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A golden opportunity to achieve Net Zero – 3 areas of focus arising from COVID-19

It’s been a bad couple of months for scepticism. April/May 2020 will go down as the months when the whole world opened its mind: when remote working became the norm rather than the exception; when traffic jams were non-existent; when fossil fuels became dramatically devalued; when levels of NO2 in the atmosphere took a major dive; when businesses were forced to rethink their entire strategy.

In our last article, we focused on the impact the pandemic has had on humanity individually and collectively, and the delicate balancing act of taking positive action from a large-scale human tragedy. In this article, we’re looking ahead.

While controlling the pandemic and saving lives remains the top priority, it is nevertheless essential that we do pay attention to the pressing needs that dominated our debates before COVID-19 and have, if anything, been thrown into even sharper focus by the changes that have been forced upon us. Needs like arresting climate change.

This is the ideal time to be talking about climate change, because while it’s been tough for many and the aftershocks will continue to ripple throughout the world for some time to come, for the future of human civilisation, this pandemic has presented an incredible opportunity.

It takes a long time to effect the widespread attitudinal change necessary to tackle challenges like climate change. People are wary of disruption and, when given the choice, will tend to stick to what they know (and what the majority are doing). COVID-19 is changing all that – disrupting the way companies work whether they like it or not, forcing them to adopt new routines, new practices, new attitudes.

One of the outcomes will be an acceleration of the pace of change; for example, companies that had considered remote working will no longer be saying, “I’m not sure about that.” They now know they can make it work. The bigger opportunity is to apply the same “can do” attitude to Net Zero initiatives in the built environment, and use this enforced time out to come out clear-headed and punching harder in the fight against climate change.

Here are three areas of focus for building owners and Governments to consider as we prepare for the release from lockdown.

1. Change the perception of buildings

The closure of commercial buildings and the emphasis on remote working will have driven building owners to reconsider the value and purpose of their properties. “Do we need all this desk space any more?” The new situation needs new ideas and new attitudes.

The perception of buildings as single-use, standalone edifices needs to change. There is a tremendous opportunity for decarbonisation in the built environment by designing our buildings as hubs within the Internet of Things, key components in a wider network or energy and environmental monitoring systems.

We need to re-evaluate the efficiency of our building stock and develop new ideas for repurposing buildings, so they don’t just serve one purpose during the day and lie dormant at night, or vice versa, but remain functional and efficient 24/7. We need to press ahead with ideas like Buildings to Grid (B2G), whereby buildings become energy sources, not just energy consumers – part of a network of dynamic, flexible, intelligent components within a grid that is evolving away from coal and gas fired power stations and towards renewables and battery storage.

2. Develop new business models

Private enterprise can’t rely on taxpayers’ money to fund all the changes that need to be made. One solution is for companies to form partnerships with energy suppliers, to work together in developing the energy efficiency of their building portfolios and thus spreading the cost.

Enterprise, as well as Government, needs to heed the lessons of COVID-19 and see how it relates to climate change. The warnings about a global pandemic were clear and yet nothing was done to prepare for it. The warnings about climate change are just as stark. The question is, are we smart enough to take heed this time?

If you could have changed your strategy to prepare for COVID-19, what would you have done? Now apply that thinking to climate change and the drive towards Net Zero, before it’s too late. Efficiency is the key – and with efficiency comes cost saving. How can you change your business model to put Net Zero front and centre and reap the dual benefit?

3. Build resilience into the system

After the financial crash of 2008, Governments missed a major opportunity to effect a major shift towards sustainability by building up industries according to the old ways. Fossil fuels and heavy energy consumers were subsidised in an effort to get the global machine back up and running as it had been before. The result was a return to the bad old gas-guzzling ways.

Governments need to learn from this. They have been handed another opportunity to build environmental resilience into their recovery plans by accompanying any subsidies with caveats that promote a circular economy, investment in low-carbon technology and a commitment to climate action.

One example that has been frequently cited this past month is the airlines. Hit hard by travel restrictions, they will need Government support. But what can they offer in return? A commitment to reduce flights? To develop clean engines and alternative fuels? To become carbon neutral or negative? These are the questions Governments should be demanding of all industries before they hand out any financial incentives.

It may even be time to shed some businesses in favour of promoting more future-proof enterprises, by channeling funding into businesses that are pioneering sustainability, rather than those whose practices are rooted in the Industrial Revolution.

The global pandemic has forced companies and law makers the world over to re-evaluate their whole strategy, open their minds, embrace new thinking and look at ways of building long-term resilience. By the time the world’s leaders come together in Glasgow for COP26, originally scheduled for this November but now postponed until next year, there will be no excuse for any lingering scepticism about what the world can do to save the environment.

We’ve shown remarkable ingenuity over the last month and just at a time when all the statistics were showing a depressing failure to arrest the pace of climate change, we’ve been handed an extraordinary second chance. It would be a shame to waste it.

Are you ready to build sustainability into your business plan?