At the height of the Covid pandemic in the spring, wonderful images were shared of clear skies in cities like Mumbai, Shanghai and Los Angeles, as lockdowns improved air quality. They showed what is possible.
As the skies cleared, carbon emissions also fell. According to a recent United in Science report, backed by the UN and other global organisations, lockdowns had a significant and immediate impact on carbon emissions, with daily levels in April 2020 falling by 17%, compared with 2019.
Amid the gloom of the pandemic, there was some optimism that the terrible wreckage wrought by Covid-19 would help us all rethink our relationship with the planet, that Mother Nature had sent us all to our rooms to have a good long think and, as we re-emerged, there would be a renewed focus on tackling climate change.
Sadly, the same United in Science report finds that as lockdowns lifted, emissions not only rose but the reduction during the lockdowns were largely immaterial to the planet’s overall health.
Climate change continues unabated, irreversible impacts increase and the climate emergency remains more urgent than ever.
It is now well established that the built environment is a large contributor to carbon emissions and as Property Week’s excellent Climate Crisis Challenge campaign continues to highlight, we must all do more. At FORE, we’ve committed to becoming net zero carbon by 2025, five years ahead of the World Green Building Council’s target.
But here I want to talk about another, less discussed element of the climate challenge – the impact it has on social systems.
Protecting the vulnerable
There is now a focus on “climate justice”, as we consider the disproportionate impact of our actions in the developed world on communities around the globe that are more vulnerable. The impacts of climate change are not equally (or fairly) distributed. Framing the discussion in this way is another strong motivator for swift action.
Equally, we must not lose sight of the social impact of the transition to a low-carbon-economy closer to home. Changing business models and disrupting our urban systems can negatively impact some lives as much as it can help others, often hitting those already at risk hardest.
As part of our mission to deliver a zero-carbon future, we believe real estate must focus on supporting a just transition and we need to do as much as possible to ensure people and communities are not left behind.
What might that look like?
Firstly, we must consider how, in the transition to a low-carbon economy, jobs will be lost as well as created, wealth will be lost for some as it is generated for others, and absent skills may never be acquired by those for whom they are beyond reach. Across the industry, we must look at ways to employ, train and upskill the local workforce in low-carbon building design and construction.
We must re-look at how we procure goods and services up and down the supply chain, committing to work with suppliers that have detailed commitments on training, apprenticeships and programmes aligned with these values.
Working with communities
As an industry we should work with social enterprises to support systemic change in communities to help them adapt to a new economy and new climate.
For example, at FORE we are offering ‘urban village halls’ in our buildings – free space for local community groups, charities, social enterprises and other organisations to support their activities that we will co-curate with them and our tenants.
There is also much the property industry can do to enhance city and local community resilience, especially in terms of physical and mental health, food systems, and education. What role can real estate play within urban systems to strengthen the people and places in which we operate?
We must find ways to support start-ups focused on ‘clean proptech,’ a defining trait of real estate’s zero-carbon future.
This could involve carving out capital to support start-ups where appropriate and co-creating, where possible.
While at times 2020 has been a cause for despair, we must remember the power of collective action. Rather than getting trapped in a vortex of doom and gloom, I prefer to recall those images of clear spring skies, remembering that a better, healthier and more socially just world is possible. But we will all have to fight for it.
Basil Demeroutis is managing partner of FORE Partnership