Are savings just thin air?

April 25, 2013 / By

On a trip back to Scotland a couple of weeks ago, what jumped out at me was how much better the air quality was in comparison to Hong Kong.

This is far from a new topic, but realistically how do we address air quality in emerging Asia? In thinking of the interest groups and stakeholders involved this reminded me of the dilemma originally raised by ecologist Garrett Hardin. His theory tackled the socio-economic dilemma of a group of individuals when sharing a common resource. Known as “the tragedy of the commons,” this theory can be applied to a myriad of scenarios when society shares a common resource – in this case the wider environment.

In its simplest sense, the theory references the practice of medieval common grazing by herdsmen for their cattle. It goes something like this. Any single herder will have a personal motivation to add one more cow to his herd, because even if the results of adding additional cattle to his herd cause overgrazing and damage to the pastures, the herdsman receives all the economic benefit of adding those additional cattle, whilst the damage to the lands is shared by all.

Now, I’m not going to solve the air quality issues in Hong Kong in 500 words, but what is clear is that we all have a stake and responsibility in tackling these issues and this applies as much to real estate professionals just like myself. With a significant proportion of energy consumption being taken up by real estate, globally we have a duty and a responsibility to drive forward change to improve the impact we have on our “pastures.”

Now what Hardin did not address in his paper was technology. Technology provides solutions to problems. Yes we can legislate, but the winning argument in relation to real estate in this debate in my mind is simply the bottom line. When businesses start to see the savings and benefits to their bottom line of adopting more sustainable new technologies in real estate, adopting new best practice will just become the natural course. Technology is already moving fast and the real estate industry has some brilliant technologies at hand already.

The savings from sustainability are very real, not just on the impact we have on our “pastures” but on the bottom line. A great example is our new LEED Platinum office in Hong Kong. Our new office consumes 13% less energy per sq ft and better air quality has greatly improved the environment, indeed we’ve seen a 32% reduction in absenteeism.

I’m not saying technology has all the solutions now and that the payback times and the investment are not prohibitive at times. However, what is true is that the more it’s adopted, the more the costs will come down making it a more viable option.

A project we undertook in New York on the Empire State Building is a great example of how savings can be made even today. Not only did we deliver a project to improve sustainability which would pay for itself in three years by saving US$4.4m per annum in energy savings, the energy reduction and thus the impact on the planet, was in the region of 38%.

So the lesson is this, not only is the technology here to save us from a similar “tragedy of the commons,” but it’s improving every day. The savings to the bottom line are real and it’s up to us as real estate professionals to promote best practice in our industry. We can’t solve transport and factory pollution; however, with a little effort from all stakeholders, there will be some very tangible benefits for the wider environment and also the bottom line of developers, tenants and landlords – our clients.


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