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Real Estate and the Carbon Challenge: Operational v Embodied Carbon

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Last month Glasgow hosted COP26, where leaders from all around the world gathered to take decisive action to tackle the climate crisis. This conference forced all sectors to examine their actions and consider how these affect our environment.

Recent figures have revealed that the Real Estate Sector is responsible for 38% of global carbon emissions and consumes around 40% of the world’s energy. Such striking figures highlight the pressing need for developers, businesses, and all those involved in the real estate sector to take drastic steps to make real and lasting positive change.

There are two different ways in which the Real Estate sector can tackle the carbon challenge. Firstly, operational carbon, which refers to the amount of carbon emitted during operational use of a building such as heating.  Secondly, embodied carbon, which refers to the amount of carbon emitted during the construction of a building and the process of making materials.

Operational Carbon

The issue of operational carbon emissions has been addressed in several ways. In 2017 the government published an ambition to upgrade all homes to be “cost efficient, affordable and practical”, rating EPC C by 2035. The government has additionally made available different green homes initiatives and grants for air source heat pumps.

Despite these efforts, newly published figures from the Scottish Housing Regulator show that 38,046 properties are failing to meet this standard. One of the difficulties with addressing the carbon challenge through energy efficiency in homes is that a third of homes build pre-war still carry EPC ratings of E or below. 

Embodied Carbon

It has been suggested that there needs to be more efforts put into tacking the embodied carbon. Joe Giddings, co-ordinator of the Architects Climate Action Network has highlighted the fact that the industry falls short by focussing too much on ‘operational carbon’ rather than ‘embodied’ carbon and highlights we need to think about where our materials come from, how they are made and interrogate the whole supply chain.

If we consider the main components used in many developments, concrete and steel, the creation of these materials amounts to a high percentage of global carbon emissions.  

Concrete is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions. There are, however, alternative and more carbon neutral materials which can be used: one example is Geopolymer. This uses a much lower carbon intensive process and is an ideal ‘circular economy’ product as it can be made from an array of recycled waste materials.

The production of steel accounts for 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions but, similarly, strides are being made to create sustainable and carbon neutral production of iron. One of the leading ones is by a Swedish engineer who has developed HYBRIT, a new method of producing steel that replaces carbon with hydrogen. The by-product of hydrogen ironmaking is water, rather than carbon dioxide, establishing a far cleaner, fossil free process.

There is evidence of real strides being made by the Real Estate sector towards tackling the issue of embodied carbon however there is a clear financial challenge with many of the alternative building materials coming at a higher cost. To support this shift towards more sustainable building practices, there needs collective action across the sector as well as financial support from the government.

As a firm not involved in the construction industry, our focus is to ensure our operational carbon emission is reduced as much as possible. We aim to be a net-zero firm by 2035 and our policies reflect our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and protect our environment.

Contact Our Residential Property Solicitors Glasgow, Scotland

At Miller Samuel Hill Brown our expert property lawyers are regularly involved in advising on property finances. Let us work with you to identify your needs and discuss the options available to you. If you have any questions regarding your property finances, please contact our specialist property team on 0141 221 1919 or fill in our online contact form.

COP, Carbon & Commercial Property
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