The race to carbon neutrality

Recently hundreds of thousands of young people participated in school climate strikes. Inspired by global campaigner, Greta Thunberg, climate strikes were planned in more than 1,400 cities in more than 110 countries and it is estimated over 1.4 million people participated. Among other factors, this snowball movement has led to a growing awareness that leaders and corporations must take greater accountability for climate change and their impact on the environment.  Increasingly so, we are seeing climate change feature more prominently on cities’ political agendas and a wave of initiatives driving sustainability are emerging across the property sector. Relative targets across Europe (see infographic) have highlighted Sweden, Portugal, France, Netherlands, and Luxemburg as the top five countries leading the way to carbon neutrality, according to research by Climate Action Networking Group. We decided to take a closer look at what a selection of cities, organisations and companies are doing to combat climate change.

Above: Europe’s greenest countries ranked on progress & ambition, as a percentage vs ideal scenario.
Source: Climate Action Networking Group

The city of Copenhagen’s ambitious targets to become carbon neutral by 2025 have positioned it as a global leader. The CPH 2025 Climate Plan is holistic and includes specific targets and initiatives in four key areas – energy consumption, energy production, mobility and city administration initiatives. In addition to mapping key focus areas, the city is making a concerted effort to convert the challenge posed by a 20% population increase over the next decade into an opportunity to combine infrastructural changes with green growth. In raw terms, the pillar with the potential for biggest impact is energy production, which is estimated to account for 80% of the total reduction target. Crucial to the city’s plan is their adoption of a full circle approach, which involves multiple implementation and evaluation phases. For instance, whilst the ‘city administration’ initiative represents a significantly smaller proportion of the total CO₂ reduction, this pillar of the plan is recognised as a holding ‘a huge significance as a source of inspiration for others’. This four-pillar plan provides an accredited model for sustainable change, which others can learn from.

Greater Manchester has also established a comprehensive framework, with science based carbon reduction targets, to ensure it engages and leverages all city stakeholders. The city has employed the model, SCATTER  (Setting City Areas Targets and Trajectories for Emission Reductions), a city-focused emissions model, built to create low carbon cities by standardising greenhouse gas reporting and aligning them with international standards, including The Paris Climate Agreement of targets. The City of Manchester has used this framework to develop a carbon budget, which means the city has a ‘robust methodology upon which to measure progress’. Similarly to Copenhagen’s four-pillar model, the SCATTER model introduces a holistic approach to emission sources; Manchester’s challenge will be to employ and successfully deliver a spectrum of initiatives which engage a diverse range of stakeholders. To do this the city has created a ‘Strategy Implementation Plan’[4], which maps out project leads, key deliverables and status updates. To date, the city has achieved a 34% reduction against the 41% target and is projected to achieve a 38% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. As outlined by Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, at the Greater Manchester Green Summit, “We have a science-based deadline and a deliverable plan putting us on a path towards it. Achieving our ambition will be very challenging, but it is the right thing to do. By calculating a budget and ‘science-based’ plan, Manchester has committed to being a zero carbon city by at least 2050.

We asked Peter Fisher, Director at Bennetts Associates how the architecture practice is integrating sustainable considerations into their designs and how this is reshaping how they work.

The fundamental ground rules of how we design buildings haven’t changed – good practice remains good practice. What will change is the services that go into them, and we will see a shift from gas boilers and generators to buildings that are powered solely by electric. The changes will be incremental, and it will go unnoticed by most users of the building. The use of more electric transport means that air quality will improve and, therefore, buildings that are naturally ventilated will become more feasible.”

With the advancement of new technologies and access to big data, we discussed how this is changing the conversation in the world of architecture and accelerating carbon neutral initiatives:

 “The result of the internet of things and smart buildings is that more people will be able to access data about their environment. In property, the conversation is changing; architects are having more discussions with property developers due to occupier demands. Some of the larger developers are concerned the stock that they have is no longer relevant. Anything designed by 2025 should be 0 net carbon.”

Moreover, recently at the Bisnow London Capital Markets conference, Marco Abdallah, Head of Engineering UK at Drees & Sommer UK delivered an inspirational keynote address to real estate investors and asset managers. Marco’s chosen topic was Cradle2Cradle and how investors can meet the challenge of reducing construction waste and carbon emissions by harnessing the power of the circular economy:

“We see a tipping point regarding sustainability in 2020. Those without a sustainable portfolio will have a problem. It’s not the supermarket bag that’s the problem it’s the supermarket building. Construction creates 60% of UK waste, much of it toxic. Cradle2Cradle means there is no waste – just nutrients”. Marco’s views highlight the encapsulating nature of sustainable initiatives, which institutions, companies and actors will need to proactively adopt.

Carbon neutral policies are clearly shaped by a multitude of factors and in practice mean something different for each actor, city and company; but there are constants, which can be identified when cross-analysing European cities’ roadmaps to carbon neutrality. What we have learnt is sustainable agendas involve a multitude of interconnected elements, which each offer opportunities for incremental gains. Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council highlighted the importance of collective action and responsibility to accelerate change; commenting, ‘“Changes in our personal and collective behaviours are as crucial to success as any new technology. We need to add a few zeroes to the number of people engaged.[7] In a similar nature to digital transformation, effective stakeholder engagement, which clearly communicates policy goals and key deliverables relevant to each audience, is paramount to achieving targets in such a complex landscape. Cities paving the way to a greener world are evidently useful reference points when navigating the road to carbon neutrality, but as we have seen, cities and businesses’ will need to iteratively define and redefine their carbon neutral targets in order to generate meaningful impact relevant to their context.


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