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Rebecca Harlow

Net Zero Proposition Lead, UK

To reach our 2050 net zero carbon goals we have a mountain to climb, but if businesses act as a unified force to overcome barriers such as funding and data management, success is there for the taking. Organizations like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) are an ideal channel for cooperation. Rebecca Harlow, Arcadis’ Net Zero Proposition Lead, explains five key messages from their recent decarbonization strategy workshop, which took place in London.


1. Think long term around carbon impact

Reducing carbon footprints is high on agendas throughout the industry, but it’s important to consider the impact a building will have stretching decades into the future, keeping an eye on how it might eventually be demolished, adapted or repurposed.

This is tricky for decision makers, because we are all restrained by today’s budgets and objectives, environmental or otherwise. Thinking this way could even result in some decisions that seem either financially disadvantageous or more carbon-heavy in the short term. For example a material which has higher embodied carbon might be easier to reuse when a building comes to be dismantled: a price worth paying.

2. Private financing will be the difference between success and failure

With public funding for decarbonization projects stretching only so far, there is a large gap that needs to be made up from private sources.

A significant part of the cost of reaching net zero is the adaption – known as retrofitting – of existing buildings, 90% of which will still be standing in 2050, but currently fall short of the standard. Many are ordinary homes, and 200 councils across the U.K. have declared a climate emergency because of this. Some are joining forces to get to grips with the massive task. Arcadis has been helping a collaboration between the cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry set out a clear vision for their retrofitting goals with the aim of attracting that essential private investment and becoming leaders in the field.

Since COP 26, banks have noticed an uptick in interest in ESG (environmental, social and governance) funds and exploring opportunities for investing in retrofitting. Forums like the WBCSD are ideal for facilitating the conversations needed to encourage this trend, but there is still no tried and tested funding model, which should be a key concern for COP27.

With energy prices skyrocketing, retrofitting is also a social and economic must. The interaction of environmental and socio-economic factors as a measure for the prosperity of cities is a key focus for Arcadis’ 2022 Sustainable Cities report.

3. Quality data and a consistent approach to digital tools will boost progress

Measuring our progress is essential but complex. We need extensive, accessible data, metrics and benchmarks but also consistency in what data we collect, how we interpret it, and how we act on it. It’s another huge incentive to come together in forums like the WBCSD.

Standardization of data management will not only make collaboration easier and expediate progress, but it will feed directly into helping to secure the critical funding. Investors need insight and as much certainty as we can offer them.

4. Collaboration is non-negotiable

A spirit of openness and sharing expertise is important for making technical progress more quickly, but a united voice of business and industry is also essential to drive change in policy and legislation. Especially in uncertain and inconstant political climates, the voice of business needs to be united. We have a crucial role to lobby and to inform, so that governments continue to act with the urgency needed. The desire to drive real change is palpable at events like the one we’re discussing today, and we must embrace the opportunity they offer to act as one force.

5. Future breakthroughs will be key – but we must act now

2050 is not that far away, and more breakthroughs and new ideas will be essential to success. In the short term we have to work with what we have, but that doesn’t mean we are not ambitious. With 28 years to go and 26 million homes in the U.K. that need retrofitting, it’s clear that we need to pick up the pace. That will only happen if we dive in and act. And all this while also focusing on delivering an excellent service and helping clients realize their objectives and ambitions for 2022.

Were you at the WCBSD workshop? Were there any other themes that set your imagination alight? We love discussing these issues with our clients and partners because these conversations chip away at barriers to the change.

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