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Real estate companies have a long way to go in terms of corporate governance practices regarding climate change, according to a new report commissioned by Boston-based investor group Ceres, and authored by RiskMetrics Group. While technology companies ranked high, development and property management firms lag behind.

IBM was the highest ranked company, with a score of 79–out of a possible 100– followed by Tesco with 78, and Dell with 77. Yet the highest-ranked real estate firm, Simon Property Group, scored 37. Real estate as a sector averaged just 27 points, tied with travel and leisure, and 10 ahead of the lowest-ranked sector, restaurants.

Given the extensive portfolios of real estate companies, the result is surprising, the report said. Buildings account for more than 40% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, giving developers and property managers a real opportunity to make a significant difference to the environment and their own businesses.”This could be a real product differentiator for them,” said Doug Cogan, lead report author of New York City-based RiskMetrics at a press conference discussing the report.

The study examined the practices and corporate commitment to reversing climate change in 11 sectors: real estate; apparel; beverages; big box retailers; grocery & drug retailers; personal & household goods; pharmaceuticals; restaurants; semiconductors; technology; and travel & leisure. Companies’ corporate climate change strategies were evaluated in five main areas: board of director oversight; management execution; public disclosure; emissions accounting; and strategic planning and performance.

Management appears to be the key problem for many sectors, the report said. Only 15 of the 63 companies have tasked board-level committees with environmental oversight, and only seven of the CEOs of these firms have taken leadership roles.

“In each sector, we were able to find companies taking action to address this issue,” Cogan said. “However, we do place a particular emphasis on the governance approach. We’re looking for board oversight, management activities, and ties to executive compensation.”

The real estate companies are no exception to the oversight situation, though they have established some programs to reduce consumption of energy and other resources. “While some companies in each of these sectors are pursuing green building initiatives, they are often doing so for only select or flagship properties, rather than throughout their full portfolios, where even greater savings could be attained. These companies also had generally weak governance structures, management leadership and public disclosure on climate-related issues,” the report notes.

Simon, the report noted, began implementing energy reduction programs in 2004, and now saves $12 million in energy costs annually. Mall energy management systems are reviewed quarterly. Meters track energy use throughout the company’s shopping centers, and Simon is collaborating with the EPA Energy Star program, Simon Property to develop energy use benchmarks for malls. But there is room for improvement.

“Simon Property has not set GHG reduction targets and it does not disclose its annual energy use reduction targets,” the report said. “Board oversight of energy and climate risk management appears to be minimal.”

CB Richard Ellis, just behind Simon with a score of 37, was named Energy Star Partner of the Year in 2007 and 2008 by the Environmental Protection Agency, and has numerous initiatives, including hiring a new global director of environmental strategy, establishing a carbon neutrality target for its office buildings by 2010, an employee accreditation and training program. Its US offices were surveyed in late 2007 to discover and share best practices in conservation efforts.

Its Asset Services business targeted buildings of 100,000 square feet or more to reduce energy by 10%, launching a 12-point commitment for all office buildings, including benchmarks, pursuing EPA Energy Star Certification and preparing a sustainability plan.

Brookfield Asset Management, with a score of 27, has created Bringing Energy Savings to Our Tenants (BEST), an energy program for tenants that includes audits, education and other projects. All future developments, the company says, will be built to LEED Gold, and it is pursuing LEED Existing Building or current properties. It has accepted the Building Owners and Managers Assoc. (BOMA) seven-point challenge, which includes a goal of reducing its energy use portfolio-wide by 30% by 2012.

General Growth Properties, with a score of 16, has implemented energy conservation measures at a number of its shopping centers, reducing use in its portfolio by 17% by replacing heating and cooling equipment. Efficient lighting, white roofs and design features that maximize natural illumination have been used, and its centers are cleaned during the daytime to reduce nighttime lighting. Hybrid vehicles are being tested, as are on-site solar panels at a center in Hawaii.

However, “There is no evidence of board or executive leadership with respect to climate change, and the company has not set greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets,” the report notes.

Similarly, Boston Properties, which also achieved a 16 score, has not shown evidence of board or executive leadership, or set GHG emissions reductions targets, the report says. The company has undertaken some capital improvements to reduce energy usage at unnamed properties, educated tenants on energy conservation, and annually identifies measures at the property level to reduce energy and other resource consumption. In addition, the company says several of its buildings have earned the Energy Star Label, and has three properties pre-certified for LEED Gold or Silver status.

The goal extends beyond saving money. It also can become a legal and financing issue, said Thomas P. DiNapoli, New York State Comptroller, who also spoke at the press conference. “This certainly is not an easy issue,” DiNapoli said. “We anticipate more regulatory changes regarding emissions.”

DiNapoli, who oversees the investments of the state’s $155 billion pension fund, also noted, “I want to know what companies are taking steps to address climate change risks before they become liabilities. We are very focused on long-term performance.”

And that means a longer-term view for all companies, regardless of sector. “The financial crisis will right itself, though we don’t know when,” Cogan said. “The climate crisis will not.”

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