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The world is still in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic but GPT Group’s sustainability agenda has barely hit a speed bump.

As the property giant made clear in its annual sustainability report, released two weeks go on 15 May, the company is working towards clear policy goals: the big one being carbon neutrality by 2030.

GPT Group head of sustainability and energy Steve Ford says the company, which owns and manages a $25.3 billion portfolio of retail, office and logistics properties in Australia, won’t be wavering on these commitments despite the pandemic putting the world on hold.

“It’s not changing our agenda.”

He told The Fifth Estate that there’s been a shift in the immediate focus, with energy efficiency “back in a big way” as businesses look for ways to keep costs down in a time of financial strain.

“Assets are willing to try new things to drive efficiencies.”

Although energy efficiency programs were enough to send people off to sleep in the past, Ford says it’s suddenly “the new black.”

In fact, he says, senior leadership is now very committed to sustainability, including climate action. “They’re asking all the right question”.

What helped achieve full company buy-in was the first climate-related financial risk disclosure through the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.

The process helped people understand the very real financial risks of climate change, and how it might impact day-to-day business decision making in the years to come.

Demand response and demand management on the table

Major property companies like GPT are becoming increasingly cognisant of their role in supporting a grid that’s becoming less reliant on dispatchable, fossil fuel energy sources.

“In a renewable powered future, energy is less flexible on the supply side and more flexible on the demand side.”

As part of the company’s Energy Master Plan, it’s looking seriously at demand response and demand management and so far with success – managing to curtail loads at peak periods without significantly impacting comfort within buildings.

This typically involve acting early on a forecasted extreme weather event (usually a heat wave) to pre-cool assets so that less energy for cooling is required in the peak demand period in the middle of the day.

This is a solution proposed by leading building consultants such as Energetics and Energetics’ Andrew Tipping and Buildings Alive’s Craig Roussac for dealing with summer heat loads (and more recently with the impact of Covid-19).

For GPT this is only the beginning of the company’s exploration into demand response and demand management, with risk and safety studies of battery storage for existing infrastructure currently underway.

“It’s a big area of investment for us.”

The company’s energy retailer, ERM Power, has helped deliver these innovative programs that Ford says will be crucial in the transition to a low carbon economy.

Electrifying assets to minimise dependency on fossil fuels is also part of the Energy Master Plan.

Two net zero buildings in the bag 

The property company has proven itself capable of delivering carbon neutral buildings, with Workplace6 in Sydney and 8 Exhibition Street in Melbourne the first two office buildings in Australia to achieve this certification in alignment with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol.

It’s also already hit its target to achieve carbon neutrality for its Wholesale Office Fund assets by the end of 2020.

“This means 18 premium A grade buildings are all operating carbon neutrally. Tenants can go to work knowing that their base building is not contributing to further emissions and global warming.”

How they did it

Hitting this milestone was a three-part process starting off with eliminating direct emissions where possible, followed by securing 100 per cent renewable energy contracts.

Finally, leftover emissions from things like burning gas, waste to landfill, water consumption, diesel backup generators and occasional fugitive emissions like refrigerants were offset through Greenfleet.

The longstanding environmental offset organisation plants native forests to offset carbon emissions for businesses, allowing companies to contribute to biodiversity and improved water flows at the same time.

Ford suspects the company won’t be out on its own for long on carbon neutrality, with the major players all moving in this direction.

Net zero water – the next frontier

While net zero carbon remains a top priority for GPT, Ford’s specialist sustainability team of eight (closer to 50 when including operational staff) is also thinking about net zero water.

He says it’s tough work because there’s not the same sophisticated group of consultants that have developed endless different pathways to carbon neutrality.

But as Australia recovers from extreme drought conditions in much of the country – severe enough to leave several towns without water – achieving water neutral buildings will become critical.

“You don’t really use up water – you take it in water from the environment and return it in a more polluted state.”

The end goal will be to return water from buildings in the “best state it can be”, and much like net zero carbon, this has multiple phases, starting with reducing the amount of water consumed in the first place though water efficiency measures, followed by managing waste water discharge.

Ford also says the company is looking at water neutrality holistically, and says it might involve offsets through ecosystem restoration programs that include improving waterways.

The company will start this process be evaluating the on-site and off-site hydrology of its managed assets, with “a focus on establishing the degree of source depletion and impacts on downstream waterways”.

Not wasting any time on waste

On waste, GPT is performing well. It was one of the first companies to get a NABERS for Waste rating. It also has been reporting on closed loop outcomes since 2014, with the intention of diverting as much waste as possible from landfill.

“This includes eliminating waste where possible, choosing the right materials on our projects, and recovering everything in our control to the highest value that we can,” states the report.

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