As part of the Climate Crisis Challenge, Property Week and collaborating partner UKGBC have been calling on the property industry to sign up to the WorldGBC Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment.

Liz Hamson leader

Liz Hamson

Claudine Blamey

Claudine Blamey

Meanwhile, the government has amplified its Race to Net Zero campaign ahead of COP26 this November in Glasgow, as it tries to drive engagement at a corporate level.

But what do we really mean by ‘net zero’? In an interview with Claudine Blamey, head of sustainability and digital strategy at lead Climate Crisis Challenge partner Argent, we ask whether the term is fit for purpose. And, if not, how do we make it fit for purpose?

Liz Hamson: There seem to be multiple definitions of net zero, and they seem to be shifting all the time. Talk us through some of the definitions you have come across and what you make of them.

Claudine Blamey: It’s probably safe to say that we are still in the early days of the journey towards both the more interim 2030 net zero targets and the 2050 targets.

A lot of effort is being directed at providing solid foundations to develop net zero strategies and pathways. And that’s fantastic. But there are a myriad of frameworks. And it’s messy and confusing. Numerous organisations are providing lots and lots of different definitions and frameworks.

For example, there’s the WorldGBC, national GBC councils, the London Energy Transformation Initiative, the International Living Future Institute, the UN’s Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, Science Based Targets, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change – and that’s not all of them. That’s just a few.

Watch the video conversation in full below:

Also, the majority of these frameworks, despite the significant effort that is going into developing them, do not always encompass everything. Operational carbon, embodied and carbon offsetting are all a part of a net zero carbon story.

At Argent, we are finding it quite difficult to understand which standard to go with, which framework to go with and which one’s going to be the most robust, because that’s what we really want to get into. We really want to make a difference. We really want to reduce our carbon. But it’s very confusing.

LH: So you’d like to see some sort of standardisation?

CB: Definitely. I think it needs to be an agreed standard for our sector in particular. This needs to happen at world level, which is where COP26 becomes really important, and then country levels as well.

LH: Do you think it’s possible to come up with a standard that’s going to work across the globe?

CB: It’s definitely possible. We’ve seen these sorts of standards being developed for other things and other areas, so why not for climate change?

The closest we’ve got to this is the Science Based Targets, which are driving us towards what we really need, which is towards a warming of no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and the reductions needed to get that.

But we do definitely need a kind of a BREEAM certification that is accepted worldwide and is dated because thinking will change over time.

So when you’re following the particular standard, it might be the 2021 standard, and then things might change, which means you need to adopt the 2023 standard, and so on.

LH: With all these different standards currently out there, what does that actually mean for you at Argent?

What impact is it having on you on a day-to-day basis as you’re trying to adapt your strategy accordingly ahead of COP26?

CB: We follow the UKGBC framework for net zero carbon. This framework is understandably evolving, which means we need to be agile with our approach to be able to make changes. That doesn’t just impact Argent; it impacts the whole supply chain.

We really want to make a difference. We want to reduce our carbon. But it’s very confusing

When you’re developing a new building, the majority of the carbon is the embodied carbon. And the embodied carbon is something we don’t really have control over in the supply chain. It’s the people who deliver on producing and developing the materials.

That then becomes a chain reaction, and you have to communicate that when you have to change things and when you have to change your targets.

LH: What about the idea that we could decouple energy consumption from carbon emissions? Is that possible? Is that desirable? Should we be aspiring to that?

CB: In a world where we’ve got rid of all carbon, we’re still going to be aspiring to build buildings that are very energy efficient. That’s never going to go away. So it is very difficult to say: “We’re not going to focus on energy efficiency as such. We’re just going to get rid of carbon.”

LH: What are the priorities with existing stock from your point of view?

CB: With existing stock, it is very difficult to deal with the embodied carbon. So, in those cases, it is all about energy efficiency. There are some targets out there that we need to get to in order to be net zero carbon by 2050.

argent cs

The government should start thinking about how to incentivise that to happen because it’s a very costly exercise for a lot of existing buildings. Having said that, the finance sector is really starting to focus on net zero carbon buildings.

For funds to be net zero carbon, their assets have to be net zero carbon. That’s going to really drive this forward now, which is great news. It’s what we’ve been hoping for, for a long, long time.

LH: What about offsetting? It is so often seen as a bit of a dirty word, isn’t it?

CB: Yeah, I think so. It’s definitely not a default position, but it has a place in the net zero carbon journey.

You’ve got to reduce your emissions in the first instance. You’ve got to have renewables to do that. And then the little bit that you can’t do anything else about, that I think can be offset. There are fantastic offsetting projects that really need some financing to get off the ground. To bring the carbon emissions down in those parts of the world, it’s a fantastic thing to do.

LH: Do you do fear also an element of greenwashing creeping into the sector?

CB: I wouldn’t say that. Some of the pledges that we’ve seen come from our sector are all pretty robust. Everyone’s really trying hard, but I just think it would be fantastic if we did all get together and agree a standard.

I know the UKGBC is working towards developing a standard, which is fantastic. But what we don’t know is: how does that marry up with something that might happen globally? The WorldGBC has a framework, but that’s not a standard. That’s a framework that you can follow or not follow.

LH: How optimistic are you that we will achieve the Paris Agreement goal of warming no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels?

CB: I don’t think we’ve got a choice. We really do need to achieve that goal. Maybe it starts with the UKGBC standard, but I think that we also need to lobby to get this adopted worldwide.

It may be that the investors might push us to do that, or the investors might come up with a standard that they need the whole sector to follow. But I do think it just does need to happen. And there isn’t really a choice.