How Climate Change Is Affecting Strategic Land Investing

Savvy strategic land investing now must consider climate change.

Two factors face land investors and developers: How to minimise their impacts on the environment, and how to mitigate potential damage from a changing climate.

The year 2012 was the wettest on record for the UK, according to the National Flood Forum, a coalition of community groups throughout the country. The organization warns that flooding is possible anywhere – flooding in never-flooded-before West Sussex in June of that year provides an instructive example – and should be considered a top emergency priority.

Part of what is so surprising about this is the drought that preceded these floods by mere weeks; widespread hosepipe bans were in place as recently as March 2012. But by the end of the year, nine people had died from excess rains and runoff. Such is the experience of weather volatility under conditions of climate change.

Meanwhile, the UK is undergoing a housing crunch that calls for no fewer than 4.4 million new homes to be built by 2016. Housing traditionally taxes both the demand for water, a problem during droughts, while concurrently establishing hardscape land (surfaces that do not naturally absorb rain) that exacerbates storm water runoff.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent group that advises the UK government on means to prepare for and manage climate volatility, stresses that land use planning should be factored into national policy. “Climate risks appear not to be fully incorporated into some major strategic decisions,” the organization said in a report titled Adapting to Climate Change in the UK/Progress Report 2011. “Embedding climate change more fully into decision making could reduce future adaptation costs, such as building new flood defences and maintaining existing defences, and also ensure that climate risks are appropriately balanced against other risks and benefits.”

Of course, England is cited worldwide for the construction in the 1970s and 1980s of the Thames Barrier, which prevents flooding in London during exceptionally high tides and storm surges. Used only once each year up until 1989, it was closed six times in 1990, 9 times in 1993, 6 times in 1999, 10 times in 2000, on 15 occasions in 2001, 19 times in 2003 and 11 times in 2007. The Barrier responds to ocean conditions, a different dynamic but also a function of a warming planet. This is a country that can mount heroic efforts to deal with natural forces, and perhaps similar tasks can be accomplished throughout the country.

CCC notes that water supplies are near their lower limits in some regions, and are more vulnerable to patterns of development and demographic trends. To mitigate this, they recommend several measures be taken:

• Improve water use efficiency, which can include lower-flow bath and kitchen fixtures, and the use of rainwater catchments for landscape watering and other uses. Up to 45 percent of water resource zones will be at risk of shortages by 2035 if remedial actions are not taken.

• Reduce building vulnerability to flooding by situating new development appropriately and by designing homes that can withstand flooding when it occurs.

• Design water absorption systems (bioswales and rain gardens) that naturally absorb storm water in situ that precludes flooding.

The UK Green Building Council certifies construction of residences and commercial structures according to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards used around the world. The organization also celebrates the UK government’s Code for Sustainable homes, introduced in 2006, which calls for “zero carbon” homes by 2016. Hundreds of buildings in the country have been certified in the LEED system while many others apply these standards without applying for certification. The net result includes development of materials and techniques that often becomes standard for all construction.

To those involved in land investment, a conversion of unbuilt to built property is typically the goal and end result. Building according to LEED standards may be exactly what the market calls for, although the bulk of homes and businesses that achieve certification tend to exist at the higher end of the cost/value spectrum. These structures operate at lower energy costs, so a longer-term perspective by buyers might drive more sustainable building methods; ROIs are achieved anywhere between three and 20 years into the future, depending on technologies used.

Investors who are considering land as an alternative investment should consider also the questions of sustainability. Be sure to discuss it with experts, just as any financial decisions should be weighed with the advice of a personal financial advisor.