A sustainable Internet: What is the cost of our current use?

When people hear about sustainability, typical thoughts circle around travel, consumerism, buildings,  the physical world. Conceptually,  the web and the devices that allow us access to it, appear clean in their usage, far removed from belching power plants and noxious fumes.

But the reality is that every search performed on Google, every Netflix show watched, every Spotify song listened to, triggers servers somewhere to process and output data and then more servers to transmit it, consequently consuming electricity and burning fossil fuels.

Global electricity consumption by the internet is considerable, accounting for 1% of all emissions from burning fossil fuels (aviation accounts for 2.4%) the irony isn’t lost that the man who gave this stat is the brother of the “inventor” of the Web.

The industry is taking steps to reduce CO2 emissions. New movements encourage designers to consider sustainability in the web site design phase. Internet behemoths such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have made promises to go net-zero. Some have found novel ways to consume less by submerging data centres or building data centres in cold environments (a lot of electricity is consumed by just cooling the servers)

But there are actions we can take as users that will also help reduce those emissions:

  1. Drop the quality. Video streaming accounts for the biggest volumes of data sent over the internet. Watching something in HD makes everything super-realistic but consider the impact. Go for the SD version and you can still enjoy the content, but drastically reduce the data streamed.
  2. Do you need to search? When you know the web address to go to, open your browser and type it in. Or save it as a bookmark. Entering a keyword into the browser’s address bar (such as “BBC”)  will provoke a search. Each search consumes some electricity. Cumulatively, those searches have a massive impact.
  3. Download rather than stream. Is something on heavy rotation on Spotify? Then download it. This will also save your data.
  4. Unfortunately, emails harm the environment, accounting for a huge carbon footprint. Consider not sending that email. Could you just phone? If you need to send it, just take a moment to think does everyone cc’d need to read this?
  5. Change to a more sustainable search. There is a greener alternative to Google. Ecosia.org plant trees from the money they make through you using their search and claim 100% renewable energy usage. And they appear to be true to their word.  
  6. Switch off. The ultimate sustainable method!

Of course, the Internet has brought huge benefits to a more sustainable world. Online meetings have reduced the need to travel. The consumption of the written word has moved more online, reducing the number of books and newspapers printed.  But it’s just a conscious move for everyone to recognise that their Internet use still consumes fossil fuels. And as Berners-Lee says,

“When we take a small action to cut carbon, it’s a message to yourself that you care about the climate emergency.”

Addressing the social impacts of climate change: What if we unlocked the social value hidden in the UK’s industrial and logistics assets?

In the discourse on social value and the built environment, we most often hear about infrastructure, multi-residential developments, and office spaces. However, 15% of the UK’s real estate market value is held in logistics and industrial parks [1]. These sites support many business types, with e-commerce businesses now taking up a larger proportion of tenants than in previous years. In fact, the manufacturing, transport and storage industries support just less than 4.6 million jobs in the UK alone [2].

In 2018, the manufacturing, transport and storage industries generated an estimated 30% of the UKs carbon emissions. Carbon emissions are a direct driver of climate change. Climate change is a global process which, carries with it significant social impacts. This short article makes the point that we should be considering the social value potential of all asset classes, especially those with greater environmental impacts.


What are the social impacts of climate change?

Impacts such as rising temperatures and poor air quality have the ability to affect the physical and mental health of the population, as well as their wider quality of life. By 2020, sustainability-conscious landlords are already familiar with monitoring consumption data to reduce their emissions. This often translates to prioritising initiatives focussed on energy usage. Although these activities are vital to reducing the extent of the climate crisis, sustainability programmes should continue to address the existing environmental, but also social impacts of climate change. This can be done by undertaking social initiatives at the asset level.


Taking Action

Individual assets have the scope to improve the lives of their occupants, visitors and surrounding communities. To address the social impacts of climate change, social value initiatives should seek to improve the physical and mental health of these people, as well as their wider quality of life.

There are a number of practical ways to implement social value and social impact improvements at individual assets.

  • Tenant engagement can kickstart a productive, bottom-up approach to establishing specifically what these actions might be. For example, tenants may identify that due to rising temperatures or extreme weather events, their work environment is sub-optimal.
  • Valuable, quick-win opportunities include provision of facilities to increase public transport use or cycling/walking, encouraging use of the stairs for building users and making healthier food options [3].
  • Access to the natural environment both internally and externally can both improve the mental and physical health of tenants, as well as supporting climate adaptation through green infrastructure.
  • Due to the location of buildings within logistics and industrial parks, there are opportunities at the wider estate and public realm level, managed by landlords to provide social benefits to tenants.
  • In the longer term, employment and community initiatives can look to support education, work placement or employment opportunities for members of the community.

It is possible to quantify and report the positive impacts of the above. For example, certification schemes BREEAM and FITWEL have resources to assess and certify health and wellbeing aspects of buildings in multiple asset classes [4]. Whilst BREEAM encompasses most asset classes, FITWEL currently covers office, multi-residential and retail buildings.

Assessing the social value outcomes for occupants and visitors to buildings can also be done through quantitative social value metrics. EVORA has used HACT in past projects to assess outcomes of community engagement programmes.

To let us know your thoughts, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


[1] Statista. (2020). Commercial property investment value UK 2017 | Statista. [online] Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/747082/commercial-property-investment-value-in-the-united-kingdom/ [Accessed 12 Feb. 2020].

[2] Ons.gov.uk. (2020). EMP13: Employment by industry – Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/datasets/employmentbyindustryemp13 [Accessed 12 Feb. 2020].

[3] Fitwel.org. (2020). Fitwel. [online] Available at: https://www.fitwel.org/ [Accessed 12 Feb. 2020].

[4] BREEAM. (2020). BREEAM In-Use – BREEAM. Available at: https://www.breeam.com/discover/technical-standards/breeam-in-use/ [Accessed 12 Feb. 2020]

SDGs: Answering the Big Questions for the Real Estate Industry – What, Where, Why and How?

With a new decade upon us, there is now a call more than ever to address the proliferating global challenges facing our planet.

Governments can no longer fight this battle alone and need individuals and businesses to take action and deliver an agenda that provides a sustainable path for both the planet and society. 

Clearly, this is no easy task – so how can real estate connect with and relate to global challenges? What is the motivation behind the bigger picture? And how can real estate owners, operators and occupiers oversee their potential impact in the long term?  

Let’s begin to unpick the ‘Big Questions’…. 


‘What’

In 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was put forward with world leaders setting out 17 goals with 169 targets aimed “to end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change”. The breadth of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aims to provide sustainable development for all persons and aspects of businesses and look for them to fully immerse into a new way of thinking that will positively impact the people and planet. 

Figure 1: SDG goals (UN Framework: 2015)

‘Why’  

Given that the real estate industry accounts for half of global wealth, 40 percent of the world’s consumption of primary energy and a third of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions there is no mistaking that the industry can contribute to achieving certain Global Goals… As the real estate industry is chiefly responsible for the development and management of assets and is also vulnerable to the impact of climate change, it goes without saying that the industry should be one of the main leaders fighting the cause of environmental stewardship.  

So, why is it that the sector has barely scratched the surface of the SDGs since their deployment in 2015? 

An agenda centred on 17 SDGs does run the risk of simply being too broad, complex or immaterial for businesses to address. In fact, a study conducted by PwC found that only one percent of companies stated they would assess their impact across all 17 goals. But are targets on No Poverty or Zero Hunger achievable or even relevant to the wider real estate industry?

Our own research conducted among 25 real estate companies achieving at least one five-star GRESB rated fund identified commitment to 13 of the 17 SDGs to some extent. Carbon and energy covering SDG13 (Climate Action – 70% adoption) and SDG7 (Affordable and Clean Energy – 52% adoption) proved the most common for actions relating to the operation of real estate assets. SDG5 (Gender Equality – 52% adoption) proved the most popular actions that are internal to each organization. Fewer than half of the sample group aligned with any other SDGs despite the notable impact real estate can have on SDG3 (Good Health and Wellbeing) and SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities). 

Figure 2: Proportion of the sample committing to selected SDGs (real estate)

‘Where’ 

With global frameworks, it’s all about scalability – with 169 sub-targets to consider, it is difficult to pin-point what impact your business could specifically make. However, many activities and initiatives within your business may well align to SDGs already – whether this be indirectly or directly. The key here is to break down the goals into more manageable and understandable objectives that relate specifically to how you as a business operate. 

First, ask yourself…

What is material and what are the relevant impact categories you want to address? 

Reflect on your activities and the risks to people and the environment, as well as on beneficial products, services and investments. While doing so, consider both operations and the broader value chain. One way to make this simple is the use of a materiality assessment. In short, a materiality assessment is an exercise in stakeholder engagement designed to gather insight on the relative importance, and impact, of specific environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.  The key to getting real value from a materiality assessment is starting with a clear understanding of what information you are looking for, choosing the right stakeholders and applying the appropriate methodology to present the information effectively and make informed decisions. 

Breaking down analysis into environmental, economic and societal factors allows you to understand the impact your activities have, and the programmes needed to mitigate adverse risks or exploit beneficial opportunities. Consider not only your objectives but your audience and who is involved. What topics are of most importance to your stakeholders? Who needs to take responsibility?

By this point, you will have developed a sense of what impacts you as a real estate business could have and their overall importance. Now, you must define objectives that could contribute to your SDG priority targets, including identifying the indicators used to measure progress against then. 


Now for the ‘How’ 

Outcomes of a materiality assessment should be channelled into a structured framework, such as an environmental management system (EMS), to ensure programs are managed through a coordinated strategy. Building the SDGs into the strategy is a way to stop isolated work or seeing the global goals as somewhat as an additional task. 

The strategy should define what metrics and indicators can be used to set appropriate targets, defining the outcome from each impact areas. It is important to consider how progress will be tracked and communicated. High-quality data is essential for making informed decisions and prioritizing action. Take, for instance, SDG13 Climate Action – here you may wish to monitor and report on energy usage and carbon dioxide emissions. The use of dashboards to easily convey current performance (at asset and portfolio level), track against historical periods, and importantly, communicate progress to stakeholders is a vital step in achieving climate goals.

Figure 3: Energy and Carbon Dashboards (SIERA)

Final Thoughts  

An EMS provides a framework to increase focus within your business’ strategic planning process and understand the context and scope of impacts. Essentially, it answers the bigger question of ‘Where’ you can make an impact as a business.  The key here is to be straightforward! No matter how big or small the change, it is important that you know your objectives and communicate them in a way that is both easy to understand and relevant to who you are targeting.

The SDGs can be perceived as global goals that are difficult to relate to the industry, let alone a business itself. However, they can act as a powerful tool in shifting the conversation to the bigger picture. Given the degree of involvement the real estate industry plays in these global challenges today, there is no denying that you as a business can play a significant role in contributing to these goals. However big or small, the time to act is now.


This article was originally published on GRESB Insights

UN Environment (2017), “Towards a zero-emission, efficient, and resilient buildings and construction sector”, Global Status Report, URL: https://www.worldgbc.org/sites/default/files/UNEP%20188_GABC_en%20%28web%29.pdf 

Anne Huibrechtse – Truijens (2018), “Sustainability Goals: A Business Perspective”, Deliotte,  URL: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/nl/Documents/risk/deloitte-nl-risk-sdgs-from-a-business-perspective.pdf