A conversation with Esther An, Chief Sustainability Officer at CDL. For over two decades, Esther has championed green initiatives for the built environment sector. From being an initiator of sustainability reporting, to helping nurture young leaders in the field, she is a passionate advocate for protecting the planet through sustainable living and working spaces. Esther will be speaking at the session ‘Towards a low-carbon future’ at Deep Tech Summit 2021.
In moving towards a low-carbon future, what key successes driven by technology have we seen in the built environment sector? What challenges remain?
Being responsible for close to 40% of global energy-related carbon emissions, the built environment sector is in a prime position to catalyse action towards a low-carbon future. Using green building technology and solutions in the design, construction and management of our buildings is key in our decarbonisation efforts.
As a first step in tackling carbon emissions, we are seeing more companies in this industry measure, report, and verify their emissions, which will, in turn, encourage them to procure low-carbon materials and adopt sustainable solutions.
With more and more countries joining the global race to zero, the building industry must bridge several gaps to raise the bar for sustainable development. This includes understanding the commitment to net zero, as well as carbon management, setting and tracking using science-based targets.
At CDL, we are committed to achieving three deliverables based on our ESG strategy: ‘Decarbonisation’, ‘Digitalisation & Innovation’ and ‘Disclosure & Communication’. In 2018, CDL was the first real estate company in Singapore to set the Science Based Target initiative (STBi) validated greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets based on the 2°C warmer scenario. This August, CDL submitted its 1.5°C warmer scenario GHG reduction targets to the SBTi for validation. This complements CDL’s net zero commitment and pledge of support to the Business Ambition for 1.5°C target led by the UN Global Compact, SBTi, and We Mean Business coalition. CDL is one of the pioneering 87 signatories of the campaign.
While it is a challenging process, it has helped CDL gain practical knowledge about setting science-based targets and expanding our focus on supply chain management and reducing embodied carbon.
Investments in R&D into green innovations and sustainable solutions need to be stepped up in tackling the climate emergency. At CDL, we aim to harness the use of R&D to build sustainable solutions. We have an in-house supplier evaluation system that encourages working with like-minded suppliers in our value chain. These suppliers have pioneered green solutions and can provide solutions that meet our requirements. We have also noticed an uptick of such suppliers in response to the growing demand for sustainable solutions to help future-proof green buildings.
How has City Developments Limited applied emerging technologies and collaborated with external partners (e.g. universities, startups) to achieve its own sustainability targets?
CDL recognises that R&D into green innovation and sustainable solutions is a key pathway towards a greener future. Examples of CDL’s ongoing innovation projects in sustainable solutions include:
- C-Sand: CDL and Temasek Polytechnic embarked on a research project to repurpose mixed plastic waste as sand replacement in lightweight concrete for non-structural building applications. Subsequent R&D phases will be expanded to also focus on structural applications.
- NUS-CDL Smart Green Home: Located on the third floor of NUS School of Design and Environment, the facility is designed as a 100 sqm full-size home for testing, analysing, evaluating, and piloting smart home innovations in a “plug-and-play” real-life environment. It also serves as a platform for holistic and innovative experimental studies for sustainable living. In 2020, the NUS-CDL Smart Green Home developed an Acoustic Friendly Ventilation Window prototype that reduces noise while achieving air change efficiency of up to four times more than conventional windows. Such innovative experimental studies on smart green building features will help CDL set benchmarks in building innovation and sustainable development.
- NUS-CDL Tropical Technologies Laboratory (NUS-CDL T2 Lab): Through running trials such as the integration of solar panels and fast-growing farming systems into the NUS-CDL T2 Lab’s modular building facades, this 107 sqm lab studies the impact on natural cross ventilation, daylight, and thermal comfort in buildings
- Building-integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) Modular Pod: Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS) developed a modular pod consisting of BIPV elements (e.g. panelised wall, monsoon windows, fixture wall) to mimic the different real-world building components. Indoor thermal and visual comfort, as well as the electrical performance of the pod, are monitored and evaluated.
In addition, we support selected social enterprises and startups that are aligned with the SDGs through various initiatives. This includes our Incubator for SDGs, which serves as a rent-free workspace at Republic Plaza to help companies tap into an extensive network of management experts, allowing them to scale up and reach new potential investors and markets.
What are some strategies and new technologies you think will be key to Singapore’s transition towards carbon neutrality?
The world is changing rapidly. Businesses today need to be forward-looking, environmentally conscious, and innovative. They also need to align themselves with global goals, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the global Race to Zero initiative.
This February, we took the bold but prudent step to become the first real estate conglomerate in Southeast Asia to pledge our support to the World Green Building Council Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment. By doing this, CDL is dedicated to achieving net zero operational carbon by 2030 for its new and existing wholly-owned assets and developments under our direct operational and management control. Steps taken to do so include disclosing, reducing, and verifying operating Scope 1 and 2 emissions of its managed buildings, including CDL’s corporate office in Singapore.
Our net zero pledge complements the Singapore government’s push towards climate action and sustainability. The Singapore Green Plan 2030 includes setting ambitious and concrete targets on a sectoral basis and pushing an energy reset and the adoption of BCA SLE-certified buildings. This aligns with CDL’s Smart, Sustainable and Super Low Energy (3S) Green Building Framework, and our carbon management efforts in deploying renewable energy and retrofitting buildings.
As part of efforts to achieve our net zero goals, we began adopting solar energy in the early 2000s for residential, commercial and community projects. For example, D’Nest condominium boasted the most extensive rooftop solar panel installation in Singapore when it was completed in 2017. To date, we have designed and built two net zero energy buildings, including the CDL Green Gallery in 2013 and the Singapore Sustainability Academy in 2017.
Singapore is a renewable energy-challenged country due to land scarcity for facilities such as solar plants. As such, businesses based here must find alternative solutions to offset their residual carbons. CDL adopts onsite renewable energy generation and carbon offsetting by purchasing carbon credits and renewable energy credits (RECs). Since 2009, CDL has achieved carbon neutrality at our corporate headquarters operations, and one of our commercial properties, Tampines Concourse, through the purchase of carbon credits.
In 2018, we became the pioneer adopter of SP Group’s blockchain-enabled market platform. 100% of the electricity consumed by our headquarters’ operations and part of our commercial buildings’ operations in 2020 were attributed to renewable sources.
There are always challenges and lag-time involved with the adoption of new technologies and solutions. How can we overcome them quickly? Can you share any lessons from your experience?
In the global race to zero, we need all hands on deck to decarbonise how we design, build and manage our buildings and users. It is therefore critical to engage and influence stakeholders across the value chain — financiers, consultants, contractors, suppliers, consumers, tenants, and the like. This includes articulating the business case of sustainability strategies, setting clear guidelines and policies for alignment amongst stakeholders. To drive real change, leadership commitment is key. Boards and top management must be aligned with a company’s sustainability vision and mission.
Cost was a big issue during the early days of the adoption of renewable solutions, while land scarcity is the biggest challenge for onsite renewable energy generation. For the purchase of RECs, the hefty price of offsite solar purchases from local RECs remains a challenge.
We started adopting solar energy in the early 2000s for Singapore’s first eco condominium, Savananah Condopark (2002). Its clubhouse is powered mainly by solar energy. CDL continued to step up the use of solar energy in both our commercial and residential developments such as Quayside Isle, completed in 2012; South Beach mixed development completed in 2015; and D’Nest Condominium, which holds the record for the ‘Largest Solar Panels in a Condominium’ in the Singapore Book of Records in 2013.
To decarbonise our older assets, CDL entered a Power Purchase Agreement with solar energy provider Sunseap Group in September 2021. PV panels will be installed at Tagore 23, one of CDL’s industrial buildings. The renewable energy generated is projected to offset some 50% of the building’s annual energy consumption.
What is one main message you hope to share at the Deep Tech Summit?
The decade began with disruption and distress for the planet, people, and economies. With the climate emergency escalating and scientists warning that time is running out, the global race to zero is intensifying globally. Sustainability issues are now mainstream on parliament and boardroom agendas. Through bold ambition, sustainable investments and innovation, businesses have the power to create long-term value for the environment and their stakeholders across the value chain. In this decade of urgent action, sustainability integration is a strong business case than ever as it helps a company build a strong and balanced triple bottom line. After all, without a healthy planet, there will not be people and markets to sustain businesses and economies. To be future ready for risks and challenges, businesses need to turn sustainability into competitive advantage.
No action is too small, be it by individuals or organisations. I am glad to see that the Deep Tech Summit is bringing various partners including startups, investors, corporates, and government agencies together to advance innovative solutions to combat the climate crisis.
Esther An will be speaking on Day 1 of the upcoming Deep Tech Summit 2021: Towards a low-carbon future. Join the discussion at Asia’s leading Deep Tech conference here.