28th March 2019
Net Zero Carbon Buildings

Reducing our carbon footprint one building at a time

Last September, Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that the UK is committed to reaching carbon neutrality, and would join 18 other countries in aiming to reach net zero emissions by 2050 at the earliest.

Currently in the UK, buildings account for around 40% of our annual greenhouse gas emissions, with our homes responsible for 13% of that figure. While improvements in energy efficiency have brought emissions down over the last two decades, there is still a mountain to climb if the government is to deliver on its legally binding carbon targets.

Whilst most new homes are generally quite energy-efficient – rated a ‘B’ on the Energy Performance scale – they still mostly come with the trappings of traditional infrastructure. For example, gas boilers are typically installed as standard, meaning there is little or no provision for new technologies such as energy storage or solar panels, while most new builds still rely on ‘dumb’ heating controls and a host of other fixtures and fittings that are far from the cutting edge of low-carbon technology.

It is clear any transformation in building standards will require the support and backing of the construction industry itself.

Climate change initiatives

The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment was launched at the Global Climate Action Summit in September 2018. The commitment was developed by the World Green Building Council in partnership with the We Mean Business coalition and the Climate Group. The UK Green Building Council will undertake a range of engagement activities with businesses and city authorities to encourage uptake of the commitment.

Understanding carbon standards

As there is currently a considerable lack of clarity surrounding what constitutes an energy efficient building, the UK Green Building Council has recently set up a major new taskforce aimed at establishing a working industry definition of zero net carbon buildings.

However in general terms, zero net carbon (or carbon neutral) refers to a building where all carbon emissions are offset by renewable energy provision, either on or off site. Its operation doesn’t create carbon emissions. Other definitions include not only the carbon emissions generated by the building in use, but also those generated in the construction of the building and the embodied energy of the structure. Others debate whether the carbon emissions of commuting to and from the building should also be included in the calculation.

Carbon positive buildings go beyond zero net carbon and produce more energy than they need; it’s envisaged that in the future, a carbon positive development could have a major part to play in energy demand management, reducing peak energy consumption by powering batteries and electric vehicles. If zero net carbon becomes the building standard, carbon positive buildings will have an increasingly crucial part to play in counteracting the carbon-generating effects of our day-to-day activities, such as transport, food production, and manufacturing.

 Implications for business

It is hoped that the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment will emphasise the role of the global green building sector, as it challenges construction and property organisations to eliminate operational carbon emissions from their activities. Companies will have to analyse how they can retrofit, renovate and construct in order to ensure delivery of low-carbon, energy-efficient buildings. Tracking and analysing carbon emissions associated with buildings at a more detailed level will become a necessity.

Working to manage and reduce carbon footprints as part of a low-carbon strategy looks set to become a mainstream activity within the construction industry.