Is regulation the only path to net-zero for the built environment?

Net zero construction Ellis Fox Blog

Despite increasing extreme weather events, and rising costs of materials, the push to achieve net zero in the built environment is proceeding at snail’s pace. While there are a handful of success stories, in general, investors still seem hesitant to lay out the capital to make buildings more energy efficient or to use alternative low carbon materials needed to move towards net zero. In addition, continued reliance on fossil fuels and high volumes of construction waste are adding to the problem.

Why the delay to make the changes that will have a positive impact? Is it because investors are too old school to believe they’ll get a return? Even if up until now they have been able to continue with business as usual, this is unlikely to last. Environmental concerns are closely followed by economic ones and increasingly these are translating into new regulations.

Indications are that the ideals of net zero and the urgent need to mitigate the impacts of climate change aren’t enough to incentivise change. Is the age-old stick versus carrot the only way to achieve this? It seems that unless investors are at risk of being taxed or fined, they will continue to drag their feet.

There’s an interesting case in New York City where a new regulation was passed aimed at making buildings more energy efficient and to lower their carbon footprint. The requirement was for landlords to make the changes incrementally over time, or face penalties. Landlords may not have been happy to make these changes in what is already one of the most expensive areas for real estate. But threats of fines have proven to be enough of an incentive to make the changes happen. This highlights that regulations, backed up the ability to enforce them may be one of the few effective ways to achieve net zero.

This may not be a popular approach, but at this point we need what will be effective in accelerating change. We can’t keep debating whether climate change is real. Not when each season the costs of repairs and the economic damage resulting from extreme weather events are crippling maintenance budgets.

The construction and infrastructure industries already have the blueprint on decarbonization and building greater infrastructure resilience. While regulations may be effective at advancing net zero efforts due to the risk of fines and penalties, ultimately this shouldn’t be the only way to drive change.