How investors are zeroing in on decarbonization

As institutional real estate investors get to grips with net zero, they are making more demands of their partners and operators.

Climate change and the actions needed to combat it have never been higher on the agenda for institutional investors, which means their partners need to be aligned with their ambitions. 

Perhaps the most substantial change in recent years is the increasing number of organizations that have committed to a quantified pathway for ensuring their investments are net-zero carbon. Investors have not only reached a consensus that action must be taken, but also increasingly concur that this action should be a programmatic reduction in emissions. 

Investor bodies such as the UN-convened Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, which consists of 74 global investors with more than $10 trillion of assets, are driving decarbonization efforts across multiple asset classes, including real estate. 

More real estate investors and managers are committing to the Science-Based Targets Initiative, which sets out a clearly defined pathway for companies to reduce emissions. Targets are considered ‘science-based’ if they are in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement: limiting global warming to below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5C.

“Sophisticated investors are responding to an evolving regulatory environment and to the demands of stakeholders. So they are, in turn, increasingly demanding of their operators,” explains Dana Gibson, head of real estate, Europe at Macquarie Asset Management.

“The minimum expectations are a clearly articulated pathway to be at least operational net zero by a specific date. And investors are really demanding accountability, which is reflected in reporting. Along with asset- and portfolio-level execution, partners and operators need the capability to accurately report and hold themselves, their partners and their tenants to account.”

Not all institutional investors are at the same stage, however, nor have all completed the work needed to set out a net-zero pathway. “Different organizations have different target dates. We set ourselves a goal to hit net zero across our portfolio by 2040, although 2050 is obviously the key year for many investors,” says Gibson.

“Even investors without a commitment tend to be in the process of setting out their pathways, and it’s no easy task. There is a huge amount to be done and although 2050 seems a long way off, it isn’t a long time in the life of an institutional real estate portfolio,” Gibson adds.

Coen van Oostrom, founder and CEO of sustainability-focused real estate developer EDGE, says: “We are in a confusing period. Because sustainability in itself has become completely mainstream, everybody has some sort of strategy. However, there are a lot of institutions that are not doing enough and others are really pushing forward quickly. More generally, I am surprised that – despite all the information available – real estate worldwide isn’t further ahead than it is.”

Bayerische Versorgungskammer (BVK), the largest German pension fund with total assets of more than €100 billion and an allocation of 24 percent to real estate, is a major institutional investor with a stated net-zero target. “The overall plan for BVK is to be carbon neutral across all asset classes by 2050,” says Rainer Komenda, head of real estate investment management at the pension fund. “We are at the preliminary stage of analyzing the portfolio and gathering information from our managers so we can plot a roadmap to achieve that target.

“Talking to peers, it is clear that institutional investors are setting the baseline and looking at their portfolios to understand their carbon intensity and working on their own roadmap.” 

With a global portfolio, BVK does not differentiate between geographies, as the company as a whole has a goal to achieve, but Komenda does note that “different regions come with different climate risks and different regulatory issues, which is something we really need to consider.”

Institutional commitment to decarbonization varies around the world, but Europe is generally regarded as the frontrunner. “Europe is at the top end, and the further north you go in Europe, the more sophisticated the approach. [The] US and Asia are probably at the same level, but Europe is leading,” says Komenda.

Gibson claims that Macquarie Asset Management’s data backs this up. “Our investor surveys in 2021 show 70 percent of European investors have a dedicated ESG function, for example. And generally the further north you go in Europe, the higher decarbonization is as a priority. Perhaps a few years ago, sustainability was often driven by a few concerned and knowledgeable individuals within an organization and a lot of education was needed internally. Now, in most cases, we have moved beyond that.”

There is also a difference between larger and smaller organizations. Komenda argues that “generally, larger investors are further ahead because this process takes resources.” 

But van Oostrom disagrees: “Larger organizations certainly have more resources, which helps with things like reporting, but smaller organizations can move faster, so I don’t think it is necessarily the case that larger investors are always further ahead.”

Zooming in 

Targets and pathways are the macro approach to net zero, but real estate portfolios will require a micro approach, whereby every holding is analyzed to see how it fits, or can be made to fit, with an institution’s overall ambitions. 

“There’s a discovery process going on among investors as they interrogate their portfolios, partners and managers to see where they are on their portfolio’s emissions profile and what they need to do to get to net zero,” Gibson says. 

Sustainability is a key consideration for asset acquisition, says Komenda. “We are gearing towards a carbon-neutral, environmentally friendly portfolio, so that is one of the hallmarks we are considering with new investments. 

“However, it’s not about just buying new assets, but also the hard work on the current portfolio. We need to see if we can transform something into a next-generation asset, or the solution could also be an exit, if the asset was not appropriate for the future of BVK.”

The concept of an asset becoming obsolete if its carbon emissions profile cannot meet investors’ evolving ESG requirements is relatively new, but will become more and more important as corporate occupiers choose more sustainable properties to meet their own net-zero targets and the demands of their staff. 

“The velocity of obsolescence is accelerating,” says Gibson. “For an existing portfolio or a building, investors are trying to understand what the net-zero transition may look like. That work is ongoing and it’s a long journey, as there’s a lot of real estate out there.”

Larger European institutions have been asking for more from their partners in terms of sustainability for some time. Komenda says that BVK has “included an ESG questionnaire for more than 10 years in our manager beauty contest process, but this has gained a lot more traction and importance in the past three to four years.

“Three years ago we asked all our managers to participate in [ESG benchmark] GRESB. I think that’s really helpful to get better data alignment and to have a good comparison between different regions, different sectors, different geographies, different styles, and get a good overview.”

Technology will be central to the real estate industry achieving its sustainability goals, especially in the field of data. Acquiring carbon data across a portfolio is the first stage of a net-zero program, but it is not always easy across asset types and geographies. “One of the hottest topics is data, how best to source it and manage it across a portfolio,’’ Komenda says. “Do you need an external adviser?”

There is a perception that a greater focus on sustainability will benefit those investors and managers with a long time horizon, as the portfolio work will take time and be costly. “One of the pillars of BVK and an advantage for us is that we have always been long-term investors,” says Komenda. “We always have a long-term horizon, and the bulk of the portfolio is long-term hold.”

Gibson adds: “Technology is a challenge for many organizations because there are many platforms out there and it can be tough to assess them unless you have the knowledge skill set to do so. Everyone dreams of having one system that can do it all, but in practice investors are having to assess multiple platforms and how they might work together.”

Understanding the facts

Even as more and more investors are aligning themselves with net zero, the concept of sustainability in real estate is still developing. Most investors comprehend operational carbon (the amount of carbon emitted during a building’s use) as a topic, but the real estate industry is increasingly looking at embodied carbon, the emissions caused by the construction of a building. Factoring in embodied carbon can make ground-up development less attractive compared with refurbishment. 

EDGE is one of only a few developers that have pledged to achieve net zero for both operational and embodied carbon in new developments, which will mean greater use of recycled and renewable materials and embracing the principles of a circular economy. 

The pace of change will accelerate and asset owners need to keep up, according to van Oostrom. “In order to accelerate the decarbonization process, asset owners need to think about entire portfolios, not just take one building at a time. In the future, there will be a greater bifurcation between winners and losers as climate change accelerates.” 

Institutional real estate investors are going to need to lean heavily on their partners and investment managers if they are to meet their net-zero targets. Komenda says: “We do see a lot of managers doing more and more; the transformation process is really gaining speed. However, we would like to see managers moving faster in taking on this challenge.”

Despite the size of the challenge, it also presents an opportunity, says Gibson. “We think there’s a lot of opportunity in that space, as asset owners undertake this process of discovery about what is needed in their portfolios. There will be portfolios with problems, of course, but we see smart investors saying ‘there is an opportunity for us to lead’ and turning capital towards that.”