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COP28 shows urgency for action not words in the fight against climate change

For the first time, ‘transitioning away’ from fossil fuels has featured in a climate deal. Agreed at COP28, 200 countries have signed up, setting a new standard and ambition for global climate action. Against the backdrop of this critical shift, it’s time for real estate to step up and play its part, especially in moving to renewable energy sources and promoting energy efficiency.

It is widely known that the built environment accounts for 37% of energy-related global carbon emissions: 28% from operational emissions, and the remainder from materials and construction. It also has enormous potential to be a catalyst for positive change. So, as COP28 comes to a close, we’ve gathered observations and insights from our team and network, with an overwhelming consensus to accelerate action to deliver transformational impact.

To set the context, here’s a reminder of the targets:

Anna Tsartsari, Co-Founding Director and Head of ESG and Sustainability at BE Design, also one of 1,400 signatories of a letter to the president of COP28 demanding Nationally Determined Contributions and National Adaptation Plans well before COP30 in 2025, says: “Targets are great and necessary, but we must move from commitment to action. We must also be clear about targets – 1.5 degrees is the limit, not a target. The earth is on the verge of five catastrophic tipping points according to the Global Tipping Points report and unless we take urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we risk sudden and irreversible changes that threaten the future health of our planet. We welcome the transition away from fossil fuels. It’s a much-needed turning point that will contribute to an acceleration in renewable energy projects, the protection of our forests and energy efficiency.”

To help galvanise the global community and encourage action, the 6th December at COP28 was dedicated to “Multilevel Action, Urbanization and Built Environment/Transport”, highlighting solutions to transition to low-carbon and resilient-built environments and infrastructure, including The Buildings Breakthrough initiative aimed to accelerate a transition to sustainable buildings by 2030, targeting near-zero emission and resilient buildings.

This focus follows the establishment of the #BuildingtoCOP coalition by the World Green Building Council (WGBC) in 2021, bringing together a group of sustainability-focused built environment NGOs and organisations, alongside the UN High Level Climate Champions, to position the built environment as a critical sector for a resilient and zero emissions future at COP conferences. To further promote action, it set up the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, which recognises and promotes advanced climate leadership action in decarbonising the built environment by 2030, to inspire others to follow suit. It has 180 signatories, represents 20,000 assets and 7.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

The potential for transformational change in and through the built environment is clear. The IPCC, in a report published in 2022, stated that building sector mitigation policies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 90%, and lift up to 2.8 billion people out of energy poverty. WGBC estimates that decarbonising the built environment amounts to an investment opportunity worth $24.7 trillion across the globe by 2030.

Paul Danks, International Representative Board Member of SIOR and former European Chapter president, said: “Businesses are driven by financial concerns and governments have a responsibility to sustain their economy, so the investment opportunity should not be understated. Being more sustainable makes commercial sense – it’s the smart decision, for financial growth and to avoid obsolescence as well as being the right thing to do, for society, resilience and the survival of future generations.”

Andrew Smith, President of SIOR Europe and Partner at Carter Jonas, added: “With members across the continent of Europe and the UK, we see trends clearly. In the last year, the market has been defined by uncertainty, but with one constant – the growing importance of ESG and sustainability. To those in our sector who say climate related interventions are cost-prohibitive, they need to look to market demands, driven by investors and occupiers who want more sustainable real estate. If they want to safeguard their business, they need to do something. This is not an opt-in or out choice.”

Matthew Leguen de Lacroix, Head of Business Development EMEA at SIOR, concluded: “We can do so much as an industry – the power to make an enormous impact is quite literally in our hands. Talking about solutions and sharing best practice are of course important but it will only matter if we act. As King Charles eloquently put it in his opening address at COP28, ‘in 2050 our grandchildren won’t be asking what we said, they will be living with the consequences of what we did or didn’t do.’ Time is of the essence and business, organisation, cities, governments and the general public will need to work together to make a difference.” 

SIOR members, many of which are driving the innovation and change the industry needs, will convene at the 4th SIOR International Conference next year. Taking place on 17-19 July 2024 in Berlin, ESG, net zero and whole life carbon will all be front and centre.

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