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Unbox complexity—sustainability through the digital lens

How much CO2 does accessing this Insight on the web emit? And what is the weight of an e-mail? When it comes to sustainability, we must not lose track of the big picture. And the ESG criteria give us clues for greater transparency and responsibility—particularly in the high-emission real estate sector.

Sustainable and digital do not oppose each other Shutterstock/PopTika

The weight of an e-mail

Did you know that sending a standard e-mail causes about four grams of CO2 emissions? And that an e-mail with a large attachment can carry a weight of 50 grams of CO2? Also companies in the real estate industry repeatedly get hung up on such tangible partial aspects and initiate seemingly large-scale "sustainability campaigns."

But do a few less e-mails a day really make a difference? Well, other environmental factors should be given greater focus, especially when the actions of an entire industry have such a strong impact on sustainability as those of the real estate sector. In the European Union, buildings account for around 36 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and as much as around 40 percent of energy consumption. Many individual ESG-related actions are not about deliberate label fraud or greenwashing, but about not losing sight of the big picture. Instead, we should put our own house in order—even if this is anything but a sure-fire success.

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When, if not now?

At the same time, the conditions for real change are ideal now. The digital mindset—which has experienced an upswing in the face of lockdowns and the necessity to communicate virtually at the latest—can now ensure that meaningful sustainability strategies are implemented with technological support. After all, it is also a question of digitalization how well the various ESG topics can be addressed and covered. And as we all know: doing is like wanting, just more badass!

In essence, it is about creating more transparency and becoming more aware of our responsibility as representatives of the real estate industry. Digitalization is the key to holistically recording consumption and CO2 emissions across the entire value chain, analyzing them and making them accessible. Only transparency and the possibility to process the countless data points from the construction, operation and demolition of real estate allow for developing concrete and reasonable sets of measures. For example, considered individually, an external thermal insulation composite system (ETICS) for facade insulation saves a great deal of energy during operation but can cause problems later during recycling.

The same question arises when billions of data points need to be saved for autonomous driving, which in turn requires energy and causes CO2 emissions. This dilemma of increasing efficiency is also known as the rebound effect.

Digital—and sustainable

But how do we get our act together? Life is rarely black and white; the interdependencies are usually multivariate and complex. To identify hidden correlations or potential synergies, the relevant information and data are required first. Period. This is the only way to make chains of effects and contributing factors measurable. And we need to consider alternatives. This way, the digital mindset comes into play, can shape the behavior of players within the real estate industry and result in sustainable—digitally supported—real estate products.

Dr. Susanne Hügel

Head of Digital Innovation & Business Acceleration Continental Europe at CBRE

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