Geneva is using lake water to cool buildings and replace air conditioning, which is reducing electricity consumption by 80%. Swiss company SIG is pumping water from a depth of 45 meters in Europe’s largest Alpine lake, where water remains cool. The water passes through heat exchangers in local buildings absorbing warmth to keep the buildings cool. The water is later released back into the lake. This process is shortcutting the need for air conditioning systems, which yearly demand large amounts of energy.
In winter, the dynamic is the opposite. Heat pumps can be added to the system, which help keep buildings warm by charging up their hot water systems. This cuts CO2 emissions by 80%. For the time being, the system covers 50 buildings, including the UN headquarters, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency.
There are plans to connect 30km of new pipes in Geneva by 2035. This would cut 70,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, equivalent to those released by 7,000 homes. Toronto is also using a deep lake water cooling system. The city has replaced AC systems in 180 buildings, cooling them with water from Lake Ontario. The water has an average temperature of 4 degrees Celsius.
According to the World Economic Forum, buildings are responsible for roughly 40 percent of emissions globally (taking into account both building materials and operating emissions), and addressing the problem will require collaboration across sectors. The importance of buildings (and collaboration) explains why the Biden administration announced a buildings standard coalition, in partnership with 33 state and local governments.
The Urban Land Institute’s annual sustainability outlook report outlines the top trends facing real estate professionals. The report is short and sweet, focusing on three simple questions: What sustainability topics and issues are on the rise, why do they matter and what should the industry do about it? The output is five issues that the institute sees as shaping real estate decisions into the future:
- Advancing the net-zero agenda
- Navigating the reporting and measurement landscape
- Confronting climate risk
- Prioritizing existing buildings
- Focusing on building materials
These trends aren’t earth-shattering. Many are similar to what sustainability professionals have been underscoring for years. Yet the report captures something valuable about this moment in the global sustainability journey: the maturation of professionals’ understanding of what key trends mean and the complexity of how to get there.
“Net zero” has emerged as the term of choice for organizations serious about climate. It has also come under criticism, as some organizations set “net-zero” goals without a clear path to make it a reality. According to the Urban Land Institute (ULI), net zero is quickly moving from ambition to action, with organizations adopting realistic net-zero ambitions with pragmatic frameworks and action plans.
The report finds that, increasingly, organizations are looking beyond Scope 1 emissions, the direct emissions from operations on site, to Scope 3 emissions, all emissions buried in a value chain, including the embodied emissions of building materials.
This trend tracks how others sectors are thinking about net-zero goals. Increasingly organizations are recognizing the massive opportunity in decarbonizing supply chains (where the lion’s share of emissions are usually buried), and the imperative to do so to address climate change. An example: Last year, major corporations including IKEA, Microsoft and Nestle signed onto the 1.5 Degree Supply Chain Leaders pledge, which strives to halve emissions from supply chains by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
With the specter of extreme weather looming in every region of the globe, the imperative to harden facilities is no longer optional. The mounting risks associated with climate change means resilience must be overlaid across all parts of an organization.
The physical risk associated with facilities — be it from flooding, fires or hurricanes — puts real estate professionals on the forefront of climate calamities, and necessitates they work hand in glove with energy teams. That means considering on-site generation, such as microgrids, opting into grid flexibility programs and support of grid-hardening measures. With the technologies and strategies to support resilience and sustainable buildings proliferating, the ability to prove your strategies are working is critical.
From an organizational perspective, showing sustainability initiatives are having the anticipated outcomes — be it saving emissions or money — is key to building internal support and expanding programs. From a climate perspective, it’s the only way we’ll know if we’re making progress.