‘Join the Race to Zero’: UCEM 2021 Property Award winner, Julie Hirigoyen’s speech

Posted on: 21 December, 2021

With 2021 drawing to a close, we are looking back at some of our highlights from the year, one of which was the return of the UCEM Property Awards as a physical event.

The event remains a highlight of any year, with the main Property Award recognising an organisation’s or individual’s outstanding contribution to the property industry. This year, the prestigious award went to Julie Hirigoyen, the chief executive of the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC).

Here, we share Julie’s inspiring speech from the day which covered her reflections from 25 years of driving sustainable change in the property industry, a look at the current climate emergency, and what can be done to enact change for the good of the planet…

Julie with UCEM Principal, Ashley Wheaton, and UCEM Chair of the Board of Trustees, Amanda Clack


I’d like to start today by saying how very honoured I am to receive this incredibly prestigious Property Award, particularly given the calibre of my predecessors. Unlike many of them, I can’t necessarily point to a groundbreaking report or pivotal policy that I have personally contributed to or led, but where I can claim credit is for my obstinate belief that there simply has to be a better built environment than the one we largely experience today – one that is better for people, the planet, our communities and, ultimately, the economy.

It is this obstinate belief which has fuelled my motivation to make a difference over the past 25 years working in different roles to embed sustainability across property and real estate decision-making.

As you might imagine, that journey has been characterised by a rapidly changing context and a rollercoaster of emotions. My career began by providing strategic environmental advice to property companies back in the late 1990s. We often said that we were ‘knocking on closed doors’, and if we managed to get into the room, the conversation revolved around environmental risk, contamination, environmental management systems and, if we were lucky, green building certification.

Throughout the 2000s, awareness grew in the property industry and materialised into the measurement and reporting of material environmental impacts and the gradual acknowledgement that being a more responsible business might just enhance one’s licence to operate – so CSR and sustainability started gaining some traction. In the latter part of that decade, there was a brief moment when it felt like the penny had dropped… the Climate Change Act was enacted under cross-party consensus for substantive emissions reductions by 2050.

Despite the global financial crisis, there remained a small number of progressive, quasi-government and industry initiatives driving for change – the Zero Carbon Hub, the evolution of BREEAM, the Green Construction Board… so all was not lost.  But then in 2015, within a month of taking my current role as CEO of UKGBC, we experienced what’s now referred to as a ‘bonfire of green policy’ – zero carbon new build requirements, Green Deal, Code for Sustainable Homes… all scrapped with little to no explanation.  Needless to say, this was quite an existential moment for UKGBC, and an auspicious one to take over as its new leader!

Recent ‘explosion in demand for advice’

Cut to 2019, and the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 1.5°C Report when the whole world seemed to finally wake up to the scale, speed and significance of the climate emergency.

I can categorically say that the last two years in my line of work have been completely unlike the previous 23. Not just due to the pandemic, although of course this continues to accelerate huge changes in the way we live, work and play, but also due to the exponential explosion in demand for advice, guidance, support and input to the many property players out there who no longer need convincing of a business case for sustainability, they simply want to know how.

On a personal level, it certainly has and continues to be a rollercoaster. [British environmentalist and writer] Jonathan Porritt named his latest book, published in 2020, ‘Hope in Hell’, and the contents capture precisely the wildly swaying seesaw that all sustainability professionals are experiencing moment to moment right now – a constant recalibration somewhere within the spectrum of ‘hope’ and ‘despair’. But in today’s world, I believe we’re all moving along this spectrum on a weekly, daily, even hourly basis.

‘Code red for humanity’

We’ll end on a good note, and so I’ll tackle the ‘despair’ part first and I do this not to scare you, but because denial is dangerous, and we must look at the scientific facts.

The truth is that scientists now universally agree that climate change is getting worse, faster, everywhere than they ever predicted previously.

The latest IPCC Report, published in July, referred to it as ‘code red for humanity’, and it’s worth reflecting on the terminology within this report:

‘Unequivocal’ to describe human influence on the warming of the atmosphere, ocean and land.

‘Unprecedented’ to refer to the scale and speed of recent changes, including floods, droughts, fires and hurricanes.

‘Irreversible’ to describe many of the changes yet to come; especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.

‘Exponential’ as we approach dangerous tipping points that themselves could trigger feedback loops; we don’t yet understand.

Julie Hirigoyen speaking at the 2021 UCEM Property Awards

Carbon emissions

Just this morning [14 October] we’ve heard the news that in 2021, carbon emissions are rebounding strongly and are rising across the world’s 20 richest nations and likely to be approximately 4% higher than they were in 2019.

Globally, CO2 emissions from the building sector are the highest ever recorded, with buildings and construction responsible for 38% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions. The built environment influences around 60% of UK emissions, including surface transport and the wider energy sector. If we focus on emissions under the direct control of the built environment – for example, energy usage and embodied carbon – then this represents 27% of UK emissions. Of these controlled emissions, about 22% are embodied carbon, 61% are operational emissions from buildings (regulated only) and infrastructure, and 17% are from unregulated emissions from buildings.

How does this compare with, say, 10 years ago? At face value, emissions from the operation of buildings in occupation look like they’re dropping – 25% reduction in emissions from 2010-2018. But, in reality, that’s almost entirely driven by the decarbonisation of the electricity grid.  Energy use data confirms that buildings have not reduced their overall energy consumption. Despite a few seasonal variations, this is steady over time. Installations of insulation and energy efficiency in homes dropped dramatically a decade or so ago, and home energy usage remains very much the same – the majority of which is heat.

Tackling carbon emissions

If we are to tackle these carbon emissions and limit temperature increases to 1.5°C, then every single organisation and individual working in the built environment sector needs to make different decisions every day from here on in. Of course, government also has an enormous role to play, and we await with bated breath the Net Zero Strategy and the Heat and Buildings Strategy, but we cannot wait for government policy to get on with this transition.

‘Taking ownership of this emergency’

It’s time for each and every one of us to take ownership of this emergency on both a professional and a personal level, and this is where the ‘hope’ kicks in – because we’re seeing a massive acceleration of intent and energy around this topic like never before. One fantastic example of this is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC]-backed Race to Zero campaign; a global umbrella campaign to rally leadership and support from all non-state actors for a healthy, resilient, zero-carbon recovery.

All members are committed to the same overarching goal: achieving net zero emissions by 2050 at the very latest and, perhaps more importantly, achieving deep cuts by 2030. There are currently 4,470 companies, 35 regions, 799 cities, 731 educational establishments, 220 financial and 36 healthcare institutions in the Race to Zero – over 50% of global GDP. This is the future economy and marketplace – so if you’re not already in it, go back to your organisations and find out why not, and focus on joining the Race!


Finally, in closing, a few words about COP26 – the major international conference being hosted in Glasgow in a couple of weeks’ time. This is the first COP since the landmark agreement that was made in Paris in 2015 by 195 countries. If major economies don’t ratchet up their climate ambitions for this COP, the global framework we have in place will have failed. That’s why things like Race to Zero are so important – they will give confidence to nation states that the whole world economy is going in this direction regardless.

At UKGBC, we decided to pull out all the stops and leverage COP26 to urge the whole world to ‘Build Better Now’. Together with over 100 organisations, including World GBC, UKGBC has coordinated the creation of a built environment virtual pavilion. Build Better Now is an immersive virtual reality exhibition showcasing inspiring, global ideas for a more sustainable built environment. The associated events programme brings together international speakers to examine the challenges we face and the opportunities for transformation within our buildings, cities and infrastructure. It is a space for built environment professionals, governments, businesses and the general public – particularly younger audiences – to engage with some of the world’s most sustainable places in playful and dynamic ways.

We received more than 200 submissions, and we recruited the support of an international master jury to curate the final selection. The 17 projects included in the exhibition are truly exceptional; not only do they illustrate the huge diversity in approaches to tackling the climate impact of buildings, but they also celebrate cultural and geographical differences in implementation.

Pioneering projects include:

  • a cultural centre in Sweden that will be one of the world’s tallest timber buildings
  • the largest Certified Passivhaus building in the southern hemisphere in Australia
  • a 100-hectare innovation district in Italy digitally mapped and powered by 100% renewable energy sources
  • and the largest new build energy-positive office building in Norway, which supplies surplus renewable energy to neighbouring buildings as well as powering electric buses.

There are also a number of buildings in the UK including a university building using thatch and reed, government-funded research into retrofitting Scotland’s iconic, but hard-to-heat, tenement homes and sustainable new homes. So please visit BuildBetterNow.Co and share it far and wide as a signal of what the future could look like.

It’s important that people understand how much better these places will be – both for the people living and working there, and for the planet as a whole. This is where we can find ‘hope’ and inspire future generations that, if they care about environmental and social issues, the property industry is the perfect one for them to work in.

‘Join the Race to Zero’

Finally, to end on a personal call to action… each one of us can take action by calling for more progressive policy and regulation. We can act in our homes, and we can take action in our organisations – striving for more ambition to make our buildings greener and encouraging boards to join the Race to Zero.

Thank you again to UCEM for the recognition through this Award, and I will gladly support the efforts of the university in delivering its lofty sustainability goals.