As the world becomes increasingly focused on mitigating the effects of climate change, the commercial real estate (CRE) industry has a critical role to play in reducing carbon emissions. Commercial buildings alone account for 40% of global carbon emissions, according to the World Economic Forum. It’s no wonder the pressure is on for CRE owners and operators to plan, act, and manage operational efforts to improve the sustainability of their buildings.
Sustainability is no longer something the CRE industry can ignore, especially as global governments continue to introduce new sustainability mandates. For instance, several U.S. cities – such as New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. – have implemented sustainability ordinances specifically for CRE buildings. Failure to meet new regulations could be costly for building owners as fees are imposed. And with many sustainability deadlines coming due over the next few years, the race to net zero is on.
Take, for instance, the Race to Zero campaign from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The campaign challenges companies to cut their global emissions in half by 2030. The Race to Zero campaign focuses on ensuring that all sectors of the global economy are represented in the path to net zero.
Additionally, the World Green Building Council has set up the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, which is a call to action for the real estate sector to join the race to decarbonization by committing to reducing energy consumption and eliminating emissions. It also challenges new developments and major renovations to be highly efficient, powered by renewables, with a maximum reduction in embodied carbon and compensation of all residual upfront emissions.
Path to net zero is a top priority for CRE
A recent survey asked CRE professionals what their top sustainability goals are for 2023. While energy efficiency for expense reduction topped the list, researchers noted that the “path to net zero/carbon neutrality” made its way onto the priority list this year. Additionally, ESG reporting has made its way to the list – likely due to new rules from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that require registrants to include certain climate-related disclosures in their registration statements and reports.
The problem is that the post-pandemic world has brought many other priorities to the forefront for CRE property teams. Not only must CRE owners and operators do more with fewer teams amid a labor shortage, but other current events have thrown the industry into further uncertainty.
However, there are some key things CRE owners and operators can do to get their buildings on the right path to net zero.
10 ways to plan your path to net zero
Commercial real estate owners and operators need to have the following things in place to get their buildings on the right path to net zero:
1. Conduct an energy audit
The first step in achieving decarbonization in buildings is to understand your current energy usage. Conduct a baseline energy audit to find areas of inefficiency and opportunities for improvement so you can reduce consumption and reach savings.
In addition to an energy audit, consider conducting a water audit to look for opportunities for conservation. This will be an important step if you’re also striving to reach net zero water building status.
2. Implement energy conservation measures
Once you have identified areas you can save energy, make conservation changes. Implement energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems. For instance, consider switching to LED lighting. LEDs use up to 90% less energy and last up to 25 times longer than incandescent lights, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Then, monitor and manage energy consumption.
And if you’re working to be a net zero water building, the same rule applies. Find opportunities to integrate water-saving fixtures and technologies to reduce and manage water use.
3. Use renewable energy
Consider implementing on-site renewable energy systems, such as solar or wind power. This can help you offset energy consumption and reduce your carbon footprint.
Or you could consider purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECs). RECs can eventually be sold for profit to those looking to offset their carbon emissions.
4. Utilize building automation and energy management systems
Building automation systems can optimize HVAC, lighting, and other systems. You can integrate an energy management system to monitor and control energy consumption in real time. Implementing such systems can help you to improve energy efficiency, reduce costs, enhance tenant comfort, reduce maintenance costs, and make data-driven decisions about your buildings.
5. Optimize HVAC with artificial intelligence
An AI-powered platform that optimizes the HVAC system and makes micro-adjustments in response to real-time conditions can significantly reduce total energy consumption. To save on costs, look for a tool that integrates into your existing building automation system so that new capital equipment costs are required.
6. Improve the building envelope
Also known as the building shell, this is the physical barrier that separates the interior and exterior environments. A properly constructed building envelope can help minimize heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer, putting less pressure on HVAC systems and lowering energy costs.
7. Monitor indoor air quality
Clean air makes for a healthy HVAC system. Poor indoor air quality clogs filters faster. Plus, it can negatively affect tenant comfort. By measuring indoor air quality and temperature and combining that with utilization data, you can ensure optimal HVAC operations while keeping tenants comfortable. When tenants are comfortable, they won’t adjust the thermostat (and crank up energy costs) unnecessarily.
8. Engage your tenants
Communicate with your tenants about your sustainability initiatives and best practices. Provide education and resources on how tenants can reduce energy consumption. Encourage them to turn off lights and electronics when not in use.
9. Integrate occupancy sensors
Sensors can detect when spaces are empty or occupied. They can also detect whether a space is being used actively or passively and offer data-driven ways to cut your energy spend. Occupancy data can be used to automate air temperature and lighting to align with occupancy and utilization patterns. This information can be used to adjust water heater/boiler operations. After all, there’s no need for hot water when no one’s on a given floor or in the building at all.
10. Set goals and measure progress
Implementing sustainability best practices should never be approached with “set it and forget it.” You should set goals for reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions. Then, you need to measure and track your progress against these goals. Having this part of the strategy in place can help you stay on track and continuously improve building performance over time.
Achieving net-zero buildings is no longer a choice but a necessity for the commercial real estate industry to reduce carbon emissions and achieve sustainability goals. As more cities and states implement sustainability mandates, building owners and operators need to plan, act, and manage to ensure their buildings align with a sustainable future.
The path to net zero doesn’t automatically spell “expensive.” In fact, there’s a very real return on investment for sustainability initiatives. For one, HVAC optimization offers far more savings and operational leverage than just reducing your building’s utility bill. Learn more in the on-demand webinar, “ROI of HVAC Optimization.”