Why operational net zero is so important

Operational net zero is a target we should all be aiming for, and there are numerous ways of achieving it – some of which are attracting widespread support. 

The Hub Rental Apartments - London, UK - amber | PBSA News
The Hub Rental Apartments - London, UK.

We’ve been taking a closer look at what operational net zero means for the residential operational real estate sector and how you can set about achieving it.

By amber

People are used to buying products or services based on factors such as trust, quality and cost. However, while those remain important, social, and environmental trends have added another element to the buying process.

Growing numbers of residents are taking an interest in the eco credentials of the properties they call home – something which is drastically changing the way they look at energy.

Not so long ago, energy was just another cost to keep an eye on. Now, the way it is sourced, managed, and used can be the difference between inspiring resident loyalty and losing them to more environmentally conscious competitors. That is why decision-makers need to act in the most strategic and sustainable way possible.

Getting to net zero

Acknowledging the need for rapid decarbonisation, the residential operational real estate sector is introducing net zero targets – reassuring residents, investors, and employees that they are doing what they can to tackle climate change. But the declaration is always the easiest part. Taking the necessary action to deliver on that promise is a different story altogether, hence why so many are now asking themselves and others – how do we actually deliver on this?

While we realise that being truly sustainable is about much more than carbon emissions – factors such as supply chains and employment practices are all key – energy use needs to be at the heart of this conversation. Operational net zero is a target that we all should be aiming for, and there are numerous ways of achieving it – some of which are attracting widespread support. 

Take the strategies being put forward by the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) and the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) for example. According to their guidance, new structures should be built to standards driven by sustainability and those already standing should be adapted, retrofitted with the technology they need to better control consumption. They believe that energy-use reduction needs to be prioritised over all other measures.

Modern residential architecture, River Thames, London, as we need to aim for net zero - amber | PBSA News
Modern residential architecture, River Thames, London. The riverside facade of contemporary flats on the Thames on a bright autumnal day.

Efficiency first

The UKGBC and WorldGBC emphasise the importance of reducing energy demand. They do this not only to deter developers and operators from paying lip service to sustainability, but also to encourage them to put efficiency first, before even considering things such as offsetting.    

As countries and companies have become increasingly climate-conscious, many have turned towards tree planting to counterbalance their carbon emissions. But as pressure mounts on businesses to do more sooner, we believe this will change.  

With some newly planted trees taking up to 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 promised by offsetting schemes, we need to start looking at solutions that will deliver more immediate results.

It is like we say to our clients: there are no shortcuts to net zero, and all the other paths available simply cannot get us there in time.

While offsetting undoubtedly has its part to play on the road to operational net zero, those who can afford to make meaningful changes sooner rather than later should do so.

Sustainable procurement 

When we support clients that are on the path to operational net zero, we reiterate the simple fact that now is not the time to be ‘greenwashing’ the reality of our situation – and this applies to green tariffs as well as offsetting.

While we wish it were this simple, sourcing energy from renewable sources is not enough to get a business, let alone the planet, to where it needs to be. Like all contracts, green energy contacts – which can last anything from one to five years – all come to an end eventually and therefore render sustainability strategies vulnerable to changing circumstances.

If your plan to decarbonise depends on eco-friendly procurement, that is fine up to a point. But what if a financial saving needs to be made and the switch from green to brown energy will help make it?

One of the key benefits of putting energy-use reduction at the heart of a sustainability strategy is that there are very few reasons to reverse those changes once they have been made.

You also need to be wary of the pitfalls associated with switching to green tariffs. There are numerous so-called ‘100% renewable’ tariffs on the market which – once you scratch a little below the surface – are not as green as they seem. Some energy suppliers will buy cheap certificates to match the use of their customers, making their fuel mix appear greener than it really is.

Fortunately, this can be guarded against by on-site generation and storage. Not only does the use of solar panels allow you to produce energy independently from the grid, but it also frees you to concentrate on other things – without having to worry about where your energy is coming from. 

What is more, investing in offsite renewables may also provide useful ‘additionality’ to those looking to diversify their sustainability strategy.

Controlling costs

It is often said that sustainability comes at a cost – that it does not stimulate enough growth to be a genuine priority – but many of the clients we work with continue to find that better conservation and use of energy results in a more streamlined operation and decreased, rather than increased, costs.

Low-price projects can result in a quick return on investment, especially when they focus on making energy-use more efficient (eg installing LED lighting controls). And at the more expensive end of that spectrum, you find PV and battery schemes, which can be funded by third parties.

Solar panels contributing to net zero - amber | PBSA News

What can be done

There is no shortage of ways the residential operational real estate sector can boost its drive towards operational net zero. Offsetting and green tariffs both have roles to play, but they must form part of a much larger strategy – one which has efficiency at its core. Energy-use reduction will enable you to decarbonise sooner.

Whether it is due to an awaking to the climate crisis or a sudden realisation that residents and employees want more, net zero is rapidly climbing the list of priorities and changing the way many treat energy – and about time, too.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed by their own sustainability commitments, decision-makers should be optimistic. Why? Because, for the first time ever, there seems to be a solution capable of matching the problem. Through taking an ‘efficiency first’ approach to achieving operational net zero, the residential operational real estate sector will be able to make a truly long-term and long-lasting impact for the better.

Want to discuss your net zero commitments? Find out more about how we can help you achieve them.