What on earth have we done ?!
It’s a big question. One we’re probably not comfortable with – either the question or the answer. But if we’re going to address and arrest a snowballing catastrophe, surely we have to own it.
Throughout the pandemic we’ve been told, in most countries at least, to follow the science. The science now says in stark terms we’re in serious trouble, and it’s all our fault. The climate crisis and the covid crisis are not separate, they’re twinned.
Along with the direct threat posed by global heating we’ve become familiar with, the incremental changes to our climate are progressively impacting habitability for billions of species – including ourselves – and bringing collaterally uprooted wildlife, whose infinitely stronger immune systems comfortably host an array of destructive viruses our own immune systems, depleted through the protections of civilisation, into closer and closer contact with us in search of sustenance. A perfect storm.
The crisis is snowballing. It can no longer be brushed off as some “imagined”, far away concept that “may or may not be” affecting the habitat and habitability of some other species on some distant continent elsewhere that can be debated, ignoring the science and buying time for a few more basis points on the balance sheet. It’s now right here, literally in – or, on – our faces.
We now have to wear a mask to do our shopping, or go to the doctor, or go to the office – if we’re allowed to, or want to – among other systemic changes to our lifestyles, as a result of these rising dangers, and it’s not going away any time soon. Family members are dying. And all the statistical indications are that this is not an isolated and temporary misfortune, but a pervasive and progressive megatrend, or rather an ubertrend.
The big question is, in dealing with this, at what point does money start mattering less, not more?
This doesn’t just apply to business but to governments as well, who are also caught in the stranglehold between holding on to a standard of living, and doing the right thing – which we’ve seen live and in slow motion during the covid crisis.
Well, the standard of living we’re hanging onto is now in a tailspin. What do we do?
Joining the dots
Let’s say it out loud. The rising operational and existential challenges we’re facing today are the direct result of the continual, systematic, spiralling destruction of the natural environment and biosphere, overwhelmingly brought about by exponential human population growth coupled with (swallow hard), socio-economic expansionism – the uncompromising pursuit of wealth and ‘improved quality of life’ at any cost.
Issues like racism, sexism, socio-economic inequality and LGBTQ prejudice are not separate stories, they’re part of the same story: social inclusion and exclusion as a model, a modus operandi, built up over centuries, in fact millennia, with the the purpose of conscious or subconscious harmonisation of the workforce in the service of capital interest. In a nutshell, the “money matters more” social control model.
And at the centre of it, the slow then increasingly rapid, economic principle of “marginal efficiency gains”, a.k.a the battery farming of everything, which we all bow to today and have in fact been progressively bowing to for the past 6-8,000 years at the outset of the agricultural revolution – and, arguably not uncoincidentally, organised religion – since the emergence of homo sapiens from a foraging species living wild to an agricultural species accumulating around farms. Has progressively used (or more accurately, abused) the environment, other species and each other for capital gain and feasted on over-population. And which today sees algorithmic trading of stocks of companies leading this rampage blind to the social and environmental consequences. Eg: bottles of sticky, fizzy black liquid as opposed to naturally sourced water from the local waterfall in a collected in a wooden bucket. Unarguably, the population explosion used to justify this myth has itself been driven by these “fairytales of eternal economic growth”.
Unless the science is radically wrong, or some far-fetched deep state conspiracy is at work, it is this that has done the damage that is now driving us and trillions of innocent species very close to an existential precipice, if it hasn’t already. Partly through inherent, arguably genetic, self-serving greed on the one side, and to support humanity’s ever-rising standards of comfort and convenience on the other, symbiotically. And on top of that we have built an infrastructure of social order control (police, judiciary, military, religion, etc) that has designed and reinforced the preferred social order for that principle to thrive, including social inequality and injustice, which is exacerbating the problem and ensuing collateral damage.
How self-interested is that?
And here’s the truth. If we don’t do something akin to a high-speed hand break turn on the way we operate in business and in life, indeed the entire mindset that has produced this matrix of self-serving self-destruction, this humankind supercar we’ve been building over thousands of years will sooner or later career headlong into a brick wall with no survivors, probably sooner rather than later.
Or, to take the Wright Brothers analogy one step further, unless we can figure out a way of flying over the wall (to the meadow of sweet grass on the other side? *), we’re done for.
But has the covid pandemic has starkly illustrated in the balancing act between controlling the virus and controlling the economy, the business and the economy does ultimately come first. And yet business and the economy, has been the environmental axe murder-in-chief.
We were already raising the alarm in January, with the launch of our Aiming 4 NetZero campaign, as world-fires raged in Australia, an incident scientists had for decades predicted would be an indicator of a tipping point in the climate crisis as an existential concern. The campaign included the deep switch of our previous Green Leadership Awards to more in depth and demanding Climate Emergency Innovation Awards measuring and recognising real progress in net zero building and business, a world first, and a push for a net zero CEEQA Gala, another world first for a live, mass attendance event. That was BC, before Covid-19 lockdown.
The underlying logic of the campaign was that the real estate sector has the capacity – and needs – to do more, more quickly, to help turn things around; one is temped to say, doh! Be assured we’re still on this page. If anything, with even more energy and focus.
Statutory regulation has been increasing, but its hands are somewhat tied by the need to meet the challenge while, at the same time, ensuring it doesn’t involve dramatic depletion of the economy with serious social collateral consequences, a tightrope walk across a volcano. Shifting market opinion and progress from within, with brand-reputation at stake, is arguably equally important, but the same conundrum has applied.
Fast forward a mere few months and the game has got no easier, quite the reverse. And now we’re seeing historic wildfires in California and Australia swinging out of control. Where next?
And then the zillion dollar question, how do we hold on to this thing we call the economy, underpinning livelihoods, amid the now twin challenges of keeping people safe during the pandemic and transitioning to a net zero society and economy – when the economy is the very thing that has caused the mess in the first place?
That’s the challenge we have in front of us, like it or not. The game just got tougher, and we need to respond by thinking and acting bigger than waiting for a statutory shove in the back. Surely.
All this is not to say that no one has been paying attention to the challenge, or taking serious action.
We all know by now, as real estate industry professionals, that the built environment and construction are together a significant producer of carbon emissions, far greater overall than transport and fossil fuel consumption, for example, or industrial farming, with embedded carbon being the chief culprit and chief challenge. That’s one part of the puzzle, the other key areas are energy and water consumption, waste and production, and environmental and biosphere encroachment.
We also know that over the past 10-12 years there has been incremental and, by most measures, very significant progress in sustainable building and business. Sustainability certification of a building isn’t an optional extra if it’s to have any market value, that’s a massive shift from even 2010. We’re now at the point where if it isn’t LEED Platinum or BREEAM Excellent it’s a lagger. And sooner than some are prepared to think, if it isn’t Net Zero it’s a stinker.
And we’re still in the foothills of this revolution.
Progressively levering open the business case for doing the right thing, but within the limitations imposed by bottom line performance as the only measure value. In the past four or five years since the UN Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 we’ve seen what has felt like an acceleration in consciousness and action with advances in Government regulation, at national and international level, as well as rising pressure in the boardroom of major corporates driven by shareholders, driven in turn by shifting demands from institutional investment with an eye on long term risk profile.
There has undoubtedly been a step change in consciousness and action over the past cruel ten months trigged by climate catastrophe consciousness and covid, governmental to corporate, from subsidy steering within an ESG framework to individual personal responsibility and action. In some countries and industries.
But at the same time we’ve seen steep increases in climate and sea temperatures, melting glaciers, wild fires and other signs we have reached, or maybe passed, a tipping point of recoverability. And now the covid pandemic.
Sure, since the beginning of 2020 there has been an even steeper curve of consciousness and action – deliberate and incidental – stimulated by the pandemic lockdowns, pushing it up the agenda of the news cycle. Almost every day there is some new sign all is not right with the biosphere and ecosystem, coupled with signs that the pandemic, via the lockdowns, has had a dramatic rewilding impact in many areas as a result of reduced human movement and emissions reduction. And at the end of this spectrum of change we’ve been seeing more and more government and corporate announcements demonstrating rising global traction of the issue, notably ESG investing, despite inevitable pushback from some money-matters-more quarters. So much so that two deeply transformative announcements from the UK in recent weeks have gone almost under the radar, by the Ministry of Agriculture that farm subsidies will in future be linked to sustainability performance and, closer to home for real estate operators, the world-first announcement of the H100 Fife pilot to bring 100% renewable hydrogen into homes in 2022, providing zero-carbon fuel for heating and cooking.
What? Back in January 2020 such precipitous consciousness and action seemed unthinkable.
But is it enough, quickly enough?
What on earth are we going to do ?!
The short answer is, right now we don’t know if it’s enough, quickly enough. But what we can surmise is that setting an example probably isn’t enough of a driver to pull the laggers into line, a sharper stick is needed.
The laggers can roughly be divided into three groups: the heel draggers (probably the largest group, seeing the problem but resisting change for the sake of a few more basis points on the balance sheet); the heel digger-inners (wilfully and/or ideologically, or simply intellectually, in denial of the problem, therefore rejecting the need for change); and the rising but probably smallest group, willing to be the change and lead the change, and to make it work.
The third group are caught between the same rock and a hard place, serving a market that is deeply resistant to change because its modus operandi has been comfort and convenience since the advent of the agricultural revolution, and has become so ingrained and inculcated we cannot see otherwise.
But they are aggressively hunting and driving for solutions, not because they are tree-huggers. They will tell you and show you, with rising supporting evidence, that investment in circular sustainable solutions today can be made profitable, even today. They are the Wilbur and Orville Wrights of the environmental challenge.
We all need to be aiming to be Wilbur and Orville Wrights, or it’s probably game, set and match. And the evidence is there that we can, and we can make it work for the bottom line, but only with a dramatic shift in sense and sensibility that moves beyond bottom line-led building and business.
Pariah or paragon?
It’s on our hands.
But more than that, the real estate sector has a clear choice opportunity to lead the change.
But only by fully understanding the problem and the challenges it has created, embracing, them, and marching to a very different tune into the battleground of the climate emergency, social inequality and outmoded prejudices and divisions, can we all pull together and adjust together in time to arrest and correct our current course, turning disaster to far-future advantage and fly over the wall. Or we hit the wall and burn.
The choice is ours, and it is a scientifically hinged choice. Even for the money-means-more brigade, there is a way out of this matrix. Or we risk wearing our masks to the grave, literally.
Next steps: CEEQA 20/21/22
Update: Deferred date now set for ‘three in one’ 20/21/22 CEEQA Gala – 18 May 2022.
With all provisions and arrangements successfully transferred a new date for the 2020 CEEQA Gala is now set for 2022, for the full story read here
We’ve got this, if we all pull together the good times will come again.
Richard Hallward, founder and CEO
* Ref: The Three Billygoats Gruff (Anon.)