Net Zero, Zero Carbon, Carbon Neutrality, Oh My!

For some time Zero Net Carbon (ZNC) was not clearly defined, but ten Green Building Councils (including United States & China) worked to change that.  They convened in New York City on September 30, 2016 with the goal of aligning their ZNC definitions. Architecture 2030, a non-profit dedicated to combating climate change through innovative design, led the discussion by putting forward the ZNC definition they developed in collaboration with Rocky Mountain Institute and New Buildings Institute.

Today, a ZNC building is defined as:

A highly energy efficient building that produces on-site, or procures, enough carbon-free renewable energy to meet building operations energy consumption annually.

ZNC buildings = Energy Efficiency + Renewable Energy

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) consisted of scientific studies that illustrated the next decade is a critical time. They also emphasized that the only way to stabilize our climate is to reach zero total global greenhouse gas emissions by 2060 to 2080. To meet this timeframe, our entire building sector must shift current building design, construction, and operations towards ZNC, and our solution must bring every building – new and existing – into the fold.

In 2012, there was approximately 85 million square feet of new buildings built in the United States.  Today there is over 275 billion square feet of existing building space in the U.S. This translates into incredible potential to transform existing buildings into more sustainable, healthy, and profitable buildings. Traditionally, buildings have contributed about a third of climate change-causing global carbon dioxide emissions, more than any other sector, because of their heavy reliance on fossil fuel resources.

It is critical that we adapt our built environment to withstand the impacts of a climate change.  We are already experiencing the effects of our changing climate. In order to maintain a healthy atmosphere, it is estimated that carbon emissions must be cut by 80% by 2050. 

The Paris Agreement was adopted by consensus in December 2015.  This agreement within the UNFCC addresses greenhouse gas emissions, mitigation, adaption and finance starting in the year 2020.  The Paris Agreement objective is to hold the increase in global average temperature at well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. While the U.S. is taking steps to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, this has not slowed the other 193 signatories on their progress toward mitigating climate change.

In response to President Trump’s announcement of the U.S. plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement more than 2,200 leaders from America’s city halls, state houses, boardrooms and college campuses, representing more than 127 million Americans and $6.2 trillion of the U.S. economy signed the We Are Still In declaration, a commitment to the Paris Agreement. Its signatories demonstrate America’s enduring commitment to delivering on the promise of the Paris Agreement and America’s contribution to it. To date, ‘We Are Still In’ is the largest cross section of the American economy yet assembled in pursuit of climate action. ‘We Are Still In’ is a bottom-up network, supported by many individuals and organizations. Grand Rapids was an early signatory to the movement and other Michigan cities include Ann Arbor, Buchanan, East Lansing and Grandville.

Our cities are already facing climate change risks, infrastructure demands, and increased resource needs for water & energy.   Many cities are creating climate change and resiliency policies and programs.  Local policy and regulations will drive the building industry to address these issues.  Innovative and diverse incentives, policies and partnerships will pave the way for market adoption of ZNC.

Grand Rapids is a long-time leader in climate change strategy. The city was the first signatory to the Resilient Communities for America and one of the first local governments in the nation to use the ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability’s Climate Adaptation Program: Climate Resilient Communities ™ . The program aids local governments with the tools to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Tools & Resources are Emerging

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) helped set the federal 2030 net zero energy goals in 2007. Today, they are still making strides in energy policy and pushing for renewable energy incentives.

In June 2016 the World Green Building Council introduced Advancing Net Zero which includes an aggressive target that 100% of buildings are operating at net zero by 2050.  In order to be successful, widespread adoption is critical.  The consensus among Green Building Councils (GBC’s) is to create training for green building professionals and operate green building certification programs that will ensure that net zero buildings become the new norm.  They have set a goal to have these programs in place by the end of 2017.

An innovative project that works to provide solutions for  the built environment  is the 2030 Challenge, created by Architecture 2030. “This is the first comprehensive program in the U.S. that educates the architectural profession in specific design and technology applications to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions,” said Edward Mazria, Architecture 2030 Founder and CEO. The goal of this challenge is to have all major renovations, developments, and new buildings be carbon neutral by 2030.

The New Building Institute’s (NBI) provides tools and resources for guidance, maintenance, and measurability for ZNE. NBI has developed a set of action paths for jurisdictions to support a long term commitment to ZNE Buildings. They have created Zero Net Energy policies, the Zero Energy Performance Index (zEPI) which provides a scale for measuring commercial building energy performance, as well as an online tool to guide building owners called Getting to Zero Database. Case studies and other research is also provided on the website. Learn more here.

Boots on the Ground

In December 2015 the U.S. Green Building Council of West Michigan (USGBC-WM) launched the Grand Rapids 2030 District as a way to facilitate the reduction of carbon emissions in the city and lead the ZNC transition. The Grand Rapids 2030 District fosters the collaboration of property developers & owners, city leaders, community and professional partners to reduce carbon by 50% (from a 2003 baseline) by 2030 for existing buildings and a zero net carbon goal for new building projects.  The goals were set by Architecture 2030 which charters 17 other 2030 districts throughout the U.S. & Canada including Detroit, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and more.

With collaboration and innovation, we will continue to push forward to a healthier, more sustainably built environment.

 

Written by: Morgan Price, USGBC WM Program Administrator

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *