The COVID-19 outbreak has many office buildings sitting idly, without employees streaming in every morning and out every afternoon. While lockdowns briefly decreased global carbon emissions about 17 percent, this was mostly due to transportation, flights and commuting grinding to halt. But 36 percent of fossil-fuel carbon emissions come from buildings, and even though most are unoccupied, the lights are still on and the heating or air conditioning is still running.
These metrics show why commercial buildings have become an important focus for the World Green Building Council (WGBC). Its Advancing Net Zero buildings initiative aims to have every building produce net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. That’s every building on the planet.
Right now, there are 1 billion buildings in the world, and that footprint will double by 2060. It is difficult to know how many buildings are operating at net-zero because some buildings are operating at net-zero because of the renewable energy supplied by the grid. WGBC is working on tracking the data to show increased uptake in renewable energy.
"Controversially, we're sort of moving our narrative from green buildings into buildings that actually do not create any emissions," said Victoria Burrows, director of Advancing Net Zero at the WGBC. "That is an enormous shift in culture and mindset in approach."
We need to tackle this problem at scale by taking action to reduce emissions across a business’s entire portfolio.
As of August 5th, 62 businesses, 28 cities and six states have signed on to be WGBC’s leaders in this initiative by committing to make all their buildings net-zero carbon-emitting by 2030 or sooner. California has signed onto the commitment with 16 million buildings, along with businesses such as design firm Atelier Ten, healthcare real estate investment trust Assura and retail center developer Wereldhave.
Each organization pledging to support the WGBC initiative must commit to a net-zero building goal, disclose annual energy demand and carbon emissions for its portfolio, create a concrete action plan and have a third party perform a verification of the data and the strategy.
WGBC will allow any credible third party, such as LEED, to do the certification so businesses aren’t burdened with having to double up. Another available option is a verification at the portfolio level for cities and businesses. The third parties offer compliance and assurance, using established reporting protocols and standards, to make sure the data is accurate. Some signatories use JLL, a global real estate company that provides these services. Others use environmental services organizations such as Bureau Veritas or Apex Companies, which took over the North American branch Bureau Veritas in the summer of 2019.
"We can't tackle this problem building by building," Burrows said. "We need to tackle this problem at scale by taking action to reduce emissions across a business’s entire portfolio. Salesforce, for example, has buildings in 26 countries. If it commits to making all of those buildings net-zero, then that's going to be a lot more effective than doing it for the individual building."
Salesforce signed the commitment as a founding signatory in September 2018. All new buildings are building constructed to net-zero specifications from 2020 onward, such as its new tower in Dublin.
According to Burrows, businesses are uniquely positioned to lead the charge. They can make net-zero part of their business strategy, demonstrate it is possible; then the regulations will follow to address all buildings.
"It’s about walking the talk," said Bianca Wong, global head of sustainability at Kingspan. "We’ve done it within our own operations and then we provide solutions into the marketplace."
Kingspan is a global commercial building materials supplier based in Ireland that has been working since 2011 on making its portfolio of 159 manufactory facilities net zero.
We cannot make decisions as designers about ultimately what the building is, but we commit to raising the issue and doing our damnedest to convince clients to go there.
It signed onto the WGBC’s initiative in 2019 and met 90 percent of its 2020 goals last year. The targets include overall energy efficiency, purchasing renewable energy from the grid where possible and generating renewable energy on its own sites, including solar, wind, anaerobic digestion and hydro. In countries without an established renewable energy market, Kingspan purchases renewable energy certificates as offsets.
"But the good thing about [purchases RECs] is you are putting a price on the carbon," Wong said. "So you're incentivizing your business as you move forward to reduce the amount of fossil fuels the business will use in the future."
Atelier Ten is also on the frontlines of making the resources to help the businesses get their commercial properties down to net-zero emissions. It has developed a tool to calculate the carbon sequestration potential for landscape architects and is working with one of the largest property companies, LendLease, on building projects with low-carbon aims.
"We commit to, as designers, raising the issue of zero-carbon buildings on every project we work with," said Paul Stoller, director of Melbourne and Sydney operations of Atelier Ten. "So for every client, we talk about zero carbon and why it's important. We cannot make decisions as designers about ultimately what the building is, but we commit to raising the issue and doing our damnedest to convince clients to go there."
Kingspan and Atelier Ten know that every building is bespoke, especially for global companies that are dealing with building in vastly different countries and regions — each of which is supporting different stages of green development.
One hundred percent net-zero buildings across the entire world is an aggressive goal to achieve in the next 30 years. But the World Green Business Council wants to think big.
By 2030, WGBC is targeting 40 percent less embodied carbon in new buildings, infrastructure and renovations and all new buildings must be net-zero operational carbon.
"The reality is that we need to drastically cut our emissions," Burrows said. "I think it's important to have goals to be able to set targets. Having a goal of 100 percent and then milestones that are intermediate to that gives people something to work towards."
This article has been updated to correct the number of signatories on commitment.