The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment explained

By | 4 minute read | April 21, 2022

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The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment (the Commitment) calls on organizations, businesses and cities to take action to reduce all operational and embodied carbon emissions within their building portfolios by 2030, and to advocate for all buildings to be net zero whole life carbon by 2050. The Commitment was launched in 2018 and aims to support the Paris Agreement’s ambition of having a global temperature increase of less than 1.5°C.

The building sector contributes considerably to global emissions. With almost 40% of all energy-related greenhouse emissions coming from buildings, and 28% coming from the operations of buildings themselves, the Commitment recognizes this impact and aims to decarbonize this energy-intensive sector.

The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment was developed by the World Green Building Council, a group that advocates for the halving of emissions produced by the building and construction sector by 2030 and totally decarbonizing by 2050.

The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment recognizes the importance of leadership in enacting meaningful reductions. They don’t want to only see an organization focus internally on their own impact. The Commitment instead calls on signatories to advocate around the importance of reduced emissions in the built environment.

When talking about carbon emissions, the Commitment considers both operational and embodied carbon. This means that the Commitment applies both to management of existing buildings and construction of new ones.

Operational carbon refers to all emissions produced when a building is in use. This includes energy needed to heat, cool, light, power and ventilate a space. Operational carbon is ongoing and can vary depending on both controllable and external factors.

Embodied carbon refers to the amount of carbon emitted during the construction of a building. This includes the extraction of raw materials, the manufacturing and refinement of materials, transportation, installation and even disposal of old supplies. In embodied carbon, energy and waste use is high, but finite.

What are the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment requirements?

The Net Zero Carbon Building Commitment framework is made up of five sections:

  • Commit
  • Disclose
  • Act
  • Verify
  • Advocate

Signatories must address each requirement and demonstrate their plan when signing the Commitment.

Commit

The first step is for an organization to sign the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment to decarbonize and cut their emissions in half by 2030. This requires all building assets within direct control of the organization to be included. This section should outline what specific changes an organization is committing to. It is recommended that the Commitment is included in business operations so that action will be embedded across the entire organization.

Disclose

All signatories are required to report two years after signing up, to establish a baseline. However, earlier reporting is encouraged. Disclosures should include measurements and progress towards targets and be publicly available.

Act

Signatories should make operational improvements to increase efficiency and move towards renewable energy. They must also strive to achieve maximum emission reductions in embodied carbon.

Verify

Verify and report energy consumption and carbon emissions data, ideally through third-party certification and third-party assured reporting. Progress can be compared to the first disclosure.

Advocate

Share progress, recommendations and findings to help and encourage other organizations in the sector to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, including those upstream in the supply chain. This commitment encourages signatories to be leaders in the sector and to champion for sustainability improvements.

The use of offsets in the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment

The Commitment advocates for a reduction-first approach, with carbon offsets still being a necessary part, but only utilized after minimizing action has been implemented. The following best-practice approach is recommended:

Prioritize emissions reduction

Minimize the need for offsets in the first place by focusing on sustainable construction and improved operational performance.

Compensate for residual emissions

For any residual emissions that can’t be further reduced or avoided, invest in carbon reduction or storage projects that are “credible, unique, additional and permanent, as determined via independent third-party verification.”

Advance tangible benefits

Invest into offset projects that both store carbon and provide additional environmental or social benefits, ideally that align with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Who are the Net Zero Carbon Building Commitments for?

Choosing to become a signatory demonstrates to stakeholders an active, planned commitment to decarbonize. Many of the world’s most famous cities are already signatories, including Tokyo, New York, London and Paris. All continents of the world are represented, except Antarctica. Organizations that have signed on to the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment include architecture firms, property developers, construction companies, financial institutions, universities and more. They’re both privately owned and publicly listed.

One of the first signatories was global engineering firm, Integral, which has over 680 staff and 19 assets. They are a good example of a business who can influence both operational activity in their own buildings and embodied carbon in their work. Integral have positioned themselves as leaders in the industry and advocate for more to be done in the sector.

Even if an organization doesn’t choose to officially become a signatory, the “Commit, Disclose, Act, Verify, Advocate” framework provides clear guidance on a long-term strategy for reducing emissions and then completely decarbonizing.

As of March 2022, 129 organizations, 28 cities and 6 states and regions have signed the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment. You can read more about each of their individual built environment commitments here. As advocacy is such an important element of the Commitment, and each signatory is encouraged to share their progress, it is no surprise that the number of signatories is growing every month as the sector strives toward net zero.