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RELEASE: New Research Shows Zero Carbon Buildings Are Possible Where You Might Least Expect Them

WRI analysis finds that across locations and regulatory environments, there are many achievable policy pathways to zero carbon buildings


WASHINGTON (September 17, 2019) — While zero carbon buildings have previously been assumed to be attainable only by technologically advanced or wealthy countries, new WRI research finds there are policy pathways to reach zero carbon buildings regardless of location or development status.

The Zero Carbon Buildings for All Initiative, selected by the UN Secretary General's office for the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, unites leaders across sectors in a strong international coalition to decarbonize the building sector and mobilize $1 trillion in finance. For more information, visit zerocarbonbuildings.org. The new report shows that policy pathways for zero carbon buildings are attainable, even where you'd least expect them.

“If you’re interested in tackling climate change, buildings are the single most cost-effective place to start, making them equally as important for developing countries as for industrialized countries,” said Emma Stewart, report co-author and Director of Urban Efficiency and Climate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Buildings are responsible for nearly one-third of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, making them the single biggest global emitter by sector. Emissions from buildings will double by 2050, largely because of new floor space. Decarbonizing the global building stock is therefore crucial to meet climate goals and secure a safer future.

WRI's new report, Accelerating Building Decarbonization: Eight Attainable Policy Pathways to Net Zero Carbon Buildings For All, identifies eight policy pathways countries and cities can take to reach zero carbon buildings by reducing energy demand and cleaning energy supply. 

Zero carbon buildings eliminate 100% of their operational emissions through a combination of energy efficiency and on- and/or off-site renewable energy. WRI researchers tested the practical value of different pathways by analyzing the current policy framework in four countries — India, China, Mexico and Kenya — and assessing the degree to which they enable progress toward decarbonizing their building stock. The analysis shows that regardless of regulatory differences, one or more zero carbon building pathways is already within reach today in each country.

“The most important near-term action needed to meet the emissions targets set out in the Paris Agreement is achieving zero carbon buildings today,” said Edward Mazria, Founder and CEO of Architecture 2030. “WRI details the multiple pathways available to accomplish this — from ZERO Codes to a combination of efficiency strategies and on- and/or off-site renewable energy procurement — that can be implemented immediately by jurisdictions worldwide.”

The report’s policy pathways to reach zero carbon buildings are comprised of five key elements: basic energy efficiency, advanced energy efficiency, on-site carbon-free renewable energy, off-site carbon-free renewable energy, and credible carbon offsets.

Not every combination of policy measures is considered equally desirable, and additional factors such as financing and technology availability will play a crucial role in which zero carbon building pathways can be pursued. Overall costs and broader social and environmental factors suggest that decision-makers should use the following hierarchy of preference among different policy components:

  • Efficiency First: Decision-makers should first apply building design strategies and energy efficiency measures to reduce consumption. 
  • On-site Before Off-site Renewable Energy: Then incorporate (carbon-free) on-site renewable energy systems before off-site (carbon-free) renewable energy to meet the balance of energy needs.
  • Renewable Energy Before Offsets: Lastly, credible carbon offsets are the least desirable option — both for generation and embodied carbon — but can help close any remaining gaps in net carbon balance. Carbon offsets reduce emissions further from the source, can be hard to verify and, ultimately, cannot support a full transition to a decarbonized building stock.

“Policies at the national, state and local levels can enable or discourage zero carbon buildings,” said Debbie Weyl, report co-author and Manager of the Buildings Initiative at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “Improved collaboration across these levels of government will lead to greater success in decarbonizing the building sector.”

With more of the world’s population now living in urban areas than ever before, cities have a leadership role to play, according to the report. The menu of zero carbon building pathways gives cities the opportunity to pursue or encourage approaches not only for individual buildings but also across a district or portfolio of buildings. Defining zero carbon buildings in this way allows for more flexible approaches that achieve 100% reduction of operational (or embodied) emissions across a group of buildings rather than striving for full decarbonization of each building. 

“Because they combine cost-effective and technically achievable solutions like energy efficiency and renewable energy, zero carbon buildings have remarkable potential to transform cities,” said Ani Dasgupta, Global Director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “They are one of the best solutions in the fight against climate change.”

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