US real estate

Here’s why U.S. real estate investors should see climate change as an opportunity

Just as important as embracing renewables is ensuring the buildings they power are also sustainable. Electrek spoke with Breana Wheeler, US Director of Operations at BREEAM, the world’s first green building certification program, about what the ideal low-carbon building looks like and how US real estate investors should see climate change as an opportunity.

Electrek: What does BREEAM do and what does the ideal carbon-free building look like?

Breana Wheeler: BREEAM was the world’s first green building certification program when it was launched in 1990, and it has been recognized and adopted in more than 89 countries. It is owned by BRE – a for-profit organization with over 100 years of building science and research experience.

An ideal low-carbon building is one with a highly efficient building envelope, fully electrified and able to run entirely on renewable energy – such as solar or wind – generated onsite. It would also have a low embodied carbon footprint, measured and managed through materials and construction processes throughout its life cycle. BREEAM helps its customers to measure and manage carbon emissions at all stages of decarbonisation.

Electrek: How do you think the EPA Supreme Court’s decision against West Virginia – which sharply curtailed the EPA’s power to regulate emissions that cause climate change – will negatively impact the way to the decarbonization of buildings?

Breana Wheeler: The EPA Supreme Court’s decision against West Virginia has drawn a strong response from industry leaders in all markets, as the federal government is an important catalyst in the fight against change. climatic. However, I am confident that cities and states will continue to lead by example and close the gaps left by the federal government in this area, whether through building performance standards, building codes or public utility commissions.

In addition, public knowledge and understanding of climate risks continues to grow every day. Investors, the business community and municipalities have demonstrated a keen understanding of the potential ramifications if climate change is left unchecked. These people and organizations continue to drive climate-related performance improvements and are well aligned with the trajectory, regardless of that decision.

Electrek: How can state and local governments fill the gaps left by the Supreme Court ruling?

Breana Wheeler: Many local governments are developing and implementing climate action plans. With buildings making up a large part of most cities’ footprint, we see many local jurisdictions thinking about how they can use their policy levers to address climate change.

Energy Benchmarking Orders, which require buildings to measure and report their energy use, are an important first step. Transparency often causes buildings to start managing the performance they report when they see how they stack up against their peers.

Building performance standards, which require measurement and reporting as well as certain levels of performance with the threat of a penalty for non-compliance, go even further. In cities like New York, Boston, and St. Louis, we’ve seen building performance standards ensure the cost of poor performance is clear.

Cities have pulled pension funds from fossil fuels, and states like California have adopted programs such as the Climate Change Scoping Plan, which encourages local governments to set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below 1990 levels by 2020, 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Thirty states, Washington, DC and two US territories have active renewable or clean energy needs, and three more states and one territory have set voluntary renewable energy targets. New York, California and Illinois have policies that require much of their electricity to come from renewables for the next few decades.

I expect these efforts to be strengthened and strengthened in the wake of the decision with heightened urgency, as the effects of climate change continue to be felt.

Electrek: If state or local governments choose not to go down the decarbonization path, can the private sector make a difference?

Breana Wheeler: Arguably, the private sector has led the fight against climate change in the United States. Private sector investors are increasingly aware that climate change poses a significant financial risk to their assets. A built environment that is not resilient leads to economic disruption, threatens public health, and can harm the long-term value of real estate. If the change is not implemented now, investors run the risk of reduced returns and potentially locked-in assets.

The most forward-thinking investors see climate change not only as a threat but also as an opportunity. As a result, they have invested $31 billion in climate mutual funds and exchange-traded funds by the end of 2021, a 45% increase from around $22 billion the year. previous year, according to a Morningstar report.

There is a great financial opportunity to facilitate a more equitable and sustainable decarbonized future, and investors are pursuing strategies to finance climate change solutions while maintaining competitiveness in global markets.

Electrek: To what extent do you think the general public is embracing and acting on the need for building decarbonization in the context of the climate crisis?

Breana Wheeler: Climate change is a crisis that will affect, and has already affected, people globally – encompassing social issues such as food scarcity, poverty and inequality. In the United States, the scale of the damage continues to grow: in July, there were nine disasters costing more than a billion dollars this year alone, and the impacts of extreme heat waves have not yet been fully measured.

In recent years, we have seen the vast majority of Americans call on federal and local governments to step up and enact policies aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change.

The science is clear – we must act to avoid the worst impacts over the next decade. The real estate sector has a responsibility to deal with the impacts. We are delighted to work with many organizations that have recognized the risks of climate change and want to manage them and turn them into opportunities.

Read more: The U.S. Supreme Court’s EPA Ruling Is Really Bad, But Here’s Why All Is Not Lost

Photo by Scott Webb at

Breana Wheeler became Director of US Operations in 2016 for the Building Research Establishment (BRE), a century-old building science research organization focused on providing better, healthier buildings for people and the environment. BRE has developed BREEAM, the world’s first sustainability science suite for validation and certification of built world assets, which has successfully administered over 550,000 certifications since 1990.

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