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Profile: Nina James on her road to sustainability

Nina James

When Nina James first looked at sustainability as a career change, it was one job, focused around environmental improvement. By the time she graduated from a Masters of Environmental Management, it was four or five jobs encompassing social, environmental and governance roles.

Sustainable finance, she says, is the next frontier.

James told The Fifth Estate that the green finance and impact investment space is something the property group is “getting its head around,” and quickly.

Earlier this year, Investa Commercial Property Fund lay claim to Australia’s first green loan. The $170 million, Climate Bonds Initiative-approved loan from ANZ Bank will be used to refinance an existing, revolving debt facility.

In the four years James has been in the commercial sustainability management role, she’s observed strong growth in investor interest in green finance.

“Institutional investors are looking to find attractive investment opportunity that is aligned with a set of values around social and environmental impact. With a ten year track record in this space, investors are identifying us as a knowledge hub, keen to learn from our experience and expertise.”

Investor engagement has increased so significantly, that James’s team is now hosting an annual ESG symposium for investors.

Challenges in sustainability

James says she is lucky enough to have the support of management for her team’s work. This has typically posed a challenge for many people working in corporate sustainability roles.

But what she does find challenging, however, is choosing the best projects that will have impact at scale.

“The biggest challenge is having to say ‘no’ because they are always good ideas, but we need to target the projects with big impact.”

She says that the recently launched sustainability toolkit – an online, publicly available toolkit pitched at teaching its tenants about the environmental performance of their buildings ­– is a good example of a high impact project with the potential to influence the behaviour of the 100,000-plus workforce that occupies the company’s buildings.

Similarly, launching a green bond “enables us to have meaningful conversations with new institutional investors representing millions of members. Now that’s impact at scale,” she says.

Sustainability infiltrating core business

James has watched some of her peers in corporate sustainability transition into core business, where they are “bringing those ideas with them.” And equally has seen chief financial officers and chief information officers carry sustainability into the boardroom with financial acumen.

“I’m excited that sustainability now has a firm seat at the decision-making table. Corporates are certainly taking the leadership role from federal government in Australia. This keeps my energy levels up when people talk to me about the dire state of climate change policy. I believe some global governments are making themselves redundant in this conversation.”

It’s this kind of activity that keeps James optimistic and determined to keep going.

 An unusual path to sustainability

James came to work in sustainability through an “unusual pathway.” She grew up in the southern highlands of NSW, riding horses, where she developed an appreciation for Australia’s beautiful landscapes.

But what sparked her interest in sustainability though – and subsequent retraining and change from her first career as a landscape architect – was working on the venues and facilities for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Considered the first “green games”, the project introduced James (and much of Australia) to the notion of sustainable developments and prompted her to pursue a new career in sustainability.

A priority for James is to keep learning. She’s hoping to attend Columbia University to study Sustainable Finance in the Fall in New York.

“If you can come in speaking finance you open up a lot of doors.”

Sustainability in commercial property – what’s happened and what’s next

Big sustainability milestones for the property group include its 2016 commitment to net zero emissions by 2040.

And after two and half years of work, the company is the first Australian property company to achieve an emissions reduction target through the Science Based Target initiative, a framework that references the need to limit global warming to under 2°C, in line with the Paris Agreement.

Critically, organisations seeking SBT certification must address supply chain (scope 3) emissions (as well as scope 1 and 2 emissions). Tenant emissions – which have long posed a challenge for most office managers – fall into this category.

James says tenant emissions are the “obvious next challenge” for the property company, which has been on the front foot to curb base building emissions to the point that it’s become “business as usual.”

Engaging 100,000 people every day to reduce their energy consumption, however, comes with its share of challenges. “But for us it’s expanding the boundary of our influence.”

“The impact we can have with 100,000 individuals far outweighs the impact of the base building.”

This is why Investa launched the sustainability toolkit for tenants last year.

Its tenants now have access to a variety of resources, including animated data visualisations that convey the technical environmental performance data of the buildings.

James says feedback on the toolkit has been overwhelmingly positive, with many tenants attributing lower energy bills to the tool’s suggested tweaks.

She also says she’s been fielding calls from other people interested in copying the tool.

“For me that underpins the business of sustainability. We want to have impact, we need to be an enabler. To advance the sector you don’t want to keep it for yourself.”

An ongoing focus for James’s team will be evolving the toolkit further. The next step is to display tenant data on the toolkit “in an anonymous way”.

“We’ve worked out a way to do it anonymously so that it sparks the competitive nature in organisations but still protects the business.”

James says another priority area for the team in the next 12 months will be “getting ourselves organised” now that the Modern Slavery Act has come into effect.

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