The property industry can’t afford not to adapt to climate change

Extinction Rebellion in London. Image: Getty.

From the school strikes for climate, to Extinction Rebellion protests and calls for a Green New Deal, citizens around the world are putting pressure on their governments to prevent global warming more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

In the UK, these efforts have met with some success – the government has declared a “climate emergency” and promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Even so, scepticism persists in some quarters: former chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, has argued that the UK government’s goal may be unaffordable, based on estimates that the transition to a zero-carbon economy could cost up to £1trn.

Of course, there is likely to be significant public money spent on renewable energy transition and carbon offsetting. The costs of assets made obsolete by climate change policy – such as unexploited fossil fuel reserves – is also potentially huge.

But the problem with perspectives like Hammond’s is that they don’t balance the cost of acting now against the cost of doing nothing. In the UK and around the world, people live and work in buildings that are typically powered, heated and cooled using energy from fossil fuels. If these buildings are not retrofitted with energy efficiency measures, there is a real risk they will be rendered obsolete by policies aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.

A valuable asset

Research at Northumbria University has examined this situation in relation to international real estate. The global value of real estate is estimated at $217trn – that’s roughly 2.7 times the GDP of the entire world. Of this, $162trn worth is residential, $29trn worth is commercial and $26ttrn worth is agricultural land.

A conservative estimate is that global real estate consumes 40 per cent of global energy annually and accounts for more than 20 per cent of international carbon emissions. So it’s hardly surprising that international agencies have identified real estate and the built environment as key contributors toward global warming and a major target of international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the most comprehensive approaches to reducing building energy use can be seen in the European Union (EU). A 2010 directive on energy performance made it mandatory for all European properties to hold an energy performance certificate and monitor energy use from heating and air conditioning. The government of England and Wales has used these energy performance certificates to enforce minimum standards of energy efficiency for privately rented family homes and commercial properties.

Since April 2018, any commercial property with an energy performance rating below E (that is, those properties with F and G ratings) has been deemed illegal to let (although there are some exemptions related to maximum cost of improvements). By 2020, the plan is for these same rules to apply to residential property – which includes shared homes, nursing and care homes and blocks of flats.


A less daunting prospect

In England and Wales, it is estimated that 10 per cent of residential property stock (worth £570bn) and 18 per cent of commercial stock (worth £157bn) does not meet these minimum standards. If these properties are not retrofitted to become more energy efficient, they will become obsolete and lose value, since the owners will no longer be allowed to let them.

Put this way, the cost of achieving an energy transition is less daunting, because the cost of not acting is equally (if not more) expensive. It’s even reasonable to expect benefits to the economy from the growing building retrofit industry.

If all international governments adopted similar minimum energy efficiency standards as the UK – and assuming the same proportions of property stock are potentially obsolete – the risk value for residential real estate property assets can be estimated at $16trn and $5trn for global commercial assets (based on their global vale, mentioned earlier).

A timely riposte

The potential cost of not acting in the real estate sector should provide a catalyst for the transition to more energy efficient buildings. It should also provide a riposte to those who worry about the cost of transitioning to net zero emissions. Indeed, there’s a clear need for investors and property owners to move beyond green-washing and reduce the carbon emissions of real estate before costly regulation and enforcement sets in.

Ignoring climate change exposes real estate assets to the risk of permanent disruption – especially now that the potential impacts of global warming are being widely acknowledged. Clean technology is becoming more affordable and consumers are adopting principles of environmental sustainability. Indeed, it’s already becoming more common for investment managers and financiers to demand that companies disclose business model exposure to climate change, while investors are starting to take advantage of exposed assets.

It makes sense for property owners to plan for the introduction of powerful new climate-related policies in the coming years. Adapting existing buildings and constructing new developments that are not reliant on fossil fuels – though perhaps costlier in the short term – can create a more resilient, and therefore valuable, asset in the longer term.

Kevin Muldoon-Smith, Lecturer in Real Estate Economics and Property Development, Northumbria University, Newcastle and Paul Michael Greenhalgh, Professor of Real Estate and Regeneration, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.