PODCAST: How businesses are tackling climate change naturally

WWF and JLL experts delve into harnessing nature's power in the built environment

January 12, 2024

In the face of growing climate risks, businesses around the world are seeking solutions to mitigate the potential impact.

Among the emerging tools available to businesses are nature-based solutions (NBS), which harness the inherent power of nature. They range from capturing rainwater to integrating green infrastructure, such as trees, wetlands, and green roofs, into urban settings.

Such nature-based approaches can effectively address climate risks while promoting environmental sustainability.

"Avoiding climate risk requires urgent attention and strong decision making when it comes to the built environment,” says Sean Mallon, Global Initiative Lead for the Climate Business Network at WWF, the global conservation group. “Mother Nature is the best engineer. We need to let nature restore itself and give it a helping hand to do this."

In a recent episode of Trends & Insights: The Future of Commercial Real Estate, Mallon joined Amanda Skeldon, JLL's UK Director of Climate and Nature, to shed light on the potential of NBS.

Take, for example, the Smart Blue-Green Roof in Manchester, UK. This innovative technology captures rainwater on the roof to prevent flooding. It even anticipates coming rainstorms, releasing excess water ahead of time. Another bonus: it also helps create a green space that attract wildlife.

This is one example of how combining technology and nature-based approaches can contribute to effective water management, says Skeldon, adding it’s the kind of proactive managing of climate risks that needs more attention right now.

"Climate change is a real risk,” Skeldon says. “It's a risk to resilience. It's a risk to your investments. It's a risk to your business models. It's a risk to your supply chain."

To delve deeper into the strategies and solutions discussed in the podcast, listen to the full episode of Trends & Insights: The Future of Commercial Real Estate. 

James Cook: What have I asked you to think of a recent extreme weather event. What would you think of? Unfortunately, you've got a lot to choose from. I recently asked an expert for his thoughts.

Sean Mallon: So, a really tragic example, just to give it some grounding, is the floods in Pakistan in 2022. That displaced 8 million people, destroyed 2 million houses. It was, I think it was around 13, 000 kilometers of roads, and over 400 bridges were just wiped out. So, the economic cost alone would be $30 billion, but obviously the human cost is a lot more than that.

My name is Sean Mallon, and I'm the global initiative lead for the climate business network at WWF. We work with companies on their reduction strategies to make sure that they're science based and they're credible.

James Cook: On this episode of Trends & Insights, Sean Mallon from World Wildlife Fund, WWF, joins Amanda Skelton. She's the director of climate and nature for JLL in the UK, to talk with me about how nature itself can play a part in solving some of our greatest climate risks and how companies can use these solutions in order to build resilience.

This is Trends & Insights: The Future of Commercial Real Estate. My name is James Cook, and I am a researcher for JLL.

Amanda Skeldon: There's a really great example in Manchester of a building that brings together the technological side and the nature-based solutions side. It's a building that has a smart blue green roof on it, and what that does is it captures rain during the heavy rainfall. We get a lot of rain in Manchester. But, it's planted up, it's a world flower garden on the roof. It's a green roof. It attracts a whole heap of biodiversity. It's accessible by people to kind of go round and experience that space. But it also has a really smart tech solution that goes, okay, we know that the rain's coming.

It looks at forecasting.

As the rain's coming, we need to release the water that we've held that would otherwise irrigate this beautiful green space because there's going to be rain coming, so we'll release that slowly now before the rain comes. Then when it does, we can hold that rain and manage again surface water flooding So it's a really great example of where you go, actually, we can use a nature-based solution that provides a brilliant green space enhances biodiversity. We can use natural rainwater to irrigate that, but we can also manage surface water flooding by using these tech solutions as well. So, I think that's a really great example.

I’m Amanda Skelton, and I am JLL's UK Director of Climate and Nature. I'm responsible broadly for what we do as a business around most environmental things, so everything around net zero, around risk and resilience, around, the circular economy, and One of the bits I love most is also around nature and biodiversity.

James Cook: Sean, perhaps you've got a favorite example you'd love to share.

Sean Mallon: I have a few really lovely examples that I think will help illustrate for people the different versions of nature-based solutions. One little one, you've probably seen it and not realized it, is trams in Amsterdam along the tracks have grass and moss along them. So, this helps clean up the air, but also limit noise pollution. So, it's a lot calmer and quieter there versus the trams that go through Edinburgh, which used to wake me up every morning.

But a favorite example of mine is actually the Restoration Fourth. So, the Restoration Fourth Project is a WWF led project in partnership with the local communities and organizations and some corporate partners to restore seagrass meadows, native oysters, and just rebuild that habitat. It has lots of beautiful co benefits for all the communities and brings back. It's good for tourism. It's good for swimmers to get out and be in clean water that's being filtered and clean.

And as another example, just to give other contexts, is restoring mangroves in coastal areas around India. Again, it's beautiful. It provides nature and it's stunning, but also, it's a flood protection. So, all the waves coming in that were damaging to the coastline and were causing flooding events now have a natural barrier, so people can have safe areas to fish and engage with, again, their local ecosystems.

James Cook: And for folks that aren't familiar, mangroves, these are like trees that grow out in the water, right? So, it's like this natural barrier.

Sean Mallon: Absolutely. It's like a sea forest. It's all these trees. They have really long roots and they're connected together and it's a great wildlife habitat for fish and all sorts of sea creatures to live in it and the birds to live in that place. But yeah, it's just like a natural flood prevention. So big waves can crash up against on one side and you won't see any real damage to it because it's, it's grown to live and be in harmony with nature, but it also helps those communities, so it's a win win.

Amanda Skeldon: And it also captures carbon. We can't forget that. Actually, this is really key to achieving our net zero targets and ensuring that we limit global warming to as close to 1. 5 degrees as we can. Mangroves are a key part of that, and I think they're a brilliant example of that kind of all of those different benefits together.

James Cook: So, it sounds to me like the connective tissue here is that we're getting out of the way of nature and letting nature do its thing. And you know, just sort of, like a self-healing in a way for the planet. So, what's the route to get there? How do we understand that? And maybe Sean, I'll start with you. What's the journey going to look like?

Sean Mallon: We need to take integrated action to boost our climate resilience. Avoiding climate risk requires the urgent attention and strong decision making when it comes to the built environments. So yes, Mother Nature is the best engineer. She's fixing this problem. So, we need to get out of the way. We need to let nature restore itself and give it a helping hand to do this. So when it comes to understanding risk and that map to resilience, it's limiting your risk first and foremost is limiting your emissions that lowers the problems you're going to face going forward.

So, that's retrofitting existing urban design infrastructure and carefully considering how we use this land. How can we use it better and be more effective with it? The good news is that that kind of climate action, not only lowers exposure to these risks, but has so many of the benefits that we've been talking about throughout, but it helps scale up the solutions to climate change.

As climates do, their risk register, which is now becoming more and more mandatory across countries, they're getting little red and yellow flags of “see, certain key regions might be at higher climate risk.” So that has a higher cost to the company. If it's textile manufacturing, water risk is now a huge issue. So, climate risks only going up for companies.

James Cook: So, Amanda, what do you think? How do we understand the risk? How do we set the route for resilience?

Amanda Skeldon: I think the first thing around sort of nature is understanding where you are directly impacting with nature. Is it through your supply chain? You know, in the built environment, we have concrete and sand and so many things that come in that have quite a really big impact on nature and the natural environment.

But equally, it could be for like us at JLL, where we're primarily sort of a services provider, our impact could be through the food that we order or our own offices, but equally the advice that we give to our clients. So, understanding where you interact with it is really, really important and anyone can start doing that now.

We started doing that in the UK to understand how we are impacting on nature as a business. But then it's looking at how you build that then into your strategy is what is your risk register for your business across everything? Chances are most businesses now; most investors and real estate owners and developers will understand that they're looking at sustainability and climate change as part of their risk register.

So, building nature and natural solutions and understanding of the risk and resilience issues into that is really, really key. But then I think it's also looking at that really practical level is what are you doing on your existing assets or across your own portfolio? How can you take action now that really helps build resilience, helps restore nature and helps create these really vibrant green spaces.

One of the things that we're starting to see talking to clients, and I really believe this, is that what constitutes prime is likely to start including nature so that when you're looking at prime real estate in the future, it might not be that installing nature based solutions is going to increase the value, but it's going to be a fundamental that goes, okay, well, if someone wants prime real estate, if it doesn't have green space in and around it, or a response to that approach to nature and biodiversity, it won't be counted as prime.

And the flip side of that is the resilience piece. And we're starting to really see that with a lot of our investors, which is that where properties before we used to go, okay, well, we need to worry about net zero. That's really key. They're actually going, okay, well, within the five years of this investment, say the chances are that the extreme heat and extreme rain that we saw today in the UK, but globally is likely to become much, much more common.

So, say by 2030, the chances are this is going to be, you know, an increasing number of days across the summer are going to be extreme heat followed by flash flooding. So, unless you build resilience into those now, there's a real risk of having stranded assets in 5, 10 years’ time. So, understanding that looking at the potential future scenarios, understanding what really constitutes resilience: How do you make your building resilience? How do you combine those tech solutions and those really natural solutions? And how do you do that at a really community level, I guess, you need to look at a site and the context and the communities that you're operating in and making sure that you're resilient to that because we have that whole concept of planet resilience, which is we really need to protect our planet and ensure that it remains resilient for us for the future. But we also understand that there are businesses, and we need to ensure that investors are adapting and moving and building resilience into their own portfolios. And that requires looking at this too. So whatever scale you look at it, it's really key to kind of just start understanding that climate change is a real risk. It's a risk to resilience. It's a risk to your investments. It's a risk to your business models. It's a risk to your supply chain and understanding how you can make that. Resilient using a whole range of tools, but definitely not forgetting nature-based solutions is a really key point for all businesses, but particularly the real estate sector at the moment.

James Cook: So, Sean moving from the private to the public sector. What policies, what regulations should governments be thinking about right now to promote nature-based solutions?

Sean Mallon: We're seeing amazing improvements to the engagement on policy that are helping support these businesses. We know businesses can't move. And some won't move until policies in place to move them along. So, right now, a lot of the impact has been focused around reductions and phasing out fossil fuels, high impacting sectors and working towards that. But we're also looking at ways to help restore nature and create a just transition for all other communities. Make sure that the Amazon is protected because it's the livelihood of millions of people. It's these things are being brought into power now and brought into play where we have to look at this.

So, it's still a little way off. I would love it to be a lot further. I would love nature to be much more protected than it is. But we see this groundwork being adopted right now throughout everything. So, the UNFCCC every year have their COP conference and more and more, we're seeing nature take over as a key element in the negotiations. So, it's not just about reducing the bad thing anymore. Now, it's we're forward facing and we're looking at the horizon scanning of how we can really solve this problem.

James Cook: Fantastic. Amanda, something to add?

Amanda Skeldon: Yeah, I was just going to jump in on the fact that I think the policy space is really interesting. It isn't moving as fast as I think many businesses and particularly WWF would like to, but you're just seeing it from so many different angles. Ecuador, for example, just voted. They had their national elections, but within it they got to vote on whether they protected a significant area of the Amazon rainforest to keep oil in the ground and a country that is hugely reliant on the oil industry, where everyone is required to vote, voted overwhelmingly to keep oil in the ground. Public are speaking and changing and shaping policy, across the world. And I find that so sort of empowering and exciting to see that public voice is changing policy in Ecuador.

In the UK, we have Biodiversity Net Gain, which is looking at planning and how we make sure that we leave nature in a better state than it was before we start developments. And then there are other countries that are bringing this in and in France, new developments have to have their roofs for either solar power or for nature-based solutions.

 I think the exciting thing is where there are these pockets of really brilliant solutions, whether they're fully formed or just trying to move things in the right direction, I think there's a real opportunity to embrace it. And just one other point on that. I think what's really exciting from a business perspective is legislation is there, it's coming. We know that there are frameworks that we know there's going to be legislation, but actually, if we look at protecting and restoring nature as an opportunity, it starts not mattering so much how long the policy takes to come.

If you rely on just the stick, it will always be quite slow. Whereas actually, if we start working with nature in our built environment, and beyond, we start creating a really naturally sustainable, resilient planet and naturally sustainable, resilient sort of economic models, it starts making sense. It's not one of those things that's going, we've got to do this because otherwise it's bad. It's actually a solution. And you can look at an economic model that works for business and works for the planet. If you look at things a bit more holistically.

James Cook: Thinking about like the government role, maybe local, national, whatever. And you think about the entire urban infrastructure, right? And, you know, you've got developing countries that are still building that out. How do you think about making them be part of a nature-based solution?

Amanda Skeldon: We always talk about the fact that I think 80 percent of buildings in the UK that already exists will still exist by 2050, but it's exact opposite in some of the more developing countries. So, using the skills that we've learned to make sure that we have net zero resilient nature positive buildings in the UK to kind of share that knowledge where there are going to be new developments is really, really key and really important and it kind of underlies the whole concept of a just transition.

We need to acknowledge that what we're doing in one part of the world needs to be done and we need to support that in other parts of the world. But actually, I think what you'll also find, and Sean will probably have some examples of this from WWF, is that the people who are based in those communities generally know the best solutions and where people are starting to listen to those local communities and that indigenous knowledge, you're really getting natural solutions that don't require some genius developer, designer with some an amazing tech solution. They're actually just going, well, actually, if, we've been farming our land like this for hundreds of years. If you let us go back to doing that, the chances are it won't flood anymore and your supply chain will be great. So yeah, it's looking at those sort of solutions.

Sean Mallon: Absolutely, I couldn't agree more. I think indigenous peoples and local communities have used nature-based solutions for millennia. It's crucial that all solutions are people centered and you listen to these people. We see a lot of companies go for PR friendly nature-based solutions that they can kind of talk about, and they just want a quick project that can be delivered quick and talked about quickly. So, it's also a key to engage with NGOs and educational bodies who know the space very well. Sometimes we've even seen some funny solutions of nature-based solutions having an unintended impact because we maybe plant monocultures or we do bad things that have impact on the soil. So, it's just about learning from the indigenous or local communities in this space, learning from the experts who are doing this and appreciating while businesses can drive this forward, they have to do it in collaboration with those people who know how to do this better.

Amanda Skeldon: I think the only times or the times when you see this work really well, it is when there's collaboration, whether that's at a really big scale with NGOs and public bodies and businesses, or whether it's even really just practically at some of the developments in the UK, which are public private partnerships, that level of collaboration really makes it work.

And I think there's also a real cost benefit to doing that as well. When you start looking at where there's existing planned capital expenditure for whatever reason, whether it's road building or renewal of water drainage systems or whether there's a new building development, if you get in right at the start and bring lots of partners together, the chances are you can go, well, actually, with minimal impact on the cost, you can generate a whole range of benefits by building this in at a starting point. But that requires you to look at things from a lot of different perspectives. So, it requires that collaboration to go, okay, this is what we want to do. But what are the opportunities that could enable us to do that better?

For example, you know, there's opportunities where say a developers look to build a whole new development, but they've worked with the local authority and with the local wildlife trusts and NGOs who've gone, well, actually there's a water course here that we could reopen, rewet and make, vibrant, and green again that would create a community space in this, which would encourage people to want to come to this space that would increase the value of these that would provide new community opportunities. But have those conversations not been had the developer would have just gone, we just want offices. This is the only thing we want. And I think that's a real value of collaborating and bringing together partners from a whole range of backgrounds and sectors.

James Cook: So, Amanda, we're talking about big picture. Let's zoom in. Give me an example of like, what's a small strategic, example of something we could do with the property at the building level.

Amanda Skeldon: A really great example that we've got actually within JLL that I'm really excited to have been part of. We're moving in a few years to a new office in London and we have terrace space within that, and we had the opportunity to look at how we use that terrace space.

And I was really keen that we did that in a way that was really strategic. So, it wasn't just, okay, we can make this look like a beautiful green space, but it's how do we understand what the benefits are? So, what we've done is gone, okay, well, what's important to us as a business, and that's things around energy efficiency, employee engagement, a whole range of things.

And then what's important to the area that we're in, in central London. It's an area of quite poor air quality. It's an area where they have got a nature strategy. So, we know some of the animals that are really key to bring back. So, there's black red starts that are birds that they're quite keen to really bring back into that area. And then we looked at some of the risks in the area. So, okay, we've only got access to these spaces. How can we ensure that communities kind of come into this? And through that, we've created this like really holistic strategy around nature-based solutions just on three or four floors of terraces, which is really exciting because it means we're not just going, okay, we're going to put some beehives on or wildflowers that attract bees.

We've gone, okay, how do we create a space that can be used as a learning space when people are kind of coming out of here? How do we create space that people can take part in and involve themselves in the planting of potentially edible food so that they're really getting their hands dirty, practically.

How are we supporting nature corridors in the area so that we're actually really joining this up? And I think that strategic approach has been a really exciting way to look at things and avoided some of those really brilliant ideas that just don't necessarily fit bigger. There's a lot of people putting beehives and bird boxes on buildings, which I don't want to discourage, but it needs to be done in a way that is strategic and is going to really, really deliver value.

James Cook: So, Amanda, from the corporate world your peers at other companies inside real estate, outside real estate, what do you suggest as a next step for them to get involved?

Amanda Skeldon: I think there's two really key things and they're at either end of the spectrum. One, is really first just start understanding what your own reliance and impact on nature is. Fundamentally, you need to know where you're impacting nature and where you're reliant on it across your whole value chain.

It's tricky, but it's definitely doable. And I think that's a really key strategic starting point. At the other end, I'd go, look at your own assets, look at your own portfolios, and what can you do now?

One of the challenges we have, I think, in scaling up a lot of these brilliant, brilliant, innovative nature-based solutions across the built environment is that at the moment, they're kind of quite ad hoc. There's not that many, and we don't have really enough brilliant case studies because everybody's sort of waiting for someone else to de risk it and really do it well.

So, what I would encourage people to do is go, just try it. It doesn't need to be perfect. It's really hard to understand some of the metrics at the moment that are right. What are the desired outcomes? Nature is really complicated. It depends on where you are. It depends on the climate. It depends on so many different factors, but just try things.

I think it's very cost-effective way to build that into a lot of your new fit outs, into your retrofits, into new developments, build it in now and then share that learning.

James Cook: I think that's great advice. Small and big concurrently, just try a lot of different stuff. So Amanda, Sean, this has been just such a fascinating conversation and it's stuff that I've been thinking about and excited about, but I didn't understand the, the framework of nature based solution.So, I'm glad we had a chance to talk about this. Thank you so much.

Amanda Skeldon: Thank you. It's been great.

Sean Mallon: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Looking for more insights? Never miss an update.

The latest news, insights and opportunities from global commercial real estate markets straight to your inbox.