Reducing carbon embodied in our buildings, specifically the carbon in building materials, has been a hot topic this summer since the government launched its Low Carbon Construction Action Plan in June.
Setting a standard way of measuring embodied carbon is one of the plan's key targets, and I applaud this. Any move to cut carbon in the build process deserves support.
But there is something about the industry language and rhetoric on the topic that concerns me. Much of the talk presents embodied carbon as our next great challenge, as if the dragon of day-to-day emissions from our buildings has already been slain or at least caged. It has not.
We need to put things in perspective. Non-domestic buildings account for almost one fifth (18 per cent) of the UK's total carbon footprint, and half those buildings being used today will still be standing and in use in 2050. Reducing the carbon embodied in materials will not make a significant impact here.
In our new paper, Less embodied carbon, more value?, we explore this issue and estimate that embodied carbon accounts for as little as 10 per cent of the vast majority of buildings' whole life carbon emissions.
The property industry and the government needs to focus on cutting the day-to-day operational emissions from the buildings we already have and specifically the 98 per cent of building stock that is more than five years old. This has always been and remains the most urgent carbon challenge in the sector today.
How do we address it? By implementing low carbon refurbishment on a massive scale and, crucially, by supporting tenants to realise the full low carbon potential of the buildings they occupy.
Losing focus on the operational carbon challenge carries real risks. For a start, the UK simply cannot achieve its legally binding national carbon reduction goals without making real and dramatic reductions in emissions from our existing non-domestic buildings.
And there are severe financial implications for building owners and landlords. Energy efficiency and carbon emissions are becoming an increasingly important driver in tenants' choice of commercial property.
Landlords will find that buildings with high energy costs and reputation-damaging carbon performance take longer to fill and occupiers become increasingly likely to exercise their lease breaks. They will, in effect, be subject to a 'grey discount'.
By increasing focus on operational carbon there is a win-win opportunity to be embraced and real capital value to be secured by landlords and occupiers alike.
Katharine Deas is managing director of Low Carbon Workplace Ltd