Only through a retrofitting revolution can we meet our 2050 net-zero carbon target in the UK’s major cities

The race to net-zero is truly underway with more and more countries, regions and cities setting highly ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions.

The UK led the way when it became the first major economy to pass laws enshrining the 2050 target. Now some cities are going further and faster – Edinburgh, Birmingham and London have set 2030 as the goal.

Yet our major cities face a sizeable obstacle on their way to net zero and are still lacking a credible UK-wide plan to overcome it.

We know roughly 40% of carbon dioxide emissions come from the built environment – the physical houses, offices and other buildings making up the space in which most of us live. As JLL’s recent Decarbonising Cities and Real Estate report reveals, this figure rises to nearly 80% in cities such as London.

If we are serious about achieving net-zero, we need to rethink how we construct and operate buildings in ways that are less harmful to the environment.

The good news is there are easy, low-cost ways to reduce energy wastage and increase the energy efficiency of our building stock; JLL is already advising clients on more efficient use of small power and lighting.

Yet the scale of the challenge demands we do more – our latest modelling shows we need to reduce energy consumption in offices by a daunting 60%. In our busiest city London, that could be as much as 73%.

In response, we can expect more stringent local and national legislation, including increasing minimum energy efficiency regulations, operational performance-based building ratings and embodied carbon limits for new developments. Against this background of change, developers will need to respond.

At JLL, we believe the pace of redevelopment and repurposing required to reduce emission targets will need to more than double. While redevelopment present a huge opportunity to improve office stock, retrofitting and renovating existing buildings can be a much quicker route, and will most likely result in a building with lower embodied carbon.

If we are going to make the 2030 targets a reality, we need a retrofitting revolution to make our existing buildings compliant with future standards and occupier expectations. The current retrofit rate of 3% per year will need to pick up significantly.

While this represents a significant challenge, it is also a major opportunity – carbon refurbishment and higher standards for new buildings will result in long-term energy cost savings for occupiers and value add for landlords, through lower voids and potential rental premiums.

In a time of high fossil fuel prices and volatile supply levels, this should focus minds on what we need to do realise this ambition and accelerate the shift in how we power buildings. This should also be considered in investment decisions – upgrades to fittings and more sophisticated controls can cut electricity bills by a quarter, making the business case for energy efficiency more appealing today than it has ever been before.

The road to net zero was always going to be difficult and the built environment presents a major challenge. But there is real determination to make it a reality and this represents an early-mover advantage for investors and owners, who can capitalise on the general shortage of low carbon buildings available to occupiers.

It also meets the growing demand for sustainability among occupiers.

So far, only a few at the very forefront are bold enough to move into the early stages of delivering net-zero buildings. Only a strong signal from government including a UK plan for net zero carbon, supporting policy levers and rigorous regulation will enable the critical large-scale transition of existing commercial building stock we need.

A real partnership between occupiers, landlords, investors and government can make 2050, or earlier, a reality for the UK.

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