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Everyone needed for net zero, property leaders stress

By Juliet Helmke
03 November 2021 | 15 minute read
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Since Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s unveiling of the net zero target last week, leaders in the property sector have inserted their voices into the carbon-neutral conversation – a discussion many felt they should have already been a larger part of.

In the days since the Australian government plan for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 was released, and with world leaders now gathered for COP26 events, many have been searching for material details about how Australia’s net zero aim would actually be achieved. 

“Buildings account for more than 50 per cent of electricity use in Australia and almost a quarter of emissions, so our industry will need to be a big part of the solution,” Ken Morrison, chief executive of the Property Council of Australia, said in a release last week outlining the council’s five recommendations to drive emissions reductions in the property sector. 

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They include further economic stimulus plans to incentivise building upgrades, government builds modelling high-performance standards, and equipping households with energy performance information to encourage individual action.

Peter Graham, director of the Global Buildings Performance Network and associate professor in Monash’s art, design and architecture department, echoed the need to examine building design and performance as a large part of the plan for cutting emissions.

“The building sector is a cornerstone of national economies, a major consumer of energy and source of GHG emissions. It must therefore become the foundation for sustainable development,” Mr Graham said.

Making a commitment to achieving zero emissions in the building sector is really the first fundamental step in driving demand for sustainable buildings because it demonstrates that governments and companies are no longer asking why we should change, but rather how to achieve our goals.”

The NSW government, for its part, is taking a step in that direction with its net zero initiative, which is currently working towards delivering a 50 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. It aims to accomplish this in part with a $4.8 million grant implementing carbon reduction projects in commercial buildings, with a view to rolling out to residential properties in the future.

But even for those who are perhaps less involved in the construction and running of buildings, but are heavily involved in their buying and selling, having a role in transacting property comes with an environmental impact that they feel they must step up and account for.

At REA Group, which made a commitment to achieving carbon neutrality for the business in 2020 and achieved certification from the Australian government’s Climate Active program in April of this year, understanding the industry footprint was the first step in taking action themselves.

“We recognise carbon emissions from the property sector, including the construction and operation of residential and commercial buildings, contribute to global carbon emissions, just as REA’s business operations do,” REA’s chief people officer Mary Lemonis said.

REA’s approach was to first introduce a climate change policy, followed by establishing a measure of the business’s carbon footprint, finally implementing ways to neutralise their emissions and committing to reviewing and tightening their targets annually.

“Beyond the positive environmental impact, we believe this certification sends a powerful message to our employees, customers, consumers and the community,” Ms Lemonis said.

At Queensland network Coronis, which kicked off its three-phase “go green” project in April of this year, some of their sustainability initiatives involve practices they are uniquely placed to facilitate from an agent and property manager perspective, while others focus simply on steps that any small business could take.

Recently, they’ve partnered with a solar company to make it easier for buyers and landlords to install a renewable energy source on their property. Beyond that, they’re tackling things like overhauling their wastage and procurement procedures so that they are only purchasing environmentally friendly products, conducting a marketing rebrand that has seen a switch to 100 per cent recycled material, and educating the company on power-saving measures such as simply turning off all electronics and lights at night.

Coronis COO Karuna Dimelow hopes to see more governmental action that would help the sector as a whole reduce its footprint, such as prioritising incentives for electric vehicles, pointing to how far Australia lags behind countries like Norway, which expects to have at least 50 per cent of its cars electrified by 2025.

“If Australia looked at introducing more incentives like that, and added more car battery charging stations, then that would go a long way in helping reduce our emissions, especially by the real estate industry when you consider how much time we all spend on the roads each day,” Ms Dimelow said.

At Tasmanian agency 4one4 Property Co., it was exactly that realisation that prompted them to make a carbon-neutral commitment early last month.

“When looking at the amount of cars we have on the road and the level of carbon our agency puts out, we made a team-wide decision to offset the carbon in an effort to help protect the planet for our children and grandchildren,” Patrick Berry, director of 4one4, said.

He cites the number of people with young families in their office as a driving force behind their decision.

According to Ms Dimelow, much of the industry’s consciousness-raising is coming from below.

“The next generation is entering the workforce now, and they want to see businesses being proactive about the environment and their carbon footprint. It’s at the point where it’s no longer a choice; you have to take a stance on it,” she said.

Mr Berry agreed. “It seems like older demographics just don’t seem to understand climate change and don’t believe offsetting will have any real impact.”

Though they both understand the effort it takes to change a business’s environmental outlook and the extra work that comes with navigating a way to do so, they each stress the importance of contributing to net zero in the real estate sector – and the fact that businesses can start small.

“There is a mentality out there of ‘I’m just a small business, what difference can I make’,” Ms Dimelow said. “But if every Australian business implemented the smallest of changes to their operations, it could add up to make a huge difference – even just their wastage solutions, water use or energy usage.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Juliet Helmke

Based in Sydney, Juliet Helmke has a broad range of reporting and editorial experience across the areas of business, technology, entertainment and the arts. She was formerly Senior Editor at The New York Observer.

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