An ambitious global target could see buildings reach a net zero emissions standard by the year 2050, but is this goal realistic?

This is a question being asked throughout the property and construction industry, and the short answer is ‘yes’ – but we have a lot of work to do to get there.

As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Australia made a firm commitment to limit global temperature rises to less than two degrees Celsius, and to strive towards global temperature rises of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s Australian Energy Technology Assessment (2013) predicts that electricity generation in Australia will grow 30 per cent by 2050, and 80 per cent of this growth will come from non-renewable sources.

This demand is in line with global consumption patterns. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook says that global demand for electricity will grow by 70 per cent between 2015 and 2040.

In Australia, around a third of our greenhouse gases are produced by electricity generation because about 70 per cent of our electricity comes from coal.

As debate rages about whether renewables are causing blackouts, or whether closing coal-fired power stations risks jobs and economic growth, it’s easy to forget that energy efficiency is a mix of supply and demand.

So, while we need to shift to low-carbon energy sources, we also need to look at how to reduce our demand for energy. As 23 per cent of Australia’s emissions footprint comes from our buildings, our industry has a huge role to play in meeting our climate obligations.

This is why the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) is developing a ‘Carbon Positive Roadmap’ to help the property and construction industry achieve net zero emissions.

In March, the GBCA launched a discussion paper to explore how we can work independently as businesses and collectively as an industry to hit net zero in the built environment by 2030.

But doesn’t the Paris Agreement specify net zero by 2050, not by 2030?

Working to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius target means all new buildings must be net zero emissions by 2030, and all existing buildings must be net zero emissions by 2050.

The GBCA has identified four priorities: promoting energy efficiency through passive design and efficient systems; driving investment in resilient, renewable energy infrastructure; increasing markets for net zero carbon products, materials and services; and promoting offsets for remaining emissions.

This approach will be a cost-effective pathway for buildings and portfolios, and will also achieve other positive outcomes for Australia. Among these are efficient, comfortable and healthy buildings, a thriving renewable energy industry and greater energy security, employment in emerging sectors, and enhanced biodiversity.

Some of the industry’s biggest companies are supporting the GBCA’s approach.

Lendlease ranked third globally of the 759 international companies surveyed in the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB) in 2016. Lendlease’s group head of sustainability, Geoff Dutaillis, says large-scale climate positive developments like Barangaroo South in Sydney and Elephant & Castle in London are already demonstrating how the built environment can play a leading role in delivering real action on climate change. He thinks a Carbon Positive Roadmap will enable us to “unlock the value of buildings” in a zero-carbon world.

Stockland, which has more Green Star – Communities ratings than any other developer, says the GBCA’s approach will provide a “clear pathways to carbon neutrality and create new value for building owners, occupants and the broader community.”

AMP Capital, which has just embarked on a bold mission to make its Wholesale Office Fund carbon neutral by 2030, says the roadmap will provide industry clarity around the different options for achieving carbon neutrality.

AMP’s head of sustainability Chris Nunn says the key is finding balance between ongoing cost savings associated with energy efficiency and investing in economically-feasible renewable energy solutions to maximise value for investors and customers.

And Frasers Property Australia, which last year secured the industry’s first ever Green Star portfolio rating for commercial and industrial properties, says the GBCA is “in a position to gain consensus on industry action.”

And that’s what the GBCA intends to do. Because while this discussion paper puts forward big ideas, feedback and support from industry is mission critical. It is only by working together that we will achieve a carbon positive future.

The megatrends all point in one direction. The World Economic Forum continues to rate failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation to be number one of 29 global economic risk. WEF considers climate change a greater risk than weapons of mass destruction, water crises or large-scale involuntary migration.

This resonates with shareholders and investors who are concerned about the resilience of their assets in the face of extreme weather, their desire to ‘keep the lights on’ and manage their risk of being left with stranded assets as a result of climate change.