Real Estate in the Face of the Climate Crisis

Following the month of protests held by Extinction Rebellion in October last year, the European Parliament’s declaration of a state of global ‘climate and environmental emergency’ and the UN’s announcement of their 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, 2019 has brought with it an unmatched momentum for pro-environmental movements. With the awarding of Time’s Person of the Year Award to Greta Thunberg for her work in relation to the ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ (or School Strike for the Climate), 2019’s role was pivotal in the recognition of the current state of climate emergency. Entering 2020, it is clear that this momentum needs to be responded to and drastic measures taken in order to prevent further climate catastrophe. Indeed, this need for change extends into all industries, no less real estate.

Since the sector consumes over 40% of global energy annually, movement towards positive-energy solutions, following the model of such pioneering architecture as the Powerhouse Drobak Montessori School, would lead to a massive reduction in overall energy usage. As an energy-positive building, the school building taps into geothermal sources and uses solar panels in order to generate its own energy. Through prioritising efficiency and sustainability, the architecture of this school has allowed for its energy need to total less than a quarter than that of schools of a similar size. This movement towards more sustainable renewable energy sources is a necessary step in the road to a more sustainable future. For example, solar power, hydroelectricity and wind turbines could act as viable alternatives to outdated methods involving fossil fuels. Whilst solar panels, wind turbines and other sources have traditionally been viewed as eyesores, creativity in architecture and a recognition of the need for sustainability has led to projects, such as the Mount Sinai Kyabirwa Surgical Facility in Uganda, which question the belief that aesthetics and functionality are mutually exclusive.

Further to this, 20% of annual water effluents are as a result of the real estate industry. As the industry consumes 12% of annual potable water, measures can be taken to ensure that this water does not go to waste. If treated and used for other purposes, such as watering plants, this could be offset. If the water waste cannot be treated and reused, the impact could potentially be offset by including water tanks on the roofs of buildings and special drainage systems in order to collect rainwater. This rainwater could then either be used as it is and siphoned off for the upkeep of plants and gardens or undergo treatment for use by the residents. As 20% of total global greenhouse gas emissions originate from buildings, this use of water could serve a dual purpose. In order to prevent the projected 56% increase in building CO2 emissions and increase in the proportionate share of global greenhouse gas emissions expected by 2030, developers could offset this by ensuring that plans include lots of plants, whether in the form of a living wall, courtyards, garden terraces, or a rooftop garden. If unable to incorporate such plans into the building (or if this is insufficient to offset the carbon emissions), developers could also give money to charities such as Trees for Cities or Offset Earth in order to plant trees elsewhere and ensure that there is no net change in emissions.

In the face of climate change’s effects on endangered species’ habitats, there have also been growing fears surrounding biodiversity. For example, since 1900, the UK has lost 13 species of bee, and a further 35 are considered under threat of extinction. Despite this, none are protected by law. The inclusion of aromatic herbs and beehives in plans for rooftop gardens could help to protect biodiversity. Further to this, some housebuilders have taken it upon themselves to adapt designs to the needs of endangered native species. For example, Bovis Homes have included plans for ‘hedgehog highways’ in future projects, allowing access to the animals and thereby both creating and protecting habitats. Further to this, in Berkeley’s Goodman Fields development, 80% of planting across the development will be native and fruit-bearing species, as well as featuring living roofs and bird and bat boxes.

It is, therefore, clear that there are a number of measures which are both necessary and possible for the real estate industry to implement in increasing sustainability and prevent further degradation of the current environmental state. The future looks hopeful, with many key industry players making moves to place sustainability at the forefront of their agenda. As part of this, we are proud to be working with FORE on their plans for Tower Bridge Court, which is set to be one of the first buildings in London with net-zero carbon emissions. However, there remains much to be done if climate catastrophe is to be avoided.

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