carbon database will help designers target best practice and highlight what could be achieved. Also, carrying out upfront assessments to inform projects from the outset will allow for greater opportunities to include low carbon design solutions.

For there to be a widescale uptake of low carbon specifications, studies need to be undertaken to verify the performance of materials and reliability of supply chains, as current uncertainties hinder contractors, engineers and scientists moving to these newer specifications.

Perhaps most important is the appetite from investors to apply high performance standards on emissions for their developments, as this may serve to push the necessary action down the supply chain. Maybe then the momentum required to meet the net zero challenge will be achieved.

We are running our 7th annual Carbon Crunch event on 27 November 2019 at the Institution of Civil Engineers in London, for invited guests. Please get in touch with mark.crouch@mottmac.com, maria.manidaki@mottmac.com or kim.yates@mottmac.com if you would like to attend.

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