President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA): ESG Implications in the CRE Sector

Authors: Taylor Iascone and Julie Jacobson (biodiversity contribution Kristen Wernick and edited by Carli Schoenleber)





The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), passed in November 2021, plans to address the backlog of necessary improvements to U.S. infrastructure through an environmental lens, ensuring infrastructure modernization also serves climate resiliency, greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation, and biodiversity protection goals. The IIJA intentions, coupled with results from the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, showcase the urgent need to rapidly reduce GHG emissions globally by 50% by 2030, achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and meet the Paris Agreement’s objective to limit global warming to only 1.5 degrees Celsius (source).


Given the building and construction sector contributes around 40% of global GHGs, the IIJA has myriad implications for the U.S. Commercial Real Estate (CRE) industry. In this article, we will outline how funding allocated through the IIJA could potentially accelerate and challenge the CRE sector’s growing imperative to meet both financial and sustainability goals simultaneously. Specifically, we will discuss direct and indirect impacts of infrastructure programs related to EV and public transportation, building efficiency, climate change resiliency, and biodiversity enhancement.

 

Transportation

The implications of IIJA on CRE will primarily be realized through the bill’s climate change-related programs, starting with grants for wider and more equitable deployment of alternative fuel vehicles (I.e., electric, hydrogen, propane, natural gas) across urban, suburban, and rural transportation routes.


Because charging stations and consumer amenities (e.g., retail and rest stops) play a critical role in alternative vehicle deployment, surrounding retail and mixed-use CRE properties stand to benefit not only from increased visitors and visibility but also through increased access to federal subsidies toward capital expenditures (CapEx) for EV charging infrastructure, likely resulting in faster paybacks for owners. Increased revenues from EV charging (via higher rental prices and vehicle charging earnings) are also expected to quicken CapEx payback periods and improve revenue, NOI and valuations. Along with increased visitation along alternative vehicle transportation routes, however, CRE owners will likely experience more demand for EV parking during traditionally slower times (i.e., evening and weekends), potentially increasing parking-related maintenance costs.


Another opportunity to bolster CRE financial performance is through IJJA’s related “Carbon Reduction Program,” whereby states can help reduce transportation emissions by developing and implementing customized local projects to reduce traffic congestion. Projects may involve reducing the number of vehicle trips; installing energy efficient lighting in public spaces; encouraging carpooling; and building alternative fuel vehicle charging infrastructure, biking, and walking options.


These investments in public transportation improvements will also encourage CRE owners to install supportive, desirable transportation-related amenities on-site (e.g., lockers, bike storage, EV charging stations), which could help increase rental prices, and reduce parking requirements and maintenance costs. Additional CRE implications may include the continued expansion of EV infrastructure and job growth along affected transportation routes, potentially increasing demand on surrounding property types (I.e., residential, industrial).

 

Clean Energy

Beyond improving financial performance across CRE, grid modernization will also benefit surrounding communities through enhanced clean energy access and reduced air pollution.


The “Energy Efficiency and Building Infrastructure” program, designed for states with higher per capita energy consumption and GHG emissions, has further implications for the CRE sector. Through this program, loan funds will be allocated for property audits and retrofits to improve building energy efficiency (EE) via updates to lighting, HVAC systems, windows, insulation, appliances, and smart controls. By modernizing assets through improved energy efficiency, CRE properties will benefit from lower operating expenses, stronger tenant demand, and enhanced property values.


This program also encourages closer ties between governments, developers, designers, energy efficiency programs, and the DOE, which will likely enable more progressive EE codes that further reduce energy use and peak loads. With a goal of increasing the number of trained professionals advocating for modern energy standards, this program is also set to fund training for engineers, architects, building scientists, and energy enforcement officials on the dynamic relationship between high-performance buildings and improved environmental and social outcomes.

 

Climate Change Adaptation

The climate change adaptation programs in the IIJA are also anticipated to yield benefits for CRE owners. This will be primarily realized through the PROTECT (“Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-Saving Transportation”) program, which allocates funding to improve local resilience and evacuation safety along flood-prone waterways.


To help offset flooding risk during extreme weather events, the funding provides for enhanced natural and engineered methods to improve water absorption and diversion. Along with improved climate resiliency of public infrastructure comes indirect benefits for all surrounding properties, including fewer flooding-related impacts on CRE properties; as physical climate risks are mitigated, owners are likely to benefit from increased valuations, and reduced financing and property insurance costs. This program could also reduce HVAC-related operational costs due to increased use of water-absorbing greenery, which not only enhances biodiversity but mitigates the heat island effect, resulting in reduced cooling needs for buildings. As PROTECT projects drive job creation, CRE owners may also benefit from the resulting increase in retail, office, and housing demand.


CRE owners may similarly benefit from the “Healthy Streets Program,” which allocates funding toward strategies that mitigate the urban heat island effect (e.g., installing reflective cool streets, increasing tree canopy cover) and reduce flooding risk (e.g., increasing pervious surfaces). Particularly for disadvantaged communities that are more likely to experience the heat island effect, cooler temperatures, increased access to greenery, and improved air quality will likely make way for improved health outcomes. CRE owners in these areas are likely to benefit indirectly from enhanced urban surroundings, with cooler temperatures, reduced flooding, and more resilient local ecosystems improving valuations and reducing on-site CapEx and HVAC costs.

 

Biodiversity

The IIJA bill also allocates funding toward natural resource protection, with further implications for the CRE sector. Despite the built environment being responsible for endangering around 30% of the world’s threatened or near-threatened species (source), the CRE sector has largely sidestepped direct legislation on its role in impacting biodiversity.


While IIJA funding does not target CRE specifically, CRE properties can expect to indirectly benefit from improved biodiversity and stewardship of surrounding landscapes targeted by programs such as the “Natural Resources – Related Infrastructure, Wildfire Management, and Ecosystem Restoration” program. This program allocates funding toward wildfire risk reduction, and ecological and watershed restoration. Similar to the climate adaptation programs described above, enhanced local biodiversity (and resulting climate resiliency and ecosystem services) will likely benefit adjacent CRE properties through improved valuations, and reduced CapEx and maintenance costs.


Yet, as biodiversity becomes more closely integrated into city, county, and state planning efforts, the CRE industry may face challenges around developing projects that balance not only financial and decarbonization goals, but also local biodiversity objectives. Developers will need to increasingly consider and mitigate biodiversity impacts throughout the life cycle of new construction projects, resulting in a shift in green financing access and adapted decision making around site selection, materials supply, and native plant landscaping. In addition, Executive Order 14008 calls for the conservation of at least 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, which will likely increase considerations related to site selection and development.


Further accelerating CRE’s shift toward biodiversity protection is a growing pressure from investors and other stakeholders to adopt emerging and increasingly rigorous biodiversity-focused ESG reporting frameworks and assessments shown in the chart below.


Biodiversity in ESG Reporting Frameworks

Reporting

Release Dates

Notes

S&P Global CSA (Corporate Sustainability Assessment)

Current (2022)

  • Biodiversity questions: 4% of the total weight of the CSA Score.

  • Clients need to set and track progress towards a biodiversity target.

  • Biodiversity Methodology

SASB (Sustainability Accounting Standards Board)

Current (2022)

  • ​A disclosure topic for Home Builders, Ecological Impacts is defined as the company’s impact on ecosystems and biodiversity, including biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, and deforestation at all stages.

  • SASB

CDP (Climate Disclosure Project) Forests & Water

Current (2022)

  • CDP Forests A framework of action for companies to measure and manage forest-related risks and opportunities, transparently report on progress, and commit to proactive action for the restoration of forests and ecosystems.

  • CDP Water: CDP's work with water security motivates companies to disclose and reduce their environmental impacts by using the power of investors and customers. The data CDP collects helps influential decision makers to reduce risk, capitalize on opportunities and drive action towards a more sustainable world.

GRI (Global Reporting Initiative

Current (2022)

Updates 2022 Q3 & Q4

SBTs for Nature (Science Based Targets)

2022

  • Builds on the SBTi’s scope by extending this approach to SBTs beyond climate with an initial emphasis on nature.

  • SBTs for Nature


TNFD (Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosure)

2023


GRESB

Future Vision

ESG elements are ever-present throughout the IIJA including legislation and funding for items such as:

  • Environment – Resilience, biodiversity, water infrastructure, watersheds, environmental remediation, transportation, electrification and grid automation, energy efficiency and retrofits

  • Social – employee and workforce education and training, community engagement

  • Governance – local job creation, regulatory compliance, various levels of federal-state-county-city-local interagency cooperation and execution

Among myriad infrastructure goals, the IIJA contains several important programs that target climate change and biodiversity loss while also creating jobs, engaging communities, and encouraging cooperation between governments and businesses. With the IIJA's far-reaching scope comes a critical window of opportunity for the CRE industry to access green financing and take advantage of improved community resiliency, paving the way for widespread risk reduction, operational cost decreases, and increased revenues and valuations.


To best leverage IIJA funding toward these objectives, CRE owners should proactively interpret the legislation to identify properties that could benefit from programs and collaborate with government officials, contractors, and service providers to recommend projects and design funding proposals. As political will, technology, tools, and federal funding finally align toward fighting the climate crisis, the time is now for CRE owners to get ahead of the curve and set even more ambitious and strategic sustainability targets today.


 

About the Authors



Taylor Iascone

Taylor Iascone is a Senior ESG Manager for Verdani Partners where she leads portfolio level ESG programs for real estate clients. She has a focus on net zero by developing an industry leading decarbonization strategy, tracking global regulatory trends, and process management for new developments and acquisitions. She has a B.S in Hospitality Management from Syracuse University and a M.S. in Real Estate and the Built Environment from University of Denver where she received the Rising Star Award.



Julie Jacobson

Julie is an ESG Manager at Verdani Partners, as well as the Interim Executive Director of VIBE (Verdani's educational nonprofit). She leads portfolio level programs and ESG strategies for Verdani's real estate clients. Julie chairs a local branch of USGBC-LA, was the green home advisor to Redfin, and was a commercial project developer for SoCal for SunWorks. She holds a B.A. degree from UC Berkley and an MBA from USC with a real estate finance concentration.