Businesses should commit to only owning or leasing space in buildings that will be net zero carbon by 2050, the World Green Building Council has urged.

The call comes in a just-released report, From Thousands to Billions – Coordinated Action towards 100% Net Zero Carbon Buildings By 2050, which sets out the pathways and requirements for the built environment to pull its weight in achieving the below 2°C target set by the Paris Agreement.

Building and construction is currently responsible for around 30 per cent of global energy use and corresponding greenhouse gas emissions, and represents one average 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from major cities, the WGBC said – the equivalent to the emissions generated by the whole of China.

The International Energy Agency estimates that the current global building stock is 223 billion square meters, and will almost double to 415 billion square meters by 2050.

Increased retrofit rates needed

According to the Global Alliance for Building and Construction, current renovation rates amount to less than one per cent of the existing building stock each year.

The WGBC said that to achieve universal net zero carbon in the building sector by 2050, renovation rates must increase by three per cent every year starting in 2017, and must accelerate for every year of delay.

The report defines “net zero buildings” as highly energy-efficient buildings that generate or supply the energy they need to operate from renewable sources to achieve net zero carbon emissions.

Dramatic transformation needed

Currently, there are only an estimated 500 net zero commercial buildings, and around 2000 net zero homes worldwide – less than one per cent of global building stock.

The WGBC said business, government and nongovernment organisations needed to make a coordinated effort to improve the sector’s carbon performance.

“We need nothing short of a dramatic and ambitious transformation from a world of thousands of net zero buildings to one of billions if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” WGBC chief executive Terri Wills said.

“Businesses, governments and NGOs hold the key to this transformation, but they must commit to aggressive action. It is possible to create a world in which every single building produces zero carbon emissions, but we must start today.”

Asset owners must act

In addition to wanting business to commit to operating within net zero buildings by 2050, the WGBC also wants asset owners and occupiers implementing policies and practices to ensure assets operate at net zero carbon as soon as possible.

It is also calling for transparent disclosure of carbon emissions for all assets before 2030, and for certification of all new assets as net zero carbon by 2030, and all existing assets by 2050.

Government intervention needed

On the part of the governments, the requirement is for a commitment to develop regulations for buildings to meet the specified zero carbon timelines, targets and standards; and putting incentives and plans in place to support the market.

Governments should also commit to only occupying certified net zero carbon space by 2030, and work with other stakeholders on overcoming the barriers within the market to achieving net zero carbon buildings.

The NGO’s mission, as set out in the report, is to develop certification programs for businesses to adopt; engage with and support governments on developing roadmaps, incentives and tracking systems; and educate and train businesses and the public on the value of net zero carbon buildings.

The report said that net zero buildings not only helped in the fight against climate change, they could create jobs, improve energy security and lower energy costs.

Examples are given of the positive economic impact of green building.

In Canada, for example, in 2014 the green building industry generated $23.5 billion in GDP and directly employed 297,890 people – more than the forestry, oil and gas, and mining industries combined.

There are a number of case studies in the report, including both new builds and retrofits. They include a stadium in Brazil that generates enough renewable energy to power itself and around 1200 homes in the surrounding community, a French student accommodation project that is energy-positive and operates without any mechanical cooling, and Lendlease’s Barangaroo development.

“As a sustainable developer, we recognise the importance of developing buildings which will benefit the environment for generations to come,” Lendlease group head of sustainability & safety Brian Long said.

“Our successful delivery of developments like Barangaroo in Sydney and Elephant Park in London shows that by working in partnership, it is possible to deliver net zero developments which are commercially viable, have lower operating costs and deliver better health impacts.”

Globally, the report said the EU currently had the largest number of net zero buildings due to “government-sponsored retrofit programmes and a history of progressive policies and market interest”.

Canada and the US together are the second-largest bloc, with the majority of net zero buildings comprising smaller commercial buildings and single-family homes.

Resi sector leading, but commercial catching up

Overall, residential homes globally are the majority of projects to achieve the benchmark. However, since 2010 there have been increasing numbers of multi-family homes meeting net zero, as technology costs have fallen and more incentive policies to support these projects have emerged.

Net-zero home from Team UOW.

The commercial office sector comes in second for quantity of net zero projects, with the majority of these publicly owned, the report said.

“However, a growing number of privately owned properties have been built or converted to net zero in the last five years, reflecting new commercial interests and attention.”

New sectors have also joined the net zero movement in the past five years, with the education sector making the most notable progress with net zero primary schools and university campus buildings.

“Public-sector projects in India, South Africa, and the United States greater than 30,000 square metres have been built to net zero standards. Despite these impressive large projects, as of today, the majority of both new and existing net zero projects worldwide continue to be under 900 square metres.”

The report also examines the barriers to uptake, identifying financial, perceptual and technical challenges, suggesting ways business, governments and NGOs can work together to overcome barriers and put the built environment on-track to meet its required targets.