Net Zero Commitment Updated to Address Embodied Carbon

Net Zero Commitment Updated to Address Embodied Carbon

September 15, 2021 — The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) is officially launching bold, new requirements for the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment to address embodied carbon emissions in the built environment, as well as a document outlining best practice for carbon offsetting.

The built environment is responsible for almost 40 per cent of global carbon emissions, with 10 per cent from embodied carbon from materials and construction processes. To limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius as set out in the Paris Agreement, the #BuildingToCOP26 Coalition has called for emissions from buildings globally to be halved by 2030, and to reach net zero life-cycle emissions for all buildings by no later than 2050.

With less than two months until COP26, these announcements spotlight how the built environment can accelerate climate action and address climate change.

The businesses, organisations, cities, states and regions who are signatories to the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment are taking actions towards 2030 by stimulating the innovative approaches, solutions and business models necessary for the entire sector to reach 2050 goals.

Update to the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment

The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment challenges signatories to account for all operational carbon emissions, and for new developments or major renovations, they must achieve maximum reduction of embodied carbon and compensate for any residual upfront emissions, by 2030.

New requirements for the Commitment will state that signatories must also account for:

  • the whole lifecycle impacts of new buildings and major renovations, 
  • maximise embodied carbon reductions and compensate for residual upfront emissions 
  • disclose the impact of activities that influence the wider reduction of whole life carbon emissions.

Best practice guidance on carbon offsetting in the built environment

In addition, WorldGBC will also release a guidance document on the use of carbon offsetting—“Advancing Net Zero Whole Life Carbon: Offsetting Residual Emissions from the Building and Construction Sector”. These two updates are a first for the global industry and will elevate the ambition for the building and construction sector to go further and faster to decarbonise, as well as creating a powerful catalyst towards achieving the Paris Agreement goals.

How the Commitment drives decarbonisation with a reduction-first approach

WorldGBC’s Whole Life Carbon Vision for the sector includes a roadmap for the decarbonisation of the built environment, with critical 2030 interim goals and total decarbonisation by 2050. It is outcomes based and action focused, requiring signatories to develop a bespoke roadmap to decarbonise their portfolios by following best practice principles prioritising reduction of energy consumption and embodied carbon, and the use of renewable energy.

This leadership action of Commitment signatories, reinforced with the additional focus on maximum reductions of embodied carbon, means that all new developments and renovations will also prioritise the efficient use of low carbon materials and construction processes, reduce reliance on fossil fuels in construction, and support the transition to a fully decarbonised built environment.

The Commitment promotes aggressive reduction-first strategies, with residual emissions being compensated for via best practice offsets. Until reductions in fossil fuel consumption and emissions become business as usual as part of energy systems and supply chain production processes, there will be some reliance on offsets in order to achieve the balance of net zero emissions. However, through the leadership of Commitment signatories driving demand for low carbon materials and practices, this is expected to reduce over time.

The critical need for best practice carbon offsetting that drives positive systemic change in the built environment

To encourage a best practice approach to decarbonisation, and facilitate net positive impact in pursuit of net zero emissions, WorldGBC has published a guidance document for the sector — Advancing Net Zero Whole Life Carbon: Offsetting Residual Emissions from the Building and Construction Sector. 

As part of the transition towards total sector decarbonisation that also enables tangible environment and social co-benefits in support of the Sustainable Development Goals, the guidance document promotes a best practice-approach to offsetting detailed in three principles:

  1. Prioritise emissions reduction 

Minimise the need for offsets in the first place via best practice sustainable construction and operation. This means reducing energy demand, shifting away from fossil fuels, and using 100 per cent renewable energy as soon as possible. 

  1. Compensate for residual emissions 

For any residual emissions – those which cannot be abated – invest in carbon reduction or storage projects that are credible, unique, additional and permanent, as determined via independent third party verification. 

  1. Advance tangible benefits 

Direct investment into offsets that store carbon and provide additional tangible environmental and/or social improvements, particularly those that have additional nature-based co-benefits or co-benefits in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

In this approach, WorldGBC encourages the building and construction sector to explore short-term opportunities to support the overall decarbonisation agenda via investment in efforts that enable others to advance their journey to net zero, such as through energy efficiency improvements or establishing access to renewable energy sources. Whilst these sector-based offset projects and non credit based actions are currently under developed, WorldGBC calls on the sector to recognise how this approach is critical to achieving sector decarbonisation goals.

 Why the built environment must tackle embodied carbon now

Globally, 10% of carbon emissions comes from the materials and construction processes required to build and renovate buildings, also known as embodied carbon. However, it is estimated that between 2020 and 2050, more than half of total carbon emissions from all new global construction will be due to embodied carbon.

 As carbon emissions from the energy used to heat, cool, light and power buildings are reduced through improved energy efficiency and renewable energy, the impact of embodied carbon becomes more significant than ever. This bold approach to accelerate total sector decarbonisation, introduced by the update to the Commitment, is required from the sector to account for these impacts.

Halving emissions by 2030 to achieve a 1.5 degrees Celsius of the Paris Agreement aligned future

With COP26 and the #BuildingToCOP26 Coalition spotlighting the built environment as a critical solution through the UN’s Race to Zero campaign and the Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day, this sector initiative is crucial in the wider advocacy efforts, calling on bolder and more ambitious building regulation to bring these solutions to scale. 

 The UN backed Race to Zero campaign is mobilising the shift towards a net zero carbon economy to halve emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. Recognising the crucial role of the built environment in achieving this goal, our industry must ensure that by 2030 all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations will have at least 40 per cent less embodied carbon with significant upfront carbon reduction, and all new buildings must be net zero operational carbon. The 2030 goal is an important milestone leading to 2050, where all new and existing buildings must be totally decarbonised. This requires an unprecedented shift in the way buildings are designed, built, renovated and re-used, in order to stay within remaining carbon budgets for a below 1.5 degrees Celsius of the Paris Agreement aligned future.  

 Aligned with the Race to Zero emissions breakthroughs, the Commitment enables signatories to take action further faster, towards their 2030 decarbonisation goals, whilst also stimulating the mainstreaming of critical and innovative approaches, solutions and business models necessary for the sector to reach climate goals by 2050. 

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