Across the business world, the importance of understanding carbon footprints has increased exponentially in recent years. More so now than in the past, organisations of all shapes and sizes are putting plans in place to reduce or mitigate the effects their operations have on the world around us, whether that be influencing climate change or communities around the world.
Phrases such as ‘decarbonisation programmes’ and ‘whole-life carbon assessments’ are becoming common dialogue around boardroom tables, and businesses of all shapes and sizes are putting plans in place to help meet the Government’s ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2050.
However, one area where the conversation is perhaps quietest is the impact that buildings themselves have on sustainability and embodied carbon, particularly in the logistics sector. The environmental impact of road and rail transport in terms of carbon dioxide emissions is well publicised, but it mustn’t be forgotten that overall, the built environment is responsible for a significant proportion of global carbon emissions.
Prologis UK recently published a white paper, co-authored with Tritax Big Box REIT, Logistics property: net zero building in action, which demonstrated the approaches of two of the largest logistics property developers to zero carbon construction and provided actionable plans for other businesses in the sector to follow too.
Central to the conversation about sustainability in the logistics sector is the concept of embodied carbon. Even the most sustainable new buildings – those fitted with solar panels, LED lighting and other energy-efficient technology – have an embodied carbon footprint. It’s unavoidable. Embodied carbon is quite literally built into the structure of a building during its construction and is the carbon emitted during the manufacturing and construction phases themselves. Once the building is complete, it already has a significant carbon footprint, which cannot be erased or reduced. This embodied carbon can represent over half of the whole-life carbon emissions from a new building.
It’s perhaps easy to understand the concept of embodied carbon, but much more difficult in practice to formulate a solid plan to mitigate and reduce it during a construction project. This is something that has been recognised by the sector. Several critical organisations, such as the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) and UK Business Council for Sustainable Development (UKBCSD), have been working on tools and information to better equip logistics property developers with the skills and knowledge to improve their sustainability efforts.
The UKGBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Framework Definition summarises the carbon reduction challenge for the wider industry and sets out clear, actionable steps that can be taken during the design and construction phases of a project to move towards a zero carbon building. Included in the definition is information around a number of critical measures, for example, establishing a net zero carbon scope, reducing construction impacts, reducing operational energy use, increasing renewable energy supply, and offsetting any remaining carbon.
Still, even in addition to this framework definition, the onus is on logistics property developers to ensure that their buildings hit that mark in terms of sustainability; reducing embodied carbon emissions during the construction phase is only one part of the solution. Prologis began looking at its carbon emissions 12 years ago and, since then, has developed a robust method for reducing and mitigating the embodied and operational carbon emissions of its buildings.
After working for a number of years to develop buildings that were more sustainable by design, through experimenting with different materials and techniques, the focus at Prologis moved onto reducing the whole-life carbon emissions of a building. Through a partnership with sustainability certification scheme, The Planet Mark, carbon lifecycle assessments were used to assess the whole-life carbon footprint of each new logistics building, showing both operational and embodied carbon.
However, after identifying and quantifying the amount of embodied carbon in a logistics building, one of the major challenges is finding ways to successfully mitigate against this. Prologis has a long-term tie up with charity, Cool Earth, which works with indigenous communities across the world to protect vast areas of rainforest.
This approach – actively working towards mitigating embodied carbon – is used by Prologis in every development. Recently, the business has further extended support of the Cool Earth across Europe, committing to protect an area of rainforest 31 times larger than the footprint of each new logistics building, as well as ensuring that each development delivers carbon savings five times greater than its residual embodied carbon footprint.
On top of post-completion carbon mitigation, Prologis has been leading the way with the low-carbon construction of their buildings, using the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Framework Definition. This includes evaluating and specifying building products and processes – from concrete and steel to exterior landscaping – to ensure that wherever possible, the carbon footprint was kept as low as possible. Combined with other energy-saving features, such as LED lighting and rainwater harvesting, the newest breed of logistics buildings are some of the most sustainable on the market.
Addressing zero or low-carbon development is a significant task, in any sector. If the UK is to truly meet its ambitious targets, industry must work together as a whole to share best practice and knowledge about this area of development. Dedicated organisations, such as the UKGBC and UKBCSD, are providing essential knowledge around the best approaches to low and zero carbon development, but far more must be done, from the businesses that operate in the logistics world, and policymakers themselves.
Embodied carbon emissions generated in the construction supply chain and in the large buildings developed for the logistics sector are impacting the environment now and must not be forgotten. There will no doubt be new standards and legislation in the pipeline, which will help shape understanding about net zero, but there is an eagerness within the industry to act sooner rather than later. Businesses operating in the logistics sector are looking at their property portfolios now and formulating strategies to make them as environmentally friendly as possible.
Low-carbon buildings are no longer just a ‘nice to have’; they are becoming an essential building block on the UK’s road to net zero.