How can we as Chartered Surveyors, and as citizens, make 2020-2030 the decade of sustainability?

“Global economic development has enhanced the quality of life and well-being of billions of people. However, inequality is rising, conflict and insecurity are a constant concern, ecosystems are being degraded, resources depleted, and greenhouse gas levels are climbing. These trends are detrimental to communities, environments, businesses and long-term economic prospects.”
University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, 2017

When I talk to fellow surveyors and other construction and property professionals, many struggle to connect with “sustainability”. We’re busy running businesses, keeping clients happy, and staying abreast of legislative changes, new standards and professional requirements – all while juggling the many responsibilities of modern life. Many of us barely get time for lunch. Why should we be concerned about sustainability?

The Great Acceleration
The rapid increase in use of worldwide resources known as ‘The Great Acceleration’ began in the 1950s, ushering in the Anthropocene or ‘human’ epoch, where human activity now drives change in the Earth’s systems.
Humanity is now living far beyond the planet’s means, consuming the Earth’s non-renewable resources as if we had one and a half planets to draw upon. What does this mean for business, society and future generations?
100% of our economic activity is dependent on services provided by natural systems. The more we degrade these natural systems, the more, in the end, we imperil economic activity and business success. And while we’re all interested in business success, I don’t know any fellow professional who is not interested in having a world fit and safe for future generations to inhabit.

On current projections, by 2030:

  • the global population will increase from 7.7 billion (March 2019) to 8.6 billion (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2017);
  • demand for food will increase by 50%;
  • demand for energy will increase by 30%; and,
  • demand for water will increase by 30%.

There is an interdependency between food, energy, and water; climate change has a significant impact on all three.

Living within planetary boundaries – the global challenges
Keeping global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5°C (IPCC, 2018) will require transforming how the world economy sources and uses energy, with profound implications for society, economies, business and industry. Any less than that will not enable the world to achieve carbon neutrality (zero carbon), which must be achieved to prevent dangerous climate change and ocean acidification.
Achieving these goals will require a complete recalibration of the existing economic, energy, and industrial agendas. The world needs to build resilient, zero-carbon economies quickly. This will radically alter some business models and potentially eliminate others. To achieve virtual zero carbon (90% reduction) by 2050 and actual zero (net zero carbon) towards the end of this century we need to:

1. Phase out fossil fuels, increase the use of renewable energy and dramatically decrease greenhouse gas emissions to reduce carbon emissions.
2. Develop the capacity for ‘negative carbon’ emissions (extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store them).
The planet is also facing unprecedented biodiversity loss, coupled with a massive and growing waste crisis.

The critical role of Chartered Surveyors
Property and construction are critical to worldwide sustainability, environment, society and economy:

  • buildings and construction account for 36% of global final energy use, and 39% of energy-related
    carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions when upstream power generation is included (United Nations, 2017);
  • 50% of all materials and energy are used in buildings;
  • 33% of all water and waste are used in/arise in buildings; and,
  • less than 1% of buildings are assessed for sustainability.

Additionally, the property sector is directly and acutely impacted by physical and transitional risks brought by climate change. A 2015 RICS study modelled the potential for increased costs of running a building in eight European countries in commercial buildings that are not retrofitted to address climate risks. The model indicated that by 2050 the total increase in energy bills from 2010 levels for the eight countries would be £457 billion.
For Germany, Spain and Greece, the cost would be more than 8% of their gross domestic product (Roberts, 2015). As an industry, we need to focus on sustainable development and construction, and sustainable property. We need to embed sustainability at company level, incorporating it into day-to-day operations and decision-making, and simultaneously, we need to engage, collaborate and advocate to lead the change required.

“Companies now have a strategic choice between being part of a well-planned and managed global transition or being subject to a more disruptive transition – both at the company and broad economy level.”
(Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, 2016)

For sustainability to become embedded, it needs to become integral to business strategy in its broadest sense.

Key issues for surveyors
Sustainable construction:

  • circular economy principles and practices;
  • embedding sustainability in design;
  • renewables; and,
  • deep retrofitting of existing buildings
    (commercial and domestic).

Sustainable property:

  • green leases;
  • green management;
  • mitigation; and,
  • adaptation.

For sustainability to become embedded, it needs to  become integral to business strategy in its broadest sense, and to pervade what every executive, every manager and every employee does. It needs to be embedded into corporate culture.

Good for business
Increasing numbers of leading businesses, both globally and nationally, have made sustainability more central to their core business activities, aligning it with their long-term vision and values, and their strategic and operational objectives. In the decades that follow, there will be an increase in expectation that organisations will take much more responsibility for addressing these issues in their own operations and sphere of influence.
Many businesses and organisations are already starting to develop innovative solutions. What is your organisation currently doing? What could you as an organisation do differently?

  • Think about the factors that could disrupt your operations;
  • think about how sustainability is positioned internally in your organisation;
  • think about your brand’s reputation in terms of sustainability;
  • think about how sustainability is currently integrated in the business model; and,
  • think about whether your business is, or will be, affected by stranded assets.

“Green building activity continues to grow across the globe, with dramatic increases expected in 20 countries across five continents between now and 2021”.
(Design and Construction Intelligence Smart Market Report, 2018)

What could you as an individual do differently?

Future planet
You’re leaving work in 2030. your children walked or cycled to school in your sustainable community, and you are driven home in your self-driving electric car. When you get home, the car plugs itself in to charge at your house for its peak evening requirements. There is ample fresh, organic food. The beehives in your community garden are buzzing with activity. you head over to the community garden to pick fresh salad for dinner. Your neighbourhood is safe and secure. The fear of global collapse and environmental catastrophe has been averted. Isn’t this something to aim and work for – together?

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. A New Climate For Business. 2016.
Debacker, W. Welcome to Reburg The World’s Most Circular City. BAMB (Buildings As Material Banks). Brussels, 2019.
Design and Construction Intelligence Smart Market Report. World Green Building Trends 2018. 2018
Roberts, G. Climate Risk Toolkit: The Impact of Climate Change in the Non-Domestic Real Estate
Sector of Eight European Countries
. London: RICS, 2015.
IPCC. Global Warming of 1.5%. 2018.
United Nations. Global Status Report. 2017.
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2017. Available at:
University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Rewiring the Economy. 2017.
World Economic Forum. Fourth Industrial Revolution Dynamic Briefing. 2018.

Krystyna Rawicz
Managing Director, KRA Visionary Project Partners