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Kathleen Abbott
Global Director Clients & Business Development, Places

This week celebrates the 15th World Green Building Week. Since 2009, WGBW has been recognized as the world’s largest campaign to accelerate sustainable built environments across the globe. This year, the campaign is calling on the global building and construction sector to accelerate the transition to secure an energy efficient, regenerative and just future for all [1].

The global campaign for sustainable buildings, championed by regional Green Building Councils and advocacy groups alike, has had many successes, most of which focus on raising the standard of buildings through robust certification schemes and advocating for higher quality construction code.

Despite these successes however, emissions from buildings and construction continue to increase year over year. The buildings and construction sector is considered to have the greatest potential to reach net zero by 2050, yet currently is not on track [2]. For the sector to reach this target, all new buildings and 20 percent of the existing stock must be ‘zero-carbon ready’ by 2030, and the sector’s emissions must decrease by six percent annually between 2020 and 2030. Currently, less than one percent of existing buildings qualify as net zero [3].

For the last 15 years, the focus for building owners, managers and users has been on improving operational performance, albeit to reduce reliance on emissions-intensive energy networks, which we know are now decarbonizing [5]. The pivot towards whole of life performance, where we assess impacts over all phases of a building’s life, has been slow, and the industry is now grappling with fragmented frameworks, guidance and tools that offer conflicting approaches for valuing the whole of life impact and benefits of buildings. Fundamental principles of energy efficiency and on-site energy independence are in danger of being overlooked, on the notion that grids and networks will decarbonize, and offsetting residual impacts will be centrally regulated.

If the industry is to right itself on the path towards net zero, there is a clear, urgent need to redefine “sustainable building”. To do this uniformly and successfully requires inclusion of all actors across the value chain, from heavy industry, manufacturing and distribution to our designers, contractors and operations teams.

As a precursor to New York Climate Week and COP28 in Dubai [6], #WGBW23 serves as a timely platform to redefine sustainable building, together with all actors around the table, if we’re to have any chance of reaching net zero.

In a recent conversation with Mark McKenna, Global Sustainability Director, I shared my insights for the building and construction sector, and the re-valuation of sustainable building that must occur for the industry to reach its sustainability goals.

Mark: Kathleen, as our Global Sales Director for Places, you have a front seat perspective across our global markets on where our clients are on their net zero journey, and their challenges for delivering sustainable assets. Can you share some of your insights?

Kathleen: Firstly, almost every discussion I’m having with our clients—from public and private, standalone building owners to large portfolio fund managers and contractors—includes net zero, and they’re acutely aware of the need to decarbonize. In addition to the demands placed on them by their clients, they understand the risks of transition (or lack of transition) facing their assets, and the longer-term financial implications of delaying investment.

On the flipside, other important issues, such as integrating nature-positive outcomes into urban development planning, remain new concepts for some—and it’s a good reminder for us that net zero is just one part of sustainable building, albeit an important one. We also need to support our clients as they evolve their approach to adjacent, yet equally important, issues affecting their buildings’ impact on people and the natural environment.

Mark: So, the messages you are hearing seem largely consistent across our global markets—decarbonize now or be left behind. Yet we’re still not seeing the sector decarbonize fast enough (or at all) in some regions—what are we missing?

Kathleen: I think there are a couple of standout issues for me at the moment—the first is the gap between the sector leaders and the rest of the sector, and the second is the challenges around decarbonizing whole of life impacts.

Many of our clients, as asset owners and managers, are leaders in their respective sub-sectors, being driven by the market and users. If we take our commercial real estate clients, for example, their ambition and need to deliver sustainable buildings and infrastructure often goes beyond building to local code, and they’re always going to set a high benchmark. The same could be said for some of our government or city clients, where their jurisdictional priorities support procurement of leading buildings. For many others, however, without the same pressures, delivering buildings to meet code will always be their driver. And this speaks to one of the biggest challenges for the buildings and construction sector – making significant changes to national building standards, which are historically slow to evolve, often for fear of being seen as anti-development. Without major changes to building standards, the transition to net zero will be too slow.

The second issue for me is the challenges in accounting for whole of life building impacts. Unlike building operations, where we have fairly robust standards and codes to work with, this is simply not the case for other parts of the building life cycle. The approach and information used to measure and evaluate whole of life carbon, for example, is so fragmented that it can be really challenging to achieve consensus on impacts, even within project teams—all of whom, if working for other firms, will develop their own estimates, using different tools and data. Ultimately, it means we are spending more time talking about the integrity of the process, rather than decarbonizing the project.

Mark: On your last point then Kathleen, how do we fix this fragmented valuation of carbon in projects?

Kathleen: The emergence of globally recognized standards from professional bodies, such as the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ Whole of Life Carbon Guidance and BSI Group’s recently updated PAS2080, is certainly helping, but that’s only half the issue. The bigger challenge is achieving some degree of transparency and continuity across construction impact data, which can be quite different for each job, even in similar geographies. For me, solving this challenge requires that industries come together to align on global impact reporting standards for construction sector processes and manufacturing. I appreciate how difficult this challenge is, but we need to work towards some form of equitable measurement across the industry so we can drive improvements together, rather than in insolation, and get the industry back on the path towards net zero!

Mark: You talked about this gap between leaders and the rest of the market, and I know you’re passionate about supporting our industry more broadly. Can you tell us about some of your industry work?

Kathleen: I think first and foremost, I’ve always sought to work with likeminded people that want to push our industry forward. And I suppose in doing that I’ve naturally gravitated towards active groups and forums campaigning for change. Our teams all want to work on great projects and with clients that align with our own sustainability ambition because ultimately, supporting progress in our industry means more great projects for all.

I am really passionate about Arcadis’ work with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and in particular my team’s work in their Built Environment Pathway [7]. In my role as Pathway board member, I work closely with other member leaders to help shape the priorities for industry advocacy, as well as develop projects that accelerate action on sustainability. One of the important things about these forums is they bring together the entire supply chain of the industry and they bring industry peers together in a neutral, pre-competitive environment to think about what is best for the industry.

I also know we must ground our decisions in sound science, and I am honored to be an advisory board member for Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), which provides science-based knowledge to meet critical environmental challenges. SERC leads objective research to inform real-world decisions for wise policies, best business practices and a sustainable planet.

[1]   World Green Building Council. World Green Building Week 2023
[2]   UNEP. Global Status Report: Buildings and Construction (2022)
[3]   International Energy Agency. Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (2021)
[4]   International Living Future Institute. The Living Building Challenge (2023)
[5]   IEA. Net Zero 2050: Roadmap for the Energy Sector (2021)
[6]   EuroNews. Article: COP28 – What else do we know so far? (2023)