Rob Bernard is chief sustainability officer for CBRE, the massive global property consultancy that has 115,000 people on its books across the planet and a responsibility to help transform real estate portfolios owned by the biggest institutional investors in the US where he is based, and across the world.
Rob Bernard got his first inkling of why nature needs our protection when he was a young backpacker in Asia. Waiting at a train station overnight for the next connection and trying to get some sleep, he was continually awakened by train after train trundling through, laden with enormous logs from the rainforest. It was obvious to him that the beautiful rainforests he’d seen would be unsustainable if this plundering continued. It was an insight he shared after the mic was turned off for our podcast, How to Build a Better World, but one that informed the trajectory of the career he embarked on.
We spoke to Bernard not long after he attended Climate Week NYC, in New York City in late September this year, 2023.
There were “tens of thousands of people converging on New York City,” he told us, “hundreds of different events, with all topics that you can imagine around sustainability being covered. And every event I went to was packed”.
It left him with the sense there were “literally armies of people” now working to solve our climate and sustainability problems. Something that for most of his career “has not been the case.”
A key takeaway he says was evidenced by the hundreds of sessions that were held: these are complex issues.
“We could choose any topic area and go really deep on it.”
Bernard came away more convinced than ever that it was the responsibility of companies like his to simplify the problem for their clients.
“Because there’s far too much information to understand, far too many stakeholders, far too many reporting regulatory requirements, far too many rating agencies and the list goes on and on.
“We really need to drive simplicity around this complexity.”
The other big outcome from Climate Week NYC, he says is the focus on data and the technical aspects of reporting.
“I think the world is rapidly coming to a realisation that we need another level of advancement in how we think about carbon accounting and carbon reporting, and how to do those kinds of things at scale in a much more accurate way.”
No small task lying ahead in this relatively new gig for him.
His company’s clients need strategic blueprints, choices on time frames and materials, and resource efficiencies.
“And it’s not just carbon, it’s nature and biodiversity, it’s water – it’s the waste stream and circular economy.”
It’s a big job, but then again Bernard is not exactly new to the game.
In 2008 he was appointed Microsoft’s first chief environmental strategist, where his task was to encourage the company to think about sustainability more broadly, and to create ways to think about carbon, especially leveraging technology to drive acceleration at the intersection of business and sustainability.
He’s also held related roles with National Geographic, worked as a consultant and started a private equity fund in the circular economy.
The CBRE job was irresistible, he says.
“CBRE has 115,000 people and oversees 7 billion square feet (650,321 square metres) of real estate around the world. So, when there was an opportunity to work with a company of that scale…I’m all in,” he said.
The role is twofold: address the company’s own carbon footprint, but also work out how to organise its staff and assets in a way that helps drive acceleration of decarbonising the entire industry.
Key is understanding the intersection of technology advancements, sustainability requirements, and business models.
“Far too many people think of sustainability as ‘Oh, it’s a net negative on the economy’. Yet, when you look at the numbers, it’s one of the biggest job creation and economic value creation opportunities, certainly in the rest of my lifetime. So unequivocally, there’s massive opportunity.
“The question is, how do we collectively as a society move through this transition at the most rapid pace that we can to create economic opportunity while we’re decarbonising?”
Simplification is needed
Bernard said that while the crowds at Climate Week NYC and the diversity and depth of subjects discussed, gave him hope that many of the challenges of sustainability are recognised, he worries how companies will be able to navigate the complexity.
“One of the things that I came away with, and with even more conviction than going into it, was companies like CBRE really have to simplify the complexity for our clients. There’s far too much information to understand, far too many stakeholders, far too many reporting regulatory requirements, far too many rating agencies and the list goes on and on. So we really need to drive simplicity around this complexity.
“And then the other part was talking a lot about data and some of the technical aspects of reporting. I think the world is rapidly coming to a realisation that we need another level of advancement in how we think about carbon accounting and carbon reporting, and how to do those kinds of things at scale in a much more accurate way.”
Scaling the sustainability mindset
Being able to scale a sustainable mindset is also on Bernard’s agenda. While the company may have around 1000 people dedicated to sustainability, there are thousands more who have it as a part of their role.
“Because now, if I’m sourcing products and services for clients, three or four years ago I may not have been thinking about what’s the carbon impact of that landscape company or that food service? As we move forward, they’re going to be thinking about that. Is it their job to think about sustainability all the time? No, but it does become embedded in what they’re doing for their job: thinking through Company A versus Company B, and what is the carbon impact of that?”
Bernard said he is planning to carry that way of thinking out to every part of the business over time.
“You don’t want to rely on a centralised team to do the work for everybody. You want to provide the tools and assets to everyone so that they can do the work because 115,000 people scale a lot faster than 1000.
“I would encourage companies to think about whether they are taking a whole system approach.” It’s critical in the context that people typically think about one issue at a time. They really need to think about the interplay with everything else.
“Having a holistic view allows you to traverse all the issues which are interconnected, like a complex system, like your health. It’s all interconnected. What I do here impacts what I want to do here and vice versa. And so if I’m not thinking holistically, I’m going to sub optimise my solution,” Bernard said.
Listen to the podcast where Rob Bernard also discussed how building owners can address carbon emissions, retrofitting, financing and where Australia sits globally in decarbonisation. He’s interviewed by The Fifth Estate managing editor Tina Perinotto.