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The Hypocrisy of Real Estate’s Decarbonization Movement

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Stop me if you have heard this before: “The building and construction sectors account for nearly 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.” This line became so overused (and under-fact-checked) that I started prohibiting our writers from using it. The source usually cited for this number is a report by the U.N.’s Global Alliance for Building and Construction. Now, I am not going to argue with the validity of this number but what I take issue with is the way that it is reported. Yes, our buildings are large consumers of electricity but here is the thing, they have to be. We all need places to live, work, and play and no amount of shaming or hand wringing will change that. We can certainly make buildings more efficient but even if we do buildings will still likely still be on the top of the list. After all, buildings don’t consume energy, the people inside of them do.

Another problem is that this number lumps in building construction with building operations, which in my mind are different things. Most of the press about decarbonization in buildings revolves around new buildings designed to be more efficient rather than old buildings, which is most buildings. Putting a new, energy efficient building up against an existing, inefficient one ignores the bigger picture. An enormous amount of carbon already went into building a building and even more will likely be used to tear it down and build another. The greenest building is the one that is already built. 

The industry is starting to wrap its head around the idea of “embodied carbon,” in other words carbon that was already emitted to build an existing structure. But currently, there is no standard in the way we report this type of emission. Even if there was, it would likely be flawed. In order to understand how much carbon each building creates you have to know where every bit of its construction materials came from, something that is almost impossible to know given the complicated spider web of global shipments that our current supply chain has turned into. As much as a newly constructed office tower can help save electricity, its construction might create more carbon than it saves.

The other thing that I find disingenuous about blanket statements like “buildings produce 40 percent of our carbon emissions” is the way that they ignore the huge regional differences in electrical generation. A building in Iceland, which has almost 100 percent renewable energy, should not be put on the same level as one in the U.S., where nearly 60 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels. A building in Washington, which gets around 84 percent of their energy from renewable sources, is not the same as one in Delaware, that only has about five percent renewable. This means that comparing a building’s energy use, which could be green or not, to the carbon that is needed to build it, which is not green no matter how you look at it, isn’t really apples to apples.

I realize that the same embodied carbon argument also applies to renewable power sources. Sure, solar panels generate energy without CO2 but how much CO2 was emitted producing, installing, and maintaining them? Either way, though, I think we can easily make the case that the carbon emissions from producing renewable energy generation plants is worth it when you look at the life of these pieces of infrastructure. The same can not be said from building a new building in an area that is run on mostly renewable energy.

If we really want to look at emissions in a holistic way we should focus more on ways that we can cut discretionary emissions. According to the EPA the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is still transportation.

That means that denser cities with more public transit would actually be one of the best ways to quickly reduce our carbon footprint. It also means that flying around the world to conferences to talk about decarbonization might not be the best solution either (one transatlantic flight produces as much carbon as some people do all year). 

I am all for decarbonizing our lives, our economies, and our built environment but before we blame buildings, or try to use technology as a silver bullet, we need to be more critical of what we need to focus these efforts on. Unfortunately that usually forces us to face uncomfortable truths about our own consumption. We can build all of the high-tech buildings that we want, but nothing will matter if we don’t limit our own consumption, especially on things that we don’t really need. 



For this week’s article, I came across this helpful website that has a visual guide to the electricity sources for each state. 

Writer’s room

This week we are looking at how the labor shortage is affecting commercial brokerages and what might be done to help alleviate it. If you or someone you know would be a good source for us to interview, please reach out.

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