Sustainability 101: Your Guide to Critical Definitions
Andrew Phipps • 6/7/2021
View a list of terms and definitions we think are of particular importance when it comes to sustainability and commercial real estate (CRE):
The process by which organic matter is broken down-typically animal, food, sewage into carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfate and water. It’s a process driven by bacteria and requires water and oxygen.
The process (in which oxygen is not required, hence the differing by-products when compared to Aerobic digestion) by which organic matter is broken down into carbon dioxide, methane, water and gas. This process is commonly used to create biogas. Biogas (the mixture of methane and carbon dioxide) can be used to produce heat and electricity and is mixed into vehicle fuels. Global revenues for biogas are expected to exceed $50B by the middle of the decade. In the UK alone, there are more than 800 anaerobic digestion facilities either in use or in development. By the middle of the decade, there will be enough biogas facilities produced to power more than two million homes in the UK.
A battery is a device that stores chemical energy and converts it to electrical energy. Since 1990, there has been a strong focus on rechargeable batteries and the use of batteries to store excess power generation from renewable energy sources. The aim now is to create batteries that are sustainable along their lifecycle. A battery should be long-lived, and recyclable, repurposed and capable of being remanufactured at the end of its natural life.
The information created and accessed during the development of a building—in essence, a digital blueprint that captures every element of the building process. BIM allows for a more integrated and potentially cost and environmentally effective approach to construction.
The ability of a material to break down through interaction with bacteria and fungi. It’s important to recognize that not all materials break down at the same speed or in the same way.
Refers to the variety of living species on Earth, including plants, animals, bacteria and fungi. Biodiversity is key to our very survival on the planet, the development of the ecosystem and the relative generation of food, materials, and contribution to economic stability relies upon achieving a balance across our planet.
Fuel derived from living matter, such as plant material and animal waste as opposed to fossil fuels. Burning cleanly, quickly replenished, and neutral in terms of their impact on the environment, biofuels are seen as key to helping mitigate the negative impact of traditional fuels.
Computer-based system that controls the heating, lighting, ventilation and power system. A properly used BMS system aims to automate the decision making around the indicated elements to deliver efficiently for the occupants and the environment.
The world’s longest established recognized way of assessing, rating, and, in turn, certifying a building’s sustainability.
Any previously developed land that is not currently in use. There may be concerns around whether the land has been left without further development due to pollution or other environmental concerns. Redeveloping an old industrial site to a new logistics warehouse or new homes offers positive social and economic benefits. Certain elements of remediation can drastically increase costs and limit the window of opportunity to redevelop.
A non-metal element, it is a solid element at room temperature. The human body is 20% carbon, not as an element but through joining with atoms of other elements. All living things consist mostly of carbon-containing compounds.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is formed of one part carbon and two parts oxygen and is a gas. It is recognized as a heat trapping (greenhouse gas), which is released through the burning of fossil fuels (the process of burning causes carbon from fossil fuels to combine with oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide and water vapor), deforestation and by the simple process of respiration.
A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions. To calculate the total carbon footprint is the total sum of the scopes correlate to who ‘owns’ those emissions and the level of control applicable to changing those emission levels at each stage.
Carbon credits are measurable, verifiable emission reductions from certified climate action projects. These projects reduce, remove or avoid greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But they also bring a whole host of other positive benefits, for example, they empower communities, protect ecosystems, restore forests or reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Projects must adhere to a rigorous set of criteria to pass verification by third-party agencies and a review by a panel of experts at a leading carbon offset standard like Verra or Gold Standard. After an organization or an individual buys a carbon credit, the credit is permanently retired so it can't be reused.
A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions made to cancel out emissions made elsewhere.
The net effect of removing carbon dioxide from the environment rather than adding it.
Balancing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by ‘offsetting’—or removing from the atmosphere—an equivalent amount of carbon for the amount produced. This can be achieved through investing in ‘carbon offset’ projects such as renewable energy production or reforestation.
The CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) is an international nonprofit organization that helps companies publicly disclose their environmental impact.
Replacing a linear model of “make, use, dispose” approach with a circular model where the aim is to maximize the use of a product for as long as possible then work to reuse the different elements of a product either in a different way or different form.
A scientifically proven, long term shift we are seeing in temperature averages and extremes. Compared to a historical average, since the start of the industrial revolution, scientists recognize we are seeing much higher temperature levels. Rising temperatures lead to an increase in volatile weather conditions—flood, drought, shrinking ice caps, rising sea levels.
A term and a movement that acknowledges climate change can have differing economic, social, public health, and care impacts on underprivileged individuals and communities.
Where a business reuses, recycles, or composts all materials used in its operation.
A social movement based on an increasing awareness of the impact individual and group purchasing decisions can have on the environment, consumers’ health and life for all. Alongside price and quality, environmental considerations are playing an increasing part in a purchase decision.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a movement that started in the late 1980s to standardize the implementation of sustainability measures and good corporate citizenship in the business world. CSR represents a company’s efforts to have a positive impact on its employees, consumers, the environment and wider community. It’s a form of self-regulation that most large companies report on annually. CSR has been replaced by Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), the latest evolution of the intentions behind CSR, provides a framework for greater transparency, greater efforts, and standardization.
The development and production of products with the aim that they can truly be recycled or upcycled at the end of their natural life.
Awareness and responsibility for a product/asset from its inception to its disposal.
Produced by mass computing power, the development and transactions of this digital currency are verified and recorded on a centralized system using cryptosecurity. Examples include Bitcoin, Ethereum and Dogecoin. Recent headlines around the vast consumption of electricity required to mine the remaining coins may have an impact on the general perception of cryptocurrency.
The production of energy close to the place it is needed. Decentralized energy has the advantage of more typically coming from renewable energy sources, wind, solar, biomass, etc. The importance of decentralized energy is multi-faceted, increased security of supply, lower emissions and lower distribution challenges.
Switching from fossil fuels burned at a building to using electricity to meet a building’s energy needs. Transition to greater use of electricity in commercial and multifamily buildings is important to take advantage of increasingly decarbonized electricity.
The total GHG emissions that are generated to produce a building. These emissions include those created by manufacturing, extraction processes, transportation and the assembly of every product and individual element of an asset.
Process linked to aerobic and anaerobic digestion. The creation of energy through the conversion of waste materials into electricity, fuel and a heat source. Energy recovery would reduce the volume of waste heading to landfill and reduce emissions as it negates the need to burn fossil fuels.
Having a regular, reliable supply of energy and measures in place to offset any negative issues occurring from a power cut. As the access to energy potentially becomes less stable, and managed by a broader range of corporates, the resilience of countries’ energy supply will become increasingly critical to governments (think food security—making sure we have access to enough food in an ongoing manner).
Capturing and storing energy to use later. The purpose being to save energy to use at a time of higher level of demand. Battery technology continues to develop, alongside strides being made in the use of hydrogen, to store energy safely and securely.
The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of gender, color, background or income, with respect to the understanding, development, implantation of environmental laws, regulations and policies.
ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance standards, Material topics in each of the ESG pillars and operational/ business approach to ESG varies by business, company, stakeholder group compositions and values.
• Environmental factors include the contribution a company or government makes to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, along with waste management and energy efficiency. Given renewed efforts to combat global warming, cutting emissions and decarbonizing is become more important.
• Social includes human rights, labor standards in the supply chain, any exposure to illegal child labor, and more routine issues such as adherence to workplace health and safety. A social score also rises if a company is well integrated with its local community and therefore has a ‘social license’ to operate with consent.
• Governance of a corporation refers to the rules, processes, laws, guidelines and guiderails that inform a company’s operations and controls. Corporate governance takes into account the decision-making authorities, rights and impacts on various stakeholders including a board of directors, shareholders, management and employees.
A recognized way to ensure producers, sellers, and operators in lower paid parts of the world receive a ‘fair’ deal for the products they produce. Different fair-trade associations exist and different parameters are in play.
Media name for the trend to produce, sell, buy and dispose of items of clothing more quickly. Another term applied is often disposable fashion where an item of clothing can be bought for less than the cost of a coffee and muffin. The cost of an item means the cost of repair is often higher than the item’s price itself.
A fuel from natural resources to be found on our planet. Oil, gas and coal have been formed from living organisms over the past millions of years. There is a finite supply, and the fuel sources are non-renewable. As well as being non-renewable, the use of these fuel sources releases carbon dioxide into the environment, resulting in climate change and the heating of our planet.
The word geothermal translates from Greek to literally mean “Earth heat.” The Earth stores heat in the form of water and steam, which can be drilled for in the same way as oil and the steam is then converted into power using turbines, generators and transformers. Increasingly discussed as the source for residential heating.
The constant increase in the planet’s average temperature resulting from the use of fossil fuels and the carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere.
Fixed income instrument linked to projects focusing on driving a lower carbon environment, socially sustainable future or just generally socially positive outcomes.
Greenfield sites are undeveloped, agricultural areas of land that are now being considered for development. The development of greenfield sites has come under pressure from environmental concerns focused on minimizing loss of further habitat, countryside and wildlife. There are also concerns around increased pollution connected to growth in traffic—the phrase urban sprawl is often used when discussing the requirement for green space in an area.
These include carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and chlorofluorocarbons that absorb and emit radiation produced by the suns warming of the Earth’s surface.
An agreement made between tenant and landlord to increase transparency, consolidate services, and grow innovative practices together. The aim being by the sharing of knowledge and an increased focus we will see lower levels of emissions.
Making a claim with the intention of being seen to be doing the right thing in regards to the climate. A misleading practice that can make an individual, company or country appear to be ‘greener’ than it actually is.
The Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark was established in 2009 to assist real estate investors in assessing the sustainability performance of commercial real estate portfolios globally. The annual GRESB Assessments are guided by what institutional investors and the commercial real estate (CRE) industry consider to be material issues in sustainability performance of real asset investments. Institutional investors then use the results of the GRESB Assessment to monitor their investments, engage with their managers, and make decisions that lead to a more sustainable and resilient real asset industry.
GRI: The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is the global standard setter for sustainability reporting creating a common language for organizations to report on.
The extraction of natural heat from the ground by a series of pipes laid underground. The vapor compression cycle concentrates heat and transfers that heat into buildings without needing to use fossil.
The movement of heat from a warm to cold location via the use of mechanical energy. Ground pumps and air pumps both facilitate the process—one naturally extracting heat from the ground while the other captures the heat in the outside air. Ground pumps are more difficult to install, but typically more effective. Air pumps are easier to install, but less effective.
Organic compounds made of hydrogen, fluorine, and carbon. They replaced the vilified halons and chlorofluorocarbons that were found to contribute to the loss of the planet’s ozone layer.
Ice caps are areas of ice measuring less than 19,300 square miles. Ice sheets are an area of dome shaped mass of glacier ice that covers surrounding terrain (e.g., Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets) and measures greater than 19,300 square miles.
Created to provide policy makers with regular scientific assessments on climate change and its implications and potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation options.
Internationally recognized and accepted approach to implementing an effective environmental management system. Balancing corporate commercial goals with environmental responsibilities.
Series of standards (Life Cycle Assessment – LCA), addressing quantitative assessment methods for the assessment of a product or service in its entire life cycle stages. ISO 14040 is an overarching standard encompassing all four phases of LCA. The four main phases being: goal and scope definition, inventory analysis, impact assessment, and interpretation.
Specifies requirements and provides guidelines for LCA, including definition of the goal and scope of the Life Cycle Assessment, the life cycle inventory analysis (LCI) phase, the life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) phase and the life cycle interpretation phase, reporting and critical review of the LCA, limitations of the LCA, relationship between the LCA phases, and conditions for use of value choices and optional elements.
Internationally recognized and accepted approach to establishing an energy policy and objectives, and the appropriate processes and procedures to deliver against those objectives. The formally documented
A species that has a disproportional impact on the environment relative to its presence or scale. It helps define how many and what type of other species evolve in a community.
Widely used green building rating system. Advantages are that it offers a solution for most asset types and different projects—development from scratch, fit-outs, refurbishments. The aim of LEED is to provide guidance for project leads to create an efficient, healthy, and cost-saving, environmentally enhanced building.
The systematic analysis of the potential environmental impacts of products or services during their entire life cycle.
Elements that are relevant to or help identify the attributes that are substantial to the overall improvement of a building’s/organization’s performance, success, results and viability. Materiality has evolved to mean the environmental, economic, social impact that may influence the performance of the business and the decisions that are taken related to sustainability. In essence, how important is ‘this’ when making decisions?
The value of the ‘free’ resources available to us—clean air, water, food, and recreational activities. Natural capital accounting gives a financial value to these elements—current calculations indicate the planet offers us $72 trillion of value each year. Without these, the planet and economy would simply fail.
Energy available to drive economic growth once the energy that is needed to produce the ‘new’ energy is taken into account. A number greater than one means that there is a net gain in the energy produced. Examples are petroleum 4.5, natural gas 4.9 and solar energy 5.8.
The balancing of the amount of emitted GHG with the equivalent offset or sequestered carbon.
The recognized method to claim a reduction in GHG emissions, investing in projects that sequester or avoid the generation of GHG emissions to offset the generation of a company’s own GHG emissions.
A hyper-localized form of decentralized energy. Generating energy at point of use. Making energy to use as needed as opposed to having to buy/source energy from a provider. In some situations, the maker of the localized energy can sell any excess back to the grid.
The use of wind turbines on land and out at sea to capture the energy of moving wind to create energy without the emissions of GHG.
The major global climate agreement signed in Paris at COP21 in December 2015 (COP26 will be held in Glasgow in 2021). The deal states ‘great concern’ around the importance of holding global temperature increase to less than two degrees above pre-industrial levels. They are focused on pursuing efforts to preferably reduce this to 1.5 degrees. It is a legally binding international treaty.
PET (Polyethylene terephthalate)
A form of polyester used to produce plastic bottles and other products. PET is regarded as ‘straightforward’ to recycle.
HDPE (High Density Polyethylene)
A thermoplastic polymer produced from the monomer ethylene—widely recyclable, used to produce plastic bottles, milk jugs, cutting boards, and piping.
PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)
High strength thermoplastic material widely used in applications such as pipes, medical devices, wire and cable insulation. PVC is seldom recycled.
LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)
A thermoplastic polymer produced from the monomer ethylene, used for applications such as shrink wrap, packaging, pallet wrap, bags and coverings. Can be recycled, but can be easily contaminated by the items it has been used to wrap, contain.
Thermoplastic ‘addition’ polymer made from a combination of propylene monomers. Used for packaging, plastic parts for various industries and for textiles. It is recyclable.
PS (Polystyrene of Styrofoam)
A naturally transparent thermoplastic that is available as both a solid plastic as well as in the form of a rigid foam material. It is not commonly recycled.
Polycarbonate, polylactide, acrylic, acrylonitrile, butadiene styrene, fiberglass, and nylon.
A UN-supported network of investors, working to promote sustainable investment through the incorporation of environmental, social and governance issues into analysis and decision making.
The act of obtaining goods or services. This typically applies to businesses and refers to the end purchase but it can also include the whole procurement process that leads to the final purchasing decision.
The amount of a product that has been generated by materials recycled from other previously used items.
Energy from a natural source, wind, solar, waterpower, that will not deplete with use.
Waste material (non-hazardous in nature) that cannot be reused or recycled and must be disposed of or sent to energy recovery. Residual waste includes materials from mining, agriculture and drilling processes.
Around the world, the frequency, intensity and impacts of natural disasters are increasing. These events can significantly affect the social, economic and environmental functionality of communities and individual buildings. Resiliency can be defined as the ability of commercial buildings and the businesses they house to adequately prepare for such events and quickly return to full operations.
A set of goals developed by a business to define a clear pathway to reducing GHG emissions. A target is defined as science based if it has been developed in line with the scale of change needed to keep global warming between 1.5°C and 2°C degrees. The SBTi (science-based target initiative) was developed as a partnership between CDP, the UN Global Compact (UNCG), the World Resources Institute (WRI) and World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).If all companies across the world adopt agreed and measurable targets in line with SBTi, we stand a much greater chance of achieving the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement.
The Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is a third-party target approval body that approves whether an organization is setting carbon reduction targets that are in alignment with climate science.
Covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources
Covers indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company
The broadest category and includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company's value chain
In order to save money and waste, goods and services are shared as opposed to being owned outright. Examples include Airbnb, Uber car-pooling, car clubs, and apparel or accessory rentals.
Definitions still vary, but in essence, anything designed or likely to be used once before disposal or recycling—plastic drink bottles, plastic straws, plastic bags, much of the packaging that wraps our fruit, vegetables, food and drink. Many of the items are bought to be consumed on the go and the onus is then on the purchaser to seek out an appropriate recycling receptacle. Some countries like Germany offer a deposit scheme which encourages return to store and many businesses are exploring bio-degradable packaging or ‘naked’ products to be sold in stores and taken home in the consumers’ own glass jars, bottles. The sight of coconuts wrapped in plastic or a single apple in a hard plastic shell being promoted as a grab-n-go healthy snack are somewhat incongruous with the impact the packaging has on the health of the planet.
Energy using the power of our sun. It is renewable, making it a clean, emissions free way to produce much needed power and energy. Solar cells are most commonly used to produce solar energy and can be found in solar farms and on business and household roofs.
The activities required by a company to deliver goods and services to a customer. A system of organizations, people, processes, information and resources involved in the supply of the goods or services in question to the customer.
Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (1987 UN Brundtland Commission Definition).
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.
TCFD aims to improve and increase reporting of climate-related financial information.
Allowing for the tracking, measuring and oversight of all elements of the supply chain. Are the claims made regarding sustainability substantiated? The aim is ensuring good practices related to human labor, the environment, anti-corruption, compliance, and legal framework.
A business concept that encourages businesses to measure their environmental and social impact alongside the detailed measurement related to their financial performance. The three Ps of the triple bottom line are well known—People, Profit, Planet. It has been proven repeatedly that it is possible to perform well and do good.
The UNFCCC came into force in 1994. Today, it has near global membership with 197 countries having ratified the convention. The prevention of dangerous human interference with the climate system is the aim of the UNFCCC.
At its basic level, a set of activities a business carries out to create value for its customers. There is an increased focus on understanding the impact on the environment of each stage of the supply chain.
VG2 is a technology that allows energy to be pushed back to the power grid from the battery of an electric vehicle. V2X is a range of different use cases where, even if your vehicle does not directly push back
European Union framework on how waste should be managed. It requires that waste be managed without endangering human health and harming the environment, without risk to water, air, plants or animals; without causing a noise nuisance or emitting odors that offend; and without adversely affecting the countryside or places of special interest.
Prevention being better than cure is the main theme. The hierarchy: prevention (non-waste) – preparing for re-use – recycling – recovery – disposal (all four associated with waste). The prevention of waste should be the preferred option, sending waste to landfill the last.
Taking into account the total cost of a service or product over the course of its lifetime. This can be measured in terms of cost (an electric vehicle may be a more expensive initial purchase than one fueled by gasoline, but the cost of running the vehicle over its lifetime may be less), or in terms of environmental impact. The initial production of a product may have a higher environmental impact than one developed to do a similar job, but may in turn result in lower impacts overall during its lifetime use and may be easier to recycle.
A focus on developing products with a whole life use in mind. Developing to be recycled, reused, and repurposed. Also applies to clients’ buildings/organizations that work to reduce their waste, possibly even pursuing a certification such as TRUE zero waste.
No carbon emissions are being produced from a product/service.