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Construction in America

Net Zero: The Future of Building Energy Usage

Photo: Courtesy of Verstappen Photography

Despite unprecedented reductions in air and commuter travel as a result of measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, global carbon emissions are projected to temporarily decrease by only 8 percent in 2020. This is because building operations, both commercial and residential, are responsible for an extraordinary 30 percent of global energy use and 28 percent of global carbon emissions.

Energy is still primarily generated from fossil fuel sources causing irreversible carbon emissions, and our buildings are also using that energy inefficiently. Without action, this undesired environmental impact will continue as the global building stock is expected to double by mid-century. Therefore, the role of green construction is crucial for the legacy that we leave in buildings that last for several decades.

We must take accountability for decisions that impact the entire lifecycle of those buildings: architectural designs that neglect energy performance, material selection that affects maintenance and replacement, and designing for deconstruction to maximise opportunities for circularity. We need to set performance-based targets for projects that all design decisions are evaluated against, with carbon as the metric of choice.

It is imperative that we challenge ourselves to build future-proofed infrastructure and send assured demand signals to policymakers and the supply chain that this industry is pivoting from a major contributor to a major solution in the fight against climate change. In this challenge, the hero will be zero.

Net zero energy

Whichever term you subscribe to, the concept is very simple: net zero buildings are highly energy efficient and meet their annual energy demand from renewable energy – either generated on-site or procured from off-site sources – and have low embodied carbon emissions. The framework set out by the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) global network also recognises the need for offsets in specific markets to achieve net zero goals as part of a zero carbon transition.

The strategies and solutions necessary to achieve these high-performance buildings are increasingly well known, with integrated and holistic approaches focused on closing the performance gap being applied in the United States and globally.

Green building certification schemes and operational performance solutions, like LEED Zero and Arc from the US Green Building Council (USGBC), help stimulate these market solutions by setting appropriate best practice benchmarks and metrics in support of performance standards that exceed regulatory minimums. As part of our Advancing Net Zero project, our Green Building Councils are operating such net zero building certifications to scale up these much needed solutions.

The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment is an initiative from the WorldGBC global network to promote and inspire leadership action towards achieving net zero carbon buildings at scale from businesses and organizations – including several across the United States – and advocate for all buildings to be net zero by 2050.

Bringing embodied carbon upfront

The carbon emissions associated with the materials and construction used through a building’s entire lifecycle – known as embodied emissions – account for a further 11 percent of the world’s total.

Therefore, we need to pay careful attention to options for low carbon materials and the impact of design and procurement choices, and maximise opportunities to repurpose existing buildings. Carbon emissions released before building or infrastructure is used (upfront carbon) will be responsible for half of the entire carbon footprint of new construction between now and 2050, threatening to consume a large part of our remaining global carbon budget.

However, a low embodied carbon building that performs poorly in operation creates adverse financial, environmental, and social implications. We cannot address one without the other, and so must take urgent action to tackle upfront carbon while designing with whole life carbon in mind. Our report on this issue from September 2019, outlines the actions necessary from stakeholders across the entire supply chain.


World Green Building Week is an annual campaign from the Green Building Council network – the world’s largest network of green building professionals with over 36,000 member organisations across 70 markets. This year, we are demonstrating industry readiness to embrace net zero buildings through sharing inspiring examples of voluntary action. We are specially calling on all levels of government to implement regulations to drastically reduce carbon emissions from buildings and construction in order to bring the solutions we know are possible to the mainstream.

Critically, regulation for a net zero future will provide the necessary market signals that will truly unlock responsible investment in high-performing and quality assets, accelerate the renewable energy revolution, deliver on green jobs, and contribute to meet the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Also, the expected economic stimulus, due to the impacts of coronavirus, can help us create a new economy, which meets the needs of the Climate Decade, to halve global emissions and get on a road to net zero by 2050.

We are confident that the building and construction industry is equipped with the tools, knowledge, and resources to eliminate both embodied and operational carbon emissions, and its transformation will deliver a healthier, more sustainable, and more resilient future for citizens of the world.

We are borrowing these precious resources from future generations, and it is our responsibility to treat them as such.

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