By Ian Jeffries, Managing Director, EEVS

April, 2021

Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are on course to increase by 1.5bn tonnes in 2021 – the second-largest increase in history – reversing most of last year’s decline caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency.

With many organisations declaring a commitment to net zero, there is increased scrutiny of their progress.  The glare of the corporate and societal spotlight is also shining on property and energy teams. 

Why? Because buildings and their construction together account for 36 per cent of global energy use and 39 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.  Put simply, net zero societies will not exist without action from property and built environment professionals. 

As lockdown measures ease in the UK there’s a potential scenario in which increased energy usage will lead to a carbon rebound as people return to offices.  Many energy teams will already be focused on how their real estate strategy aligns with their corporate net zero vision.  But they need to do this by preparing for a carbon rebound and, crucially, should now be making plans to mitigate it.

Here are five thoughts and some actions for avoiding the great carbon rebound:

  • Prepare for energy usage in buildings to go up

Property and energy teams need to prepare to tell the rest of their businesses that energy usage in buildings could go up.  It’s going to require expectation management plus a plan to genuinely decarbonise. 

Additional ventilation needed in a Covid world is going to lead to higher energy usage.  Building operators seeking to create safe working environments are likely to require more from their mechanical ventilation systems.  The HSE guidance is clear that adequate ventilation reduces how much virus is in the air.  Ventilation helps reduce the risk from transmission, when someone breathes in small particles (aerosols) in the air after a person with the virus has been in the same enclosed area.  The risk is greater in areas that are poorly ventilated.

  • Watch out for offices with less people using more air conditioning

Mechanical ventilation is already being used more energy intensively.  Some offices are now operating ventilation over a 24-hour period and switching to 100 per cent fresh air, rather than a mix of fresh and re-circulated air – both of which are already driving up consumption.  I know of some offices that during lockdown had 80 per cent less staff but were only saving 10 per cent of energy compared to before the pandemic.

  • Align workplace planning with energy strategy

Some businesses have made commitments to hybrid and flexible working for staff.  When businesses consider the new workspace strategy for different occupancy levels, they should think about the energy dimension to that as well.  Yes, space utilisation is key for a world where there is a need for new collaboration spaces and quiet areas for virtual meetings, but in many buildings it might not be practical or efficient to operate all floors and disperse people around the building. 

The days of every floor in a multi storey office being operational every day of the week might be over.  Smart controls and understanding the performance data of offices and space usage will need to come to the fore.

  • Make sure your reporting is match fit

Delivering meaningful action on carbon and energy consumption requires better reporting. Corporate reporting for many businesses is going to be notched up to higher levels because of the Government’s recent pledge to mandate carbon disclosure for listed and large private business.  This will inevitably place companies under greater corporate scrutiny to cut carbon. 

Independent assessment of energy performance across a property portfolio is going to be crucial.  The reality is that many businesses do not have a detailed understanding of energy performance or the cost saving.  Many companies pay their FM providers an incentivised fee to save energy but do not have a detailed qualitative and quantitative assessment of all the methodologies and calculations used to generate a savings figure.  Independent verification is important for providing greater certainty and transparency to reporting.

  • Get contracts in place to improve energy performance   

Decarbonising real estate will require behavioural, attitudinal and technological change.  In energy terms there are many things that you can effect now.  It means putting in place contractual measures with FM providers to cut energy usage.  Some corporate estate and property teams opt for a simple system where any energy costs savings are split 50:50 between client and contractor.  Other options might use an incentivised energy reduction programme with clear targets and an agreed percentage shared with the providers.  The key is to have an agreement and measure performance against it.

Organisations are going to adjust to new working models.  Buildings in the age of Covid-19 will need increased ventilation and therefore energy.  As more businesses plot the return to the office, let’s do everything we can to prevent a carbon rebound.

Read our latest Energy Efficiency Trends report

The research was undertaken between April and June 2021 and completed by 69 UK-based respondents, including 33 participants from organisations consuming energy efficiency products/services and 36 participants from suppliers of energy efficiency products and services.

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