Here’s why US real estate investors should see climate change as an opportunity

Equally important as adopting renewables is ensuring the buildings they power are also sustainable. Electrek spoke with Breana Wheeler, US director of operations at BREEAM, the world’s first green building certification program, about what the ideal decarbonized building looks like and how US real estate investors should see climate change as an opportunity.

Electrek: What does BREEAM do, and what does the ideal decarbonized building look like?

Breana Wheeler: BREEAM was the first green building certification program in the world when it launched in 1990, and it has been recognized and adopted in more than 89 countries. It’s owned by BRE – a profit-for-purpose organization with over 100 years of building science and research background.

An ideal decarbonized building is one that has a highly efficient building envelope, is fully electrified, and can operate entirely on renewable energy – such as solar or wind – generated onsite. It would also have a low embodied carbon footprint, measured and managed through the materials and construction processes throughout its life cycle. BREEAM helps clients measure and manage carbon emissions through all stages of decarbonization.

Electrek: To what extent do you think the EPA vs. West Virginia Supreme Court ruling – which sharply curtailed the authority of the EPA to regulate emissions that cause climate change – will negatively impact the path to the decarbonization of buildings?

Breana Wheeler: The EPA vs. West Virginia Supreme Court ruling has elicited a strong response from industry leaders across markets, as the federal government is an important enabler in tackling climate change. However, I am confident that cities and states will continue to take the lead and fill in gaps left by the federal government in this area, whether through Building Performance Standards, building codes, or public utility commissions. 

Further, public knowledge and understanding of climate risk continues to grow each day. Investors, the business community, and municipalities have demonstrated an acute understanding of the potential ramifications should climate change go unchecked. These people and organizations are continuing to drive climate-related performance improvements and are well-aligned in trajectory, regardless of this ruling.

Electrek: How can state and local governments fill gaps left by the Supreme Court ruling?

Breana Wheeler: There are many local governments developing and executing climate action plans. With buildings making up large portions of most city footprints, we’re seeing many local jurisdictions consider how they can use their policy levers to fight climate change.

Energy benchmarking ordinances, which require buildings to measure and report their energy usage, are an important first step. Transparency often pushes buildings to begin to manage the performance they are reporting when they see how they are comparing to their peer buildings.

Building Performance Standards, which require measuring and reporting as well as certain levels of performance with the threat of penalty if not met, go one step further. In cities like New York, Boston, and St. Louis, we’ve seen Building Performance Standards ensure that the cost of poor performance is clear.  

Cities have divested pension funds from fossil fuels, and states such as California have enacted programs such as the Climate Change Scoping Plan, which encourages local governments to set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below 1990 levels by 2020, 40% below 1990 levels in 2030, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Thirty states, Washington, D.C., and two US territories have active renewable or clean energy requirements, and an additional three states and one territory have set voluntary renewable energy goals. New York, California, and Illinois have policies that require a large portion of their power to come from renewables within the next few decades.

I expect these efforts to be tightened and fortified following the ruling with increased urgency as the effects of climate change continue to be felt.

Electrek: If state or local governments choose not to pursue the decarbonization path, can the private sector make a difference?

Breana Wheeler: Arguably, it’s the private sector that has been leading on climate change in the US. Investors in the private sector are increasingly aware that climate change poses a significant financial risk to their assets. A built environment that is not resilient results in an interrupted economy, threatens public health, and can damage the long-term value of real estate. If change is not implemented now, investors run the risk of reduced returns and potentially stranded assets. 

The most forward-thinking investors see climate change not only as a threat but also as an opportunity. Consequently, they have invested $31 billion into climate mutual funds and exchange-traded funds by the end of 2021, a 45% increase from roughly $22 billion the year prior, according to a Morningstar report.

There is great financial opportunity in facilitating a more equitable, sustainable decarbonized future, and investors are pursuing strategies to fund climate change solutions while maintaining competitiveness in global markets.

Electrek: To what extent do you think the general public is embracing and acting on the need for the decarbonization of buildings within the context of the climate crisis?

Breana Wheeler: Climate change is a crisis that will affect, and already has affected, individuals on a global scale – aggregating social issues such as food scarcity, poverty, and inequality. In the US, the scale of the damage is growing: As of July, there were nine disasters costing over $1 billion just this year, and the impacts of the extreme heatwaves have yet to be fully measured.

In recent years, we have seen the vast majority of Americans calling on both federal and local governments to step up and enact policies to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The science is clear – we must act to avoid the worst impacts within the next decade. The real estate sector has a responsibility to address the impacts. We’re excited to be working with many organizations who have recognized climate change risks and want to manage them and turn them into opportunities.

Read more: The US Supreme Court EPA ruling is really bad, but here’s why all is not lost

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

Breana Wheeler became the US director of operations in 2016 for the Building Research Establishment (BRE), a 100-year-old building science research organization focused on delivering better, healthier buildings for people and for the environment. BRE developed BREEAM, the world’s first and leading science-based sustainability suite for the validation and certification of built world assets, which has successfully administered over 550,000 certifications since 1990.

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