Featured Blog: An Interview with Gehan Palipana

Top Voices in Sustainability

This transcript is part of a series of Top Voice interviews brought to you by IBR Group International on the topic of sustainability. To learn more about our Top Voices in Sustainability interviews or to discover how you can contribute, please contact us directly.  

Here's the transcript to the full interview: 

Q1. Would you care to introduce yourself and your work at Cushman & Wakefield?


My name is Gehan Palipana, and I head up the sustainability team for Australia and New Zealand at Cushman and Wakefield.

Q2. Would you be able to explain what exactly embodied carbon is and why it is so relevant to climate change?


Embodied carbon is a portion of what's called value chain emissions or scope 3 emissions. For real estate, it's basically the carbon emissions associated with the construction stage of a building, which includes things like manufacturing, transporting and installing materials, demolition and disposal of waste materials. The reason that the concept of embodied emissions is so relevant to climate change is that it is helping to broaden our attention to not just direct carbon emissions (what we call operational carbon for buildings) but also the indirect emissions that we are producing in our everyday lives. Up until recently, most of the attention around decarbonisation has been focused on reducing the operational carbon emissions that people and organisations generate through the use of a building, so things like reducing energy use, choosing energy efficient appliances and moving into more energy efficient buildings. What we've known for a long time though is that these direct emissions are only a part of our whole emissions footprint. The things we choose to use don't just appear. If you take a piece of technology for example, it will go through a number of steps from resource extraction, to processing, to assembling, to packaging and shipping before it ends up in our hands. All of those steps create carbon emissions before the device is ever even turned on. The same principle applies to real estate, in that the construction of a building has significant carbon and sustainability impacts before It even becomes operational. We've mostly ignored these emissions sources in the past when talking about a building's carbon footprint, but as embodied carbon becomes a more commonplace consideration we're going to have to start looking at those emissions too, and that will hopefully drive different behaviours in how we use property.

Coming back to the climate change question, embodied carbon, like operational carbon represents a significant source of our total carbon emissions. Without addressing all our emissions sources, we can't effectively decarbonise our society to avoid dangerous climate change. 

Q3. Are there any significant ANZ infrastructure regulations in place to combat the future rise in embodied carbon in the real estate sector?


I'd say in general, Australia is a little behind some other jurisdictions around addressing our embodied emissions. We don't really have much in the way of regulations that compel or encourage reducing embodied emissions in the real estate sector at the moment. That's not to say that things will stay that way. Embodied emissions have become a focal point for governments, and there's a lot of work going on at the state and federal level, as well as through industry bodies to help organisations understand and address their embodied carbon emissions. New South Wales is introducing a policy later this year requiring architects and developers to calculate the embodied carbon in their designs, and there have been a number of proposals to include embodied emissions and lifecycle assessments into the 2025 National Construction Code (NCC) revision. I know that NABERS is looking to create an approach to measure and report embodied emissions and the Green Star rating system is starting to reward organisations who can demonstrate reductions in embodied emissions. We expect that minimum requirements and regulations around embodied carbon will follow closely behind these initial policies. 

Q4. How are Cushman and Wakefield leading through strategies and pathways to successfully offset/combat the problem of embodied carbon?


We think that embodied emissions is set to become one of the biggest focus areas of the net zero and sustainability strategies for our clients. We know that the built environment is responsible for about 40% of our yearly global carbon emissions. We also know that something like 80% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been built, which means that to decarbonise effectively, we can't just focus on new buildings, we have to 'green' our existing buildings too. We've already been having these conversations with some of our clients over the past 18 months, but the interest is increasing by the day. The focus of the property decarbonisation conversation is shifting from just operational efficiency to looking at the entire value chain. Our sustainability team is helping our clients understand their embodied carbon footprint from the build vs don't build decision, to materials selection and material reduction, through to building efficiently. In the past few months we've also released 2 guides on this topic: our 'How to green the brown' guide and 'How to retrofit' guide. Both of which are aimed at decarbonizing existing buildings and minimizing embodied carbon emissions. 

Q5. How long will it take to realistically combat embodied carbon emissions? 


We're seeing a lot of positive momentum around addressing embodied carbon emissions at the moment, but the reality is that there is no quick fix for this. Embodied carbon is a complex concept both to measure and address. At the moment it's a lot harder to quantify the embodied emissions of a project than it is to quantify operational emissions. We are starting to develop better quantification approaches, and once those approaches have been standardized, the measurement issue will fall away. Addressing embodied emissions is also more difficult than operational emissions. While a building's operational carbon emissions can usually be addressed by one party deciding to switch equipment off or replacing plant and equipment with more efficient options, embodied emissions are generated across multiple stages of the value chain, which means that you really need a coordinated approach across all of the parties across industries and sectors. I'd argue that regulation is the quickest way to incentivize that process. We're starting to see voluntary guidance around reducing embodied emissions come out, and I'm pretty confident that this will be followed closely by mandatory requirements across the country as stakeholder pressure increases, but that's probably a couple of years away. It's also going to take manufacturers and supply chain partners time to reduce the emissisions associated with their building materials and construction processes. That optimization will be fairly quick for some industries, but will take years for others.  

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E.A.S.I. Consult LLC