Getting down to zero


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Terri Wills, CEO, World Green Building Council

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Getting down to zero

When 195 countries reached the groundbreaking Paris Agreement on climate change last December, no one could have foreseen the pace at which individual countries – including China, the US and Brazil – would ratify the deal, which now looks set to come into force later this year. It’s astonishing to see the momentum that has followed the COP21 conference, given the relative inertia witnessed in the years leading up to it. And nowhere is this momentum more apparent than with efforts to reduce – and ultimately eliminate - emissions from all buildings: the goal to achieve ‘net zero’.

It was at COP21’s Buildings Day that renowned architect and Founder of Architecture 2030 Ed Mazria called on Green Buildings Councils to lead the building and construction industry by striving for net zero carbon buildings - the same day as three of our Green Building Councils committed to introduce net zero certification programmes. And now, nearly a year on, a further seven Green Building Councils in countries as large and rapidly-growing as Brazil and India, have joined Advancing Net Zero, our groundbreaking project on net zero buildings, which launched in June.

The science behind net zero is simple. If we are to stand any chance of keeping global warming to within 2 degrees, and ideally within 1.5 degrees, all new buildings should be ‘net zero carbon’ by 2030 (meaning no buildings should be built below net zero carbon standards beyond 2030), and all buildings - both new and existing - must be net zero carbon by 2050. By ‘net zero carbon’ we mean buildings that produce no carbon emissions annually through strict levels of energy efficiency and the use of on-site or off-site renewable energy.
The project will initially focus on introducing net zero certification, which is particularly important given the impact existing certification schemes have had around the world. To date, Green Building Councils have registered an astonishing 1.2 billion square metres – almost twice the size of Singapore - of green buildings through certification schemes such as LEED, BREEAM, Green Star and DGNB. The introduction of specific net zero certification schemes is expected to drive the demand and supply of these highly efficient buildings and prove to regulators at all levels of government that the building sector is ready and willing to play its part towards achieving climate change goals. Green Building Councils have committed to establish these certification schemes by the end of 2017 or as soon as possible thereafter. It is also through our Green Building Councils on the ground in these 10 countries, that we will aim to train over 300,000 green building professionals on net zero building by 2050 – those workers who will be absolutely vital to deliver the scale of change required.

And make no mistake, the scale of change will be challenging. Researchers estimate that there are currently only hundreds of commercial net zero buildings around the world, with the number of net zero homes in the thousands. These green shoots will undoubtedly blossom as the proven technology and infrastructure needed becomes both easier and cheaper to implement.

Examples of flagship net zero buildings like Seattle’s Bullitt Center demonstrate why striving for net zero makes sense. This building is net zero energy, with 100 per cent of its energy needs generated by the 575 solar panels on its roof, and it’s also net zero water, as all of its water requirements are provided by harvested rainwater. Yet its benefits go beyond environmental. One study estimated that just six of the building’s green features, such as energy efficiency, will produce up to $18.5 million in public benefits over the 250-year life span of the building. And as one of the first offices in the world to earn the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building certification, it is naturally day-lit and ventilated to enhance the environment for its workers.

It’s not just office buildings that are aiming for, and achieving, net zero carbon. PNC Bank, part of one of the US’ largest financial services organisations, opened a net zero energy branch in the US in 2013, with highly energy efficient LED lights and over 200 solar panels. And in the residential space, developer Lendlease is aiming for its flagship redevelopment of Elephant and Castle in London, UK, to be a net zero district heat network (with bio-methane being injected into the grid to offset). The scheme is part of C40’s Climate Positive Development programme which recognises the world’s most ambitious low-carbon projects.

Over the coming years, net zero buildings will help individual countries to achieve their INDCs and to deliver on the Paris Agreement. Net zero buildings are technically feasible now, and Green Building Councils are working to develop them at greater scale though district-level or city-wide approaches. Innovative developments in energy efficiency technologies from companies such as the glass-maker Saint-Gobain or lighting manufacturer Philips will further impact the ease by which we can achieve net zero.

Through Advancing Net Zero, the World Green Building Council will be publishing its first report on net zero buildings at COP22 in Morocco, which will set out in more detail current market progress, the trajectories that are required in order to meet our 2050 targets and the role that Green Building Councils can play, both in terms of certification and laying the groundwork for government regulation. We are at the start of a long road, but the appetite for net zero building is growing. Together with the expertise of our Green Building Councils and our partners we believe we can make net zero the new normal.

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