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A Zero Carbon Building Sector by 2050

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Buildings - the places we live, work, play and learn - currently account for about one third of global energy consumption. As population and urbanization continue to increase, energy demand in buildings could reach 50 percent of global energy use by 2050.
The building sector is therefore a major contributor to climate change and must be a major part of the solution. Buildings also represent one of the most cost effective ways to tackle emissions reductions. Lower energy use saves money and boosts competitiveness.
Ensuring that all buildings - both old and new - are zero carbon by the year 2050 is a bold ambition. It's also essential if we are going to keep global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the figure that scientists say is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
To date, Green Buildings Council organizations in 84 countries have certified over 1 billion square meters of green buildings through voluntary green building certification programs such as LEED, BREEAM, GREEN STAR, BEAM, and DGNB. These councils and their members have been a major force behind the energy efficiency revolution we have seen in our building sector in recent years.
Ten Green Building Councils are now taking a next step by creating a certification system for zero net carbon (ZNC) buildings.
At a recent workshop during Climate Week in New York this past September, ten GBC's, the World Green Building Council, and Architecture 2030, discussed how to develop ambitious ZNC certification schemes that can encourage more rapid development of ZNC buildings. The ten GBCs that met, who were from Germany, Sweden, Australia, Canada, the U.S., India, China, South Africa, Brazil, and The Netherlands, recognized that certification must be responsive to different needs in diverse markets (Global North vs. South; warm climate vs. cold climate), and they also agreed on several common parameters - that carbon is the key metric, a serious level of building energy efficiency must always be required, renewable energy must be the power source either "on-site", "off-site", or if necessary through offsets; and that continuous and transparent improvement will be required between now and 2050 to ensure science-based climate goals can be achieved. Each participating Green Building Council will also strive to recognize and incent developers to push the practice of zero net carbon building development so they can have the most beneficial impact on reducing carbon emissions as quickly as possible.
Building certification is important as a way to kick start the market, and to encourage all players in the buildings supply chain - from building products, design, construction and operation - to strive to build the best buildings possible. Certification has also been proven to be a driver of improvements in building codes and standards that are developed by city, state and national governments.
Especially interesting in the approach the ten GBCs are taking is that they are not aiming to prescribe a single approach towards a zero carbon building sector by 2050. Given the differences within markets, and the need to create ZNC buildings now in every single nation, this is a sensible approach to encouraging the broadest possible engagement and forward progress.
Even more striking is the interest and excitement that striving for ZNC buildings has generated in the construction, investment, architecture, and engineering communities.
Can we achieve a zero carbon building sector? Absolutely. But we have to aim high - and accelerate the creation of ZNC buildings today. GBC certification systems will help show the way, first in the ten GBC countries that have already signed on, and then in other GBC countries, who are likely to adapt their own certification systems in future.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of his employer

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