World Environment Day 2021 was celebrated earlier this month with its theme based on ‘Ecosystem Restoration’ coinciding with the launch of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, and extending from planting trees and greening cities, to plant-based diets and regenerating degraded rivers, coasts and lands. There has never been a more poignant time than now amid the COVID-19 pandemic to appreciate what this means to corporates and individuals globally.
As our cities and communities grapple with the lockdown impacts, many of us find the inherent need to reconnect with nature even as we were confined to our own homes or neighbourhoods over the last year.
The pandemic has offered a glimpse into what cities could look like if we pursued an alternative growth model – one that actively reduces waste and carbon emissions, while concurrently creating space for nature.
The UN has forecast that by 2050, over 68 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Combined with population growth, this could add another 2.5 billion people to these already densely populated areas.
The clock is ticking on collective action on climate change, failing which we may face more natural and manmade catastrophes that threaten human life and the economic sustainability of our communities globally.
The time is now to collectively work toward bridging the gap between nature and us.
Everyone has a part to play in making real change to the environment
The public and private sectors have the opportunity to collaborate on making transformative change.
The Singapore government recognises the need for green infrastructure and has set clear goals to address it in the Singapore Green Plan 2030 launched earlier this year, which Prime Minister Lee reiterated during the recent Asia Regional Commonwealth Leaders' Roundtable calling for regional collaboration.
The “80-80-80” plan – setting tangible goals for the greening of 80 percent of all buildings and 80 percent of buildings to be certified ‘Super Low Energy’ by 2030 as well as an 80 percent energy efficiency improvement (compared with 2005) for best-in-class buildings – is a great start.
The built environment sector itself is responsible for consuming over a third of the world’s natural resources and producing around 40% of global emissions. Even a miniscule reduction in emissions and waste produced by the sector can have a multiplier effect, making it critical for industry-wide engagement in sustainable practices.
Corporates alike have to acknowledge environmental risks and take that leap of faith to arrest the degradation of our environment. This is also why at Lendlease, we have set Mission Zero to pledge ourselves to achieve net zero emissions by 2025 and absolute zero emissions, without offsets, by 2040. Ultimately, it is about translating these real environmental risks into a core business strategy and operationalising this into meaningful action.
Moving the needle by building smartly through the design process
For a start, the built environment should consider undertaking detailed Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience assessments. Over the past few years, we have combined local meteorological and geographical information to evaluate developments’ vulnerability to heatwaves, extreme weather, flooding and various climate scenarios.
These assessments are crucial in mitigating environmental risks. Across the projects we have planned and built, elements of sustainability and design go hand-in-hand in mitigating environmental risks. At the same time, marrying these design qualities improves the wellbeing of shoppers, tenants and residents.
Precinct-wide local projects such as Paya Lebar Quarter (PLQ) have made significant strides in ensuring that the public area includes over 300 percent more trees, incorporates flood-resilient design elements to mitigate flooding and connects people to nature through natural landscapes.
Greening the supply chain through digitalisation
Incorporating sustainability through sourcing practices is also an important step as 90 percent of a company’s impact on the environment originates from its supply chain.
On the construction front, gradually weaning off the reliance on fossil fuels will become more important than before. While we are using biodiesel and working with construction plants and equipment manufacturers to make these options more widely available, we are also ensuring that the source of biofuel feedstock does not create unintentional environmental consequences.
Moving towards 100 percent electrification of site-based construction activities, together with the purchasing of green power are some tactics that developers can incorporate as part of their strategy. Doing so is a great opportunity to combine battery storage technology, digital solutions and smarter processes in constructing in a more efficient and cleaner way.
In Asia’s construction sector, 49 percent of respondents surveyed by McKinsey shared that transparent end-to-end supply chains would help to mitigate risks in the long term. Eleven percent of the building and construction sectors’ global carbon emissions are associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole building lifecycle.
Integrated supply chains can contribute to greener, more efficient supply chains translating to reduced carbon footprint, and ultimately a cleaner planet. A multi-stakeholder approach across the supply chain is essential to transform the way materials are used, alongside cascading efforts that extend the adoption of circular economic and other waste reduction practices.
Smart building management to adapt and respond to occupants’ needs
Autonomous buildings – the sustainable buildings of the future – will represent an evolution from static physical spaces to self-aware and self-governing environments that can anticipate and adapt to human needs.
In the future, we can also look forward to autonomous cities, which can leverage data insights into the needs of the urban population and carry out predictive maintenance using artificial intelligence.
As we move towards the digitalisation of the built environment sector, developers should look at utilising digital twin technology as an intelligence interface for autonomous adaptive control.
For example, PLQ utilises an Open Building System Integration (OBSI) programme to streamline all building management functionalities including air-conditioning and ventilation. The OBSI system led to significant savings in water and costs, presenting a use case for how the construction sector can leverage technology to support smart building management.
As we commemorate World Environment Day, we need to call attention to the important role the built environment sector plays in helping us safeguard the sustainability of our living environment.
The journey towards decarbonisation is not an easy one, and the post-pandemic world will accelerate the demand for better buildings. The spaces that we create, the air quality that we circulate and the biodiversity that we introduce have to all work in synergy to meet the requirements in a post-pandemic building ecosystem.
Establishing a safe and trusted corridor for shoppers, tenants and residents will become the new reality in the future of city planning and everyone has a part to play as they embark in this transformation.
Image: Biodiversity at Paya Lebar Quarter precinct – rainwater gardens provide temporary storage for rainwater, controlling peak flow discharge and mitigating flooding risks.
2 Recent studies on future climate impacts have focused on a warming scenario called “RCP8.5”. This high-emissions scenario is frequently referred to as “business as usual”, suggesting that is a likely outcome if society does not make concerted efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions: https://www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-the-high-emissions-rcp8-5-global-warming-scenario
Opinion piece first published in The Business Times
Michael Long is Head of Sustainability, Asia – Lendlease.