Buildings that emit no greenhouse gas emissions during their operation are vital to meeting the SDGs and Paris Agreement targets. But in the past, zero carbon buildings have been assumed to be only attainable 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 report identifies eight pathways countries can take to reach zero carbon buildings by reducing energy demand and cleaning energy supply.

Executive Summary

  • Cities will lead the shift to net zero carbon buildings (ZCBs) and will therefore play a major role in achieving the goal of a decarbonized world.
  • ZCBs are more achievable when the definition is expanded beyond the boundary of the individual building to allow the use of off-site clean energy or consideration across a portfolio of district or municipal buildings.
  • This working paper lays out a menu of pathways to achieve ZCBs, with a focus on operational carbon emissions. Each pathway is a combination of up to five components: basic energy efficiency, advanced energy efficiency,1 on-site carbon-free renewable energy, off-site carbon-free renewable energy, and carbon offsets only in cases where efficiency measures and renewables cannot meet 100 percent of energy demand.
  • Policies shape a city’s ability to achieve ZCB pathways. This working paper draws on reviews of current policy frameworks and consultations with stakeholders in four countries—India, China, Mexico, and Kenya— to determine how policies at the national and subnational level enable or disable the different ZCB components and pathways.
  • Even within these different policy contexts, we find ZCB pathways that are feasible today, making a decarbonized building stock a target increasingly within reach for urban policymakers.


Thumbnail photo credit: Mariano Mantel