Zero-carbon buildings are great for people and the climate. Here’s why.

Blog Post Industry
Published August 16, 2017

Michael Northrop

Rockefeller Brothers Fund
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Patty Fong

Director, Food & Agriculture

Philanthropy has a vital role to play in decarbonizing the global buildings sector. The challenge: A global building boom is underway – how can we ensure that it is zero carbon?

The world’s population is expected to grow by 1.1 billion over the next 15 years, and most of that population growth will happen in cities. To accommodate this increase, we are expected to add some 600 billion square feet of floor space, an increase equivalent to the total floor space of all the buildings in the United States, China, and Germany in 2015.

More than half of this new building sector boom will occur in China, India, and North America. With new buildings comes the need to  heat and cool them, among other energy requirements. This boom represents a huge challenge, but also a great opportunity.

The building sector must play a pivotal role in reducing fossil fuel emissions in order to meet the climate goals agreed to in Paris. Although worldwide building energy intensity (energy consumption per unit of floor area) has continued to improve, it has not been enough to offset the growth in new building energy demand. Consequently, energy consumption by and emissions from buildings continues to rise.

Projected Buildings sector emissions density per capita. Sources: Emission factors—ClimateWorks Carbon Transparency Initiative (2016); 2-degree pathway represents the median of 2°C-compatible scenarios from the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of Working Group III IIASA (2015). 1.5 degree pathway adapted after Rogelj et al. (2015, 2013).


The good news is that the technology and know-how to meet the carbon reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement are readily available. Today’s planning and design strategies and technologies are delivering high performance zero-net-carbon (ZNC) and zero-carbon buildings (ZCB) and developments.

However, as ClimateWorks’ recent report, Faster and Cleaner 2—Kick-starting Global Decarbonization, illustrates, decarbonization has yet to significantly materialize in the global buildings sector. The stakeholders in the building sector are much more fragmented and decentralized than those in the power and transport sectors. Current policies, programs, pilot projects, code updates, financing structures, technologies, and incentives for reducing emissions from residential, commercial, and institutional buildings are simply not delivering the needed emissions reductions. Creating large scale systemic change will be a significant challenge.

Specifically, new buildings must be designed to ZNC/ZCB standards, and every year 3 percent or more of the existing building stock must undertake energy efficiency renovations in order to meet the Paris targets. These efforts will require a concerted effort at the regional, national, and sub-national levels as well as in the private sector.

As Architecture 2030 outlined in its study Achieving Zero, a successful approach includes: (1) designing effective regulations and requirements for building energy efficiency upgrades at a scale, along with the adoption of ZNC/ZCB building energy codes for new buildings and major renovations; (2) increasing renewable energy generation; and (3) training building sector professionals in ZNC/ZCB building design and urban planning. Architecture 2030 is demonstrating these principles in its current work in China and in 12 North American cities, where it partners with the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.

In addition, in dense urban areas, it will be necessary to allow on-site and off-site renewable energy to offset a portion of the required energy reduction. Such a strategy would provide multiple pathways for regulatory compliance and create new markets for renewable energy. However, as more people use air conditioning and as the transportation sector electrifies, demands on existing infrastructure may increase at a rate faster than that at which renewables can be installed. These demands could in fact undermine efforts to decarbonize the grid and the buildings sector unless ZNC/ZCB renovation rates are dramatically increased.  As a result, we will need improved policies and incentives to reduce electricity consumption.

Lastly, it is vitally important to show the near term benefits of the transition to zero-carbon energy in terms of health, well-being, comfort and safety in order to create demand for zero-carbon energy and buildings. Philanthropy has an important role in showing the importance of zero carbon buildings. Initiatives like Buildings 2030 Europe are a great example of this, and are helping to secure commitments from market leaders to occupy high-performing buildings.

There is no time to waste. Philanthropy can accelerate the transformation of the buildings sector by supporting:

  • Energy codes to reduce the energy use and emissions of new buildings;
  • Requirements for efficiency upgrades concurrent with capital improvement cycles;
  • Targets for building renovations for climate adaptation, resilience, and equity;
  • “Zero Emissions by 2050” policy roadmaps at the sub-national level;
  • Approaches to transform professional academia, specifically in architecture and urban planning –academia needs to integrate ZNC/ZCB, adaptability, comfort, quality of life, resilience design (e.g., INNOVATION2030); and policymaking into its core curricula;
  • The development and spread of professional planning, design training, and tools to dramatically improve building construction and renovation worldwide; and
  • Pilot projects (e.g. Energiesprong), particularly in urban areas, to scale up best practice construction and retrofit business models.[footnote tooltip=”Energiesprong in the Netherlands challenged industry to create a model for zero-net energy (a close sibling of ZNC/ZCB) building retrofits. This program has implemented zero-net energy retrofits of some 1,300 residential buildings with approximately 25,000 units with minimal disruption to tenants and at relatively little expense. The model is now being tested in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and cities in the United States.”][/footnote]

Philanthropy can help to align funding for efforts like these, it can ensure a focus on health and well-being, and it can jump-start the shift in places like China, India, and the United States. If we are successful in these efforts, we will go a long way to helping the building sector do its part to limit global temperatures increases to under 2 degrees Celsius.