Toward the end of an absorbing performance of the play Frank and Percy, Percy (played by Ian McKellen) admits to Frank (Roger Allam) he is being shunned by his academic peers for daring to suggest fighting climate change is hopeless. Frank, newly widowed, and Percy, newly single, edge into a relationship, spoilt when Frank reads Percy’s new book, arguing you might as well pour a bucket of water into a volcano.
Percy has a point. The International Energy Agency says there will be a 15% rise in global floorspace by 2030: equivalent to the entire built floor area of North America today. Its report shows residential floor area rising from 198bn sq m today to 227bn sq m by 2030 and 310bn sq m by 2050. Commercial space? Up from 54bn sq m to 64bn sq m by 2030, expanding to 83bn sq m by 2050. Yet, here we are, in little Britain, weighing retrofit against rebuild?
Not a question troubling Saudi Arabia. Two weeks ago, Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled his $1trn Vision 2030, a sketchy programme of 13 construction projects. Many are castles in the air, designed to let the burgeoning population dream. But the kingdom has a real need to build. A 1970s-size building boom is coming. The marketing drumbeat will be ‘sustainability’. But counting carbon will barely count, will it?
Here in Britain, however, we are counting every atom. I saved 980kg of carbon dioxide between June 2021 and last week, travelling 7,560 miles by train instead of car, say Southeastern trains. Last Friday I unwrapped a Magnum to discover a barcode link to the earth-saving virtues of the choc-ice. All a bit silly? Yes. Magnum-maker and Unilever boss Hien Schumacher admitted last week: “not every brand should have a social or environmental purpose”.
Real estate faces more substantive issues. Environmental, social, governance (ESG) has unaccountably melded into a single-purpose vehicle or, dare I say, bandwagon. One with three different barkers on board. Landsec’s ESG description serves well: Build Well, Live Well and Act Well. The former is a life-and-death issue, the latter pair are about creating a better life for employees. Carbon counting counts more.
That said, property has found heart and soul in embracing the Act Well and Live Well virtues. Great credit to the companies and agents in the vanguard, for they have transformed the moral climate in the sector and should be unreservedly applauded for doing so. The image of the cigar-chewing white male mogul in pinstripes has been mostly banished. But the dreaded spectre of global warming looms larger.
In 2006, I edited a report called ‘The green shift on climate change’. Government chief scientist Sir David King warned of a coming catastrophe. Then chancellor Gordon Brown called for global leadership. Environment secretary David Miliband called for a cross-party accord. In an essay titled ‘Taking meaningful action’, I blithely suggested “stop talking and get on with it”. The deadline for meaningful action 18 years ago was 2015.
Today, most actions taken by real estate actors are meaningful, as far as they can be, if you don’t believe Percy. Carbon emissions are counted almost religiously. It would be hard to find another sector that’s done more. But some actions are less meaningful than others. The ‘Magnum’ syndrome has brought too many meaningless actions. ‘We must specify responsibly sourced timber toilet-roll holders.’
But one carbon-counting decision falls into the category of self-harm. Think back to the amount of extra floorspace being built across the planet. What infinitesimal part of a degree cooler will the planet be in 2050 if new build becomes the last resort choice after refurbishment? Think of the carbon-counting squabbles that halted the redevelopment of M&S on Oxford Street and blighted many others.
The chilling effect goes wider. Architects who dare champion new build face the ducking stool. Developers who push for new build not refurb are scorned as grasping. There is more scope for profit in designing a new, bigger block, rather than being restricted by the existing skeleton. But the entire sector gets out of bed in the morning to make money. No point otherwise.
US financier JP Morgan famously said a man always had two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason. In real estate, the good reason is a genuinely good one; the real reason is money. Carbon counting is not just a good thing; it pays. No client wants to hear from the Percys of this world. But evangelistic fervour surrounding the topic has led to the shutting out of common sense or proportion.
Peter Bill is a journalist and the author of Planet Property and Broken Homes