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.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

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