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Climate change is ranked as a top concern for both the public and private sectors. The U.S. Department of Energy has committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 to mitigate costly natural disasters and create healthy, safe, and thriving communities via a clean energy infrastructure. Building owners and operators across North America widely agree that climate risk is investment risk. For this reason, the number of corporations with enterprise facilities, developers, and building owners and operators committed to net zero emissions doubled between 2019 and 2020.
Facility managers are often tasked with fulfilling a mandate on behalf of their building or company C-suite without a lot of direction or understanding of what it takes to get to net zero. Here are some answers to common questions that building operators looking to incorporate heightened sustainability will have.
1. What does “net zero” mean?
In 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to release a specific definition of what it means to be “net-zero.” When applied to building systems, the term generally applies as follows:
2. What net zero goal is recommended for buildings?
If financially feasible based on building type, size, and location, reaching net zero carbon by 2050 is advised. Carbon Positive would have an even greater environmental impact, especially in states without specific clean energy goals.
While it is a recommendation now, net zero may be a requirement in the future. Limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius (identified as the climate change tipping point) has become the de facto target for global climate policy. New regulations may be adopted to force compliance in meeting this goal. This net zero recommendation also recognizes the power grid challenges (eg. storage, legislation, land entitlements) likely to result in trying to meet the 100 percent clean energy goal by 2050.
3. How can my building get to net zero?
Pick the right solution: Regardless of the net zero path you choose, the first step should be understanding your building’s largest contributor to global warming. This is not necessarily limited to CO2 and could be other greenhouse gases such as methane or refrigerants. If your facility or tenants have a sustainability director, that person should be able to share this information and help you pick the best implementation strategy. A clear understanding of the quantifiable impact your business is currently having on the environment can pave the way for quicker approval and action.
Identify the winners: You should also consider who specifically benefits from these decisions. A net zero goal supporting the need for an energy efficient building, as measured by energy use intensity (EUI), can pave the way to lower utility bills. (EUI is an indicator of the energy efficiency of a building’s design and/or operations and can be thought of as a “miles per gallon” rating for the building industry.) It can also make a better return on investment (ROI) argument for on-site renewable energy, which in turn can reduce a building’s carbon footprint.
Look for financial help: There are often financial incentives to make doing the right thing for the environment easier. Seek out federal, state, and local incentives to promote energy efficiency and renewables.
Finally, if purchasing carbon offsets, be selective on who you choose. Focus on carbon offsets that support equity and other qualitative measures that can help with your organization’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting.
4. What net zero building certifications are recommended?
There are many to consider — Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS) 2021, Zero Energy Certification from the International Living Future Institute, LEED Zero from USGBC, and many more. Also, the options are constantly updating to reflect the current grid mix and technologies. A qualified professional can help you determine the best certification that overlaps current carbon offset investments, provides a prescriptive climate-based path to a lower EUI, and paves the way for on-site renewable energy.
5. What does all the net zero jargon mean?
There is a lot out there, but here are some of the more common terms relating to the built environment:
6. What does the future hold for the net zero built environment?
There are currently relatively few regulations in place to cap global warming to two degrees Celsius. With limited government oversight and guidance, it is up to individuals to act—and they have. Every day we are witnessing multiple and new solutions.
Driving investment in the built environment at scale in the near term will largely be from tenant demand and any new incentives from the federal government. To date, more than 9,600 companies disclose carbon footprint data annually and that number is growing exponentially. Once more of these companies make a net zero commitment to attract investors and talent, we will likely see more tenants searching for leases that do not significantly add to their carbon emissions.
Tim Zelazny, AIA, CPHC, LEED AP, BECxP, WELL AP, is senior sustainability and healthy buildings specialist for ESD Energy + Eco.