A sustainable future for warehousing

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Clare Bottle, Chief Executive of UKWA, discusses all things sustainability; green buildings, green finance, green fuel alternatives and more.

Clare Bottle.jpgAlthough the ‘pingdemic’ has been hitting the headlines, the global pandemic is no longer the only topic on the news agenda. As restrictions lift businesses are beginning to refocus on the issues that dominated the agenda pre COVID lockdown. In our sector, along with others, this includes sustainability. Not only is saving the planet a moral imperative, but our customers expect ‘green’ credentials from us and ultimately, we will be compelled to meet sustainability standards by law. 

While the reduction of operational energy is delivering reduced carbon emissions, there is also the question of reducing the carbon intensity of buildings themselves – known as embodied carbon – and this is arguably the industry’s next challenge.

The World Green Building Council, an independent, non-profit organisation made up of businesses working in the building and construction industry, states that 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to embodied carbon in the built environment.

The best buildings (highest BREAAM ratings) have about a 50:50 split between embodied carbon (aka capital carbon) and operational carbon – but in many existing warehouses, the operational carbon footprint is higher – up to 70%.

The UK government has committed to net zero by 2050, but the 2050’s built environment is already being constructed (with embodied carbon) so property developers need to aim for net zero now, and to be fair some of the heavyweight logistics real estate companies are already on the case.

In December 2020, competitors Tritax and Prologis collaborated in publishing a shared-best-practice paper: “Logistics Property: Net Zero Building in Action” (available to download here https://prologis.co.uk/insights/), which offered some interesting insights.

For example, in construction, suppliers are now expected to provide accurate data about the carbon footprint of materials like concrete and recycled materials can also be used to improve the embodied carbon.

A whole-life carbon assessment is increasingly important to inform the design, taking into account both embodied and operational carbon footprints. While there are no universally accepted metrics, to measure embodied carbon, by working together, the construction sector can start to develop this.

The UK Green Building Council has launched a new consultation process around the net zero whole life carbon road map  (https://www.ukgbc.org/news/ukgbc-consults-on-net-zero-whole-life-carbon-roadmap/) with the aims of creating a common vision and agreed actions towards achieving net zero carbon in the construction, operation and demolition of buildings and infrastructure. Clearly, this an initiative that UKWA will be responding to, ensuring the voice of our industry is heard and the needs of the warehousing sector taken into account.

Meanwhile, there is interest too around embracing sustainability in established warehousing operations. Recently, I was pleased to be able to chair a roundtable discussion on the subject of sustainability in warehousing at Richmond Events’ Supply Chain and Logistics Forum, and while the business leaders around the table were keen to understand more about warehouse sustainability, most had little practical experience of implementing more sustainable measures.

What we all discovered is that there is more that can be achieved over and above installation of LED lighting, recycling packaging and reusing pallets. One quick win, for example, is the use of Hydro-treated Vegetable Oil as a straight swap for diesel in plant such as yard shunters. Many vehicle warranties now permit this, and apparently it is so interchangeable that HVO can literally be added into half a tank of diesel and the two fuels mixed together. HVO is a sustainable, fossil-free fuel derived from vegetable or used oils, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90% and has lower particulate emissions than diesel. As such, it offers an easy and affordable step towards ‘net zero’ rather than the leap needed for electrification.

Having said that, it was agreed that MHE switching from diesel/gas to battery-operated is a proven cost-saving and carbon-saving improvement. However, there are some negatives. Warehouse insurance can be affected by the change to electric vehicles, due to increased fire risk. Charging points may need to be relocated, and the electricity supply to legacy warehouse buildings may not always be sufficient to support the hugely increased demand. 

Of course, electric batteries have to be frequently recharged too and although the new Lithium Ion batteries are safer, longer-lasting and easier to recharge than traditional Lead Acid batteries, they are also heavier and much more expensive.

Cost is clearly a potential barrier to becoming more sustainable, but pay-back calculations on sustainability investments depends on how expensive ‘non-green’ alternatives will prove, since government policy changes are likely to drive ‘dirty’ energy costs up going forward.

What’s more, the government has recently ramped up its commitment to Green Finance, which means interest-free loans are available for some investments. This is a welcome move and UKWA is currently investigating how we can support members in taking advantage of this new opportunity.

Ultimately, the cost of NOT investing in sustainability will be high. Not only do our customers and investors care increasingly care about this issue, but so do potential employees. Sustainability not only enhances your CSR credentials, but a compelling sustainability policy and reputation will help you attract and retain the best talent – which is key to the long term success of your business!   

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