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How do we get to zero carbon buildings?

Explore what we need to do to reach net zero carbon in the built environment.

Zero Carbon Building in Kowloon Bay, HongKong generates renewable energy & achieves net zero carbon emissions.

Where are we now?

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasizes that to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and limit global warming to the Paris agreement goal of 1.5°C, quick and comprehensive changes to the way we use power are required.

Decarbonization is a big word for a big goal: reducing or stopping carbon gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), from being released into the atmosphere and raising global temperatures. Working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) is nothing new for the green building sector, but bringing them down to zero presents new challenges.

Buildings and construction are responsible for about 30% of energy-related CO2 emissions globally. As USGBC's building decarbonization issue brief shares, having clean energy technology and solid operations strategies in place isn't enough; to make it all work, we also need broad buy-in, and that means sharing convincing data, empathizing with local priorities and getting supportive incentives and policies passed.

For buildings ranging from airports to schools, zero carbon plans are being put into place. There's no time to lose in the fight to mitigate climate change. So, how do we get there?

Feature image: The LEED Platinum Alfandre Architecture building in New Paltz, New York, which achieved LEED Zero for carbon, energy and water.

What do we need to do to reach zero carbon?

1. Focus on the full life cycle of a building.

New buildings: Embodied carbon is what is released into the atmosphere as the result of constructing a new building. This can include extracting raw materials at the point of origin, manufacturing those materials into usable form, transporting them long distances, building a structure, and eventually, demolishing or recycling the materials at the end of the building's life.

Existing buildings: Operational carbon is what is emitted when a building is in use and all systems are running​ and being maintained. It includes CO2 generated by powering the structure, operating heating and cooling, and running lights.

Paying attention to this whole life cycle approach is tied to concepts like the circular economy or cradle to cradle. Many LEED credits and prerequisites work to reduce life cycle impacts, from energy management practices to construction and demolition waste management.

2. Measure carbon use.

In practice, since we can't cease manufacturing, building or operating structures, net zero carbon means striking a balance: total carbon emitted minus total carbon avoided. Quantifying how a project has avoided carbon, though complex, is essential to determining whether the balance is level. Green building certifications such as LEED and performance tools such as Arc provide a structure for project teams to collect this data.

For example, projects that have earned LEED Zero Carbon certification are those that have shown net zero carbon emissions from energy consumption through carbon emissions avoided or offset over 12 months. Learn more about how LEED Zero helps achieve net zero.

3. Ensure technology and workforce growth.

To accommodate our growing global population, development of new materials and technologies and sources of clean energy will help ensure that we have what we need to reach and maintain a zero carbon built environment. Though we must improve and scale up our use of current technologies like solar panels and wind farms, new forms like green hydrogen and bioenergy are also being explored.

In addition, the urgency of our need for clean energy creates a corresponding need for a workforce to install and manage it. Studies show we have a higher demand than supply of solar technicians, facilities managers and other green building professionals. To accelerate the growth of our zero carbon workforce, nurturing the next generation of green builders, providing career resources and mentoring others is essential.

4. Harness policy and create collective motivation.

Despite action at the federal level, in cities and by industry organizations, we still need wider buy-in. USGBC's Advocacy and Policy team and our committed network of local volunteers have been working hard for many years to promote green building, clean energy and incentives.

How can you help? Educate yourself on decarbonization and net zero, contact your representatives in Congress and on the local level, or join USGBC's Advocacy Working Group.

Net zero carbon buildings are achievable—it's just a matter of commitment. By harnessing all the tools available to us, we can transform the places in which we live, learn, work and play to help reach our climate goals and benefit the environment.

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