As fast-growing cities exert greater environmental impact than ever, truly sustainable urban development depends on companies that do more than erase their carbon footprint.
From the emissions produced in construction to the eco-footprint accrued in the operations of the finished property, real estate has a major – and growing – impact on the natural world, with more buildings being built each year.
While sustainability-conscious businesses have long aimed to be carbon-neutral – in other words, to cancel out the emissions their operations produce by, say, investing in waste-processing or more efficient servers – a growing swathe of companies are adopting a more ambitious strategy, known as net-positive.
“Net-positive organisations recognize that it is not enough to seek to be ‘less bad’,” says Elisabeth Filkin, Associate Director in Upstream Sustainability Services at JLL. “In the absence of real and lasting government action, businesses increasingly have a moral imperative to adopt a restorative approach to put back more into society and the planet than they take out.”
The power of net-positive
Companies strive to be net-positive in particular areas – such as carbon emissions or water usage – where they work towards making their positive impacts will be greater than their negative impacts. Critically, they cannot “trade” impact across areas. For example, a savings in water usage can’t offset carbon emissions from travel.
For major real estate corporations including Mirvac, Berkeley Group and Majid Al Futtaim, net-positive initiatives focus not just on reducing carbon emissions and scaling back on water usage, but also on investments into socio-economic programs, local job creation, and skills training.
“Property companies are recognizing not just the importance of the net-positive approach, but also the brand, innovation and growth opportunities it presents,” Filkin says.
Developer Hammerson recently launched its strategy to achieve net-positive status for carbon use and resource use in all its properties by 2030. Its multi-phase plan includes milestones such as landlords implementing more efficient systems, and tenants reducing energy and water use.
“This is an enormous opportunity to address some of the huge social and environmental challenges we face,” Filkin says. “Landlords, developers, tenants, suppliers and advisers all have a role to play in supporting those that take on this significant challenge.”
For developers, the foundations of a successful, net-positive sustainability strategy lie in accurately defining each property’s electricity use, carbon use or water use; then setting short- and long-term goals for reducing negative impact and promoting positive impact – and as crucially, a robust system for tracking results.
Though net-positive strategies depend on reducing impact area by area, some developers are setting bigger goals.
In London, Lendlease has committed to a generally climate-positive build at its Elephant Park residential development. As well as designing more efficient operations for the finished property in order to reduce carbon emissions, the company created a zero-carbon heat and power system for the entire community and invested in behavioral change campaigns to further bring down energy and water use.
“In the long term, businesses must be a force for good,” Filkin says. On an increasingly urbanized planet, that means taking bold steps to protect the natural world within cities.