According to an assessment by the University of Cambridge, buildings account for 50% of all extracted materials, 42% of final energy consumption, 35% of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions, and 32% of waste flows in the European Union.
No wonder governments are acting. For the first time, there is a ‘Built Environment Day’ on the agenda at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Robbie Epsom of CBRE (real estate) Investors believes “our sector is likely to be the second-biggest focus of the summit after the energy sector.”
The World Green Building Council has updated its Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment to include new requirements for addressing ‘embodied emissions’.
Apparently, 10% of carbon emissions come from the materials and construction processes required to build and renovate buildings, also known as ‘embodied carbon’. It is estimated that between 2020 and 2050 more than half of the total carbon emissions from all new global construction will be due to embodied carbon.
EPRA a ‘powerful organisation’ to lead industry change
Against this background, Meka Brunel, who is also the CEO of Gecina, a French real estate investment trust listed on Euronext Paris, is in pole position to lead significant change.
“As an industry, we have historically been heavy polluters,” Brunel told Impact Investor. “This is a difficult task for our industry, but the recent UN report on climate change shows us we must accelerate our progress over the next decade.”
Brunel believes EPRA is a powerful organisation in this regard. “The world is not one country, we must work together on decarbonisation,” she says.
She is clear on her priorities. “Firstly, addressing environmental concerns because we simply have no choice. Secondly, making inclusiveness and gender equality central to how the industry operates.”
These two issues have already dominated her tenure at Gecina, which owns, manages, and develops Europe’s leading office portfolio, with nearly 97% located in the Paris Region. At the end of June, Gecina’s portfolios were valued at €20bn.
Internal carbon tax
Brunel has committed Gecina to being net zero by 2030. This was a shift from its previous target of 2050 and makes the company a leader amongst real estate players.
Brunel has also introduced what she refers to as “an internal carbon tax” for Gecina employees. She says that “an effective way to educate people is to talk about money” and that “by aligning employees’ bonuses to carbon reductions in buildings we are bringing about real change.”
“The surprising thing about our internal carbon tax is now that employees have bought in, they actually want us to go further,” she says.
‘A post-vehicle era’
As Paris’s biggest landlord Brunel also supports moves to encourage “greater urban density” there, led by Paris’s mayor Anne Hidalgo. The ‘ville du quart d’heure’ was invented by Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno, who argues cities must move away from oil-era priorities of roads and car ownership to ‘a post-vehicle era’.
The idea is to turn cities into a collection of villages, where everything citizens need is within a fifteen minutes’ walk – their place of work, the food they buy, schools, clinics, parks.
Brunel also believes “we should follow the principles of the circular economy and renovate buildings using existing materials as much as possible.”
Gecina says their recent redevelopment of the buildings at 75, Grande Armée in Paris brought this “ground-breaking circular economy approach (to) the heart of Paris.” More than 81 tons of materials have been reused, making it possible to avoid 394 tons of CO2 emissions.
“Future buildings have to be sustainably compliant or they simply won’t be allowed to exist,” says Brunel.
Interestingly, on their residential side, Gecina has also become part of the growing trend towards building with wood. They recently signed a partnership agreement with Woodeum to develop 1,000 low-carbon, timber-frame housing units over the next four years in the Paris Region and major cities across France.
“It is an important step to sharply reduce our carbon impact” and “we have opened the door, and shown the path for other people to follow,” she says.
As part of “the greening of Gecina,” Brunel has initiated a move into green bonds. She says her finance department came up with the idea of redefining the entire outstanding balance sheet, some €6.5bn of bonds. Brunel hopes others in the real estate industry will follow.
Inclusivity in real estate
When it comes to the real estate industry being more inclusive, Brunel can also lead by example. Gecina is a leader in the Gender Equality Index of businesses with a score of 94/100.
“We have made a lot of progress, and it is my hope we can persuade others in our industry, not always the most diverse, to follow,” says Brunel. She strongly supports efforts to make at least 40% of company boards female, and new initiatives to insist that at least 30% of the next level down, senior executives, should also be women.
“This is not about governance in the sense of box-ticking or bureaucracy, it is about being forward-thinking. And doing something that will lead to better decision-making. This is what diversity does.”
As part of inclusivity, Brunel also has been pioneering with the Café Joyeux concept launched in 2017, which “reflects a desire to change the way people view disabilities and foster inclusion at the heart of our cities.” The franchise employs around 50 crew members with cognitive disabilities across its five locations.
Brunel’s background informs her perspective. “My origins are Persian and I was raised in the Baha’i faith.” The Baháʼí Faith is now the second-largest religion in Iran after Islam, and puts a strong emphasis on female education.
Brunel: “As such, I was raised to believe in what could be achieved by the collective efforts of humanity. I’m not stubborn – well, maybe a little bit. But I do believe there is no such thing as ‘impossible’. My own contribution may be small, but all these small contributions can give a chance to collectively succeed.”