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Asian real estate can be more than just a victim of climate change. It can be part of the solution, too

January 7, 2022, 12:30 AM UTC

Asia is on the front line of the climate crisis: 10 of the 15 nations most at risk from flooding and extreme weather are based in Asia. That can be why, when it comes to talking about Asian real estate and climate change, we often talk about resilience. How do we protect buildings from rising waters, hugely damaging storms, or even just high temperatures?

But we can miss thinking about buildings as a cause of the problem themselves: 40% of annual carbon emissions comes from real estate which—even for those in the know about sustainability—is an eye-popping statistic.

Alarm bells should be ringing over the large role our buildings play in changing our climate. But what role can real estate companies—the ones responsible for constructing, operating, and maintaining these buildings—play in reducing that role?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report was a rude awakening for business leaders and global policymakers, highlighting the carbon emissions generated by the construction and operation of buildings. Emissions are released during construction, and from the energy used to heat, cool, and light up buildings. Then you have the emissions released from making the building materials themselves—which will make up almost half of the entire carbon footprint for real estate between now and 2050 as the global building stock doubles in size

A desire for change

Business and public stakeholders are increasingly paying attention to the environmental impact of their real estate portfolio. In fact, according to our data, 83% of real estate occupiers and 78% of investors in the survey accept that climate poses a financial risk.

Driven by heightened global scrutiny around sustainability after the IPCC report, companies that were perhaps less-than-diligent in their plans are being pushed to change. One-fifth of corporate occupiers are significantly ahead on the sustainability maturity curve—these leaders will end up driving the sustainability agenda, leaving the rest to catch up.

The number of companies in Asia-Pacific that will adopt a net-zero carbon commitment is set to double by 2025, driven by concerns over the financial risk from climate change and investor pressure to meet new ethical standards. Even employees are part of the trend: Seven in 10 workers polled believe that sustainability initiatives are a must for today’s businesses.

Yet corporate, and even national, commitments to net zero cannot be meaningfully achieved without a focus on the built environment. And, in fact, adapting buildings in sustainable ways would also create upfront value for landlords, investors, and occupiers alike.

That increased value may come from unlikely places: We found that 80% of workers want to be in buildings with plants and outdoor spaces, like rooftop gardens. Thus, efforts to bolster sustainability will have a payoff in employee productivity and retention. 

Identifying barriers to change

Those that lead the way on sustainability will end up setting the standards for green investment, leasing, and operations that everyone else will end up following. Yet only one in five businesses has well-defined sustainability goals, with decarbonization as a key part of its real estate strategy.

Yet many businesses face internal barriers that impede their progress toward sustainability, such as a disengaged executive leadership, misalignment between sustainability strategy and current business objectives, deprioritized sustainability investments in the face of urgent organizational needs, and a lack of stakeholder accountability.

Businesses also face external hurdles that may be tougher to address, such as being tied to a space with aging infrastructure, or that lacks access to the newest technology and data—such as smart buildings and energy monitoring.

But implementing these measures will require close private-public collaboration between businesses, their landlords, investors, and the government. Fortunately, there’s strong support for a collaborative approach: 90% of occupiers agree that collaboration between cities, investors, developers, and occupiers will be instrumental in achieving the net-zero ambitions of the built environment.

So what are people doing now? Swire Properties is engaging tenants in Hong Kong and mainland China by offering free energy audits to help them understand their usage patterns and identify energy-saving opportunities. Singapore’s incentives for the environment include an Energy Efficiency Fund (E2F), which provides funding for businesses to improve the energy efficiency of facilities for up to 50% of the qualifying costs. These initiatives demonstrate the value and importance of multi-stakeholder collaboration to move the needle on sustainable action.

But here’s the bottom line: Real estate can and must play a critical role in helping businesses turn their sustainability ambitions into reality. They can be a key enabler in building the important relationships needed to create a more sustainable economy, whether between business and employees, owners and tenants, or between the public and private sectors.

Real estate is currently both a cause and a victim of our current climate crisis. But it can be a key part of the solution as well.

Kamya Miglani is director of research, work dynamics, APAC at Jones Lang LaSalle.

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