In Australia, the built environment accounts for over a third of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The facilities management sector has a vital role to play in the global march towards net zero carbon emissions. Here, BGIS chats with Tim Jarvis (AM), environmental scientist and sustainability advisor/ambassador to our business in Australia, about the practical steps companies should be taking today to decarbonise their building assets and reduce their environmental footprint.
Q: How important are voluntary measures such as the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) and Green Star ratings in reducing built environment emissions?
Tim Jarvis (TJ): They are critical. Although there are some great sustainability initiatives happening in the commercial property sector, unfortunately mandatory building standards governing the built environment have some way to go and don’t currently drive the level of change needed. If all we did – whether it’s residential or commercial building – was adhere to mandatory building codes, it would leave us a long way short in terms of where we needed to be regarding carbon emissions, waste generation and water use. Voluntary measures such as NABERS and the internationally recognised Green Star rating system give people metrics that allow them to actually measure building performance, and in fact there are a lot of upsides associated with operating buildings more efficiently – not least of all big cost savings. Furthermore, there’s a commercial advantage in attracting the right calibre of building tenant and signing them up for long-term contracts. It’s virtually impossible to get any of the big ASX-listed or multinational organisations into a building unless it performs to a high standard. They need to know that your building aligns with their commercial interests and sustainability goals.
Q: What area of environmental impact should organisations focus on to mitigate GHG emissions?
TJ: I always tend to think in terms of energy because it translates most obviously to climate. More than a third of Australia’s carbon footprint comes from the energy required to heat, light and cool buildings, and that’s a compelling statistic and the one that’s most easily quantified. Organisations need to understand their energy consumption and introduce strategies for efficient energy use, with the best green energy of course being the energy we don’t use – so energy audits to realise efficiencies and reduce consumption is a good way to start.
Of course, on-site renewable systems like rooftop solar panels are an attractive investment for organisations looking to decarbonise, reduce costs and create sustainable operations. Beneficial electrification is another great concept gaining steam, and it refers to the growing recognition that using clean electricity to keep our homes and businesses running is cheaper, greener, and a smarter way to meet our energy needs. In essence, it involves replacing or substituting fossil fuel-powered furnaces, boilers and water heaters with things like electric heat pumps, which when paired with renewables can really reduce a building’s carbon footprint.
Savings and efficiencies can be gained by procuring energy via Power Purchase Agreements (PPA), which involves a contractual agreement between a renewable energy generator and organisations buying renewable energy for their business or businesses. Aggregated PPAs are growing in popularity, whereby organisations join together to buy the output from a generator and distribute the output among themselves. Alternatively, demand from an organisation’s portfolio can be aggregated to reach a sufficient volume to qualify for a PPA.
Q: What practical steps can companies take to reduce GHG emissions in existing, older buildings?
TJ: There are a litany of innovations and technologies out there that go a long way in reducing the built environment’s GHG emissions. In the operational phase, facilities management companies can look at retrofitting, motion-sensors, LED lighting, heat recovery on HVAC systems, trigeneration, and then of course you have changes in behaviour – there’s no shortage of tactics. It’s important to note that the size of the commercial real estate sector in Australia is 25 million square metres, and BGIS manages 37 million square metres globally. Essentially, BGIS’ footprint is as large as Australia’s commercial property sector and so it’s incumbent upon us to really look at ways we can push the needle towards net zero.
All that said, one of the key things for me is visibility. A lot of buildings have information and building-management systems, but often they’re not visible to building occupants or guests. If we want to encourage people to really think about their day-to-day practices and change behaviour, we need to make visible performance indicators such as CO2, energy generation and water use – it’s important for benchmarking and to demonstrate how you’re tracking, and it could be as simple as a visual display in the lobby area. In essence, humans are very evidence-based creatures and seeing is believing. Offering up that real-time data can be the visual impetus that encourages behavioural change.
Q. What do you think is required to dramatically change the way buildings are designed, built, used and deconstructed, i.e. policy, incentive, education?
TJ: You’ll probably be unsurprised, but it’s a combination. However, if I had to pick one, I’d say education and knowledge is the main driver. 44 per cent of waste in Australia comes from the building and demolition sector, which equates to about 27 million tonnes. Sometimes, hearing and seeing those statistics can also bring home the enormity and urgency of the issue. I feel strongly that this too is part of the education piece, and information provision in building settings as we discussed before is a huge part of raising awareness and changing behaviour.
There are so many innovative building materials that are already available, so the first aspect of the education piece is making these more well known to everyone in the sector – polymer and magnesium-based concrete, engineered wood for timber buildings, sustainable gyprock, industrial hemp, earth wool insulation, K-Briqs made from compacted construction waste, recycled aggregate, and in the near future green steel, to name just a few. On the operational side, technologies abound that are focused on the efficient use of energy and resources, water preservation, improved occupational health, and reducing pollution and wastage. It’s a question really of getting people to understand the benefits of these sustainable approaches and then adopting them, which again comes down to knowledge and understanding. Finally, being aware of the sustainable options available raises clients’ expectations as to how the built environment sector should perform, and ultimately translates into pressure on governments to improve legislation and standards.
Q. Is there any one issue that you feel is holding us back from accelerating our response to climate change?
TJ: The myths being perpetuated – that climate change isn’t real, that your contribution isn’t significant enough to justify meaningful action or that the sustainable options available are either too costly or have benefits that are too intangible – all probably come from a lack of understanding as to where things are currently at. So again, I’d say knowledge and education are the biggest keys to unlocking action on climate change. But the good thing for the commercial property sector is that some of the best-in-class in Australia are doing great things. As a sector, we’re a big player and therefore we have a real opportunity to make a significant difference.
Q. Australia’s population is expected to grow to an estimated 31 million in 2030, meaning even more buildings will be needed. Is this kind of exponential growth going to hinder the march towards net zero?
TJ: That’s a very good question. Australia has 0.3 per cent of the global population currently but we have 1.3 per cent of the carbon footprint, and if you include fossil fuel exports it goes up to between 3 and 4 per cent. So, we already punch way above our weight and we need to be mindful about our environmental carrying capacity – especially considering we are the most climate-exposed developed country in the world. In practical terms, if Australia is going to continue to do things the way they’ve been done traditionally, then large-scale population growth isn’t really sustainable. We need decide how we can reduce our environmental footprint while still retaining the great quality of life for which this country is renowned. Fortunately, we know exactly how to do it, and for the built environment in particular it’s a question of getting that information out there to everyone in the sector around better building management practices, technologies and materials, and giving people the language to use when conveying the value to a third party – whether it’s talking to a building tenant, owner or operator.