By Simon Wyatt

Over the past year we have seen a seismic shift in momentum behind the sustainability movement. This is despite the current pandemic, which if anything has accelerated the desire to build back better.

Central to this has been the global response to the growing climate emergency and the need to act fast to address it. The shift has largely been driven by the financial sectors and organisations developing Environmental Social Governance (ESG) policies that align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

It’s a hugely positive step for an industry guilty of producing 40% of the UK’s CO2 emissions and 36% of final energy use worldwide, but with the influx of companies publicly making net zero carbon commitments, and little regulation in place, we are also seeing increasing prevalence of greenwashing.

Earlier this year, when the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) published its framework definition for Net Zero Carbon Buildings, a prominent London developer rushed to claim net zero carbon on one of its newly completed projects. Media outlets across the country picked up the story of the UK’s very first net zero carbon building, and this would have been a truly exciting, industry-first achievement – If only it were true.

At the time, while the UKGBC’s framework definition had been published, the energy intensity targets had not. When they were made public soon after, the energy usage of the building in question was shown to be four to five times higher than the UKGBC’s targets and the claim to being a net zero carbon building was easily refuted. But it was too late, the initial story had already garnered significant media attention, and the building’s high energy usage had been greenwashed.

Since then we have seen a steady stream of net zero carbon claims in the press. Many of these were never designed to meet these standards in the first place and offer little or no justification behind the ambitious claims to be net zero carbon buildings.

Clients are understandably asking why they should have to make changes when others in the industry seemingly do not. Ultimately these buildings will be found out when they are built and consequently operate well above the net zero carbon intensity targets, but this will take years to be revealed, by which time the damage caused by their false claims will already have been done, and the drive to net zero carbon will have been undermined.

The greatest risk to our net zero carbon ambitions comes from a lack of understanding in the market. We therefore must scrutinise every net zero carbon claim and ensure that we have a robust mechanism for assessing designs and verifying performance in use.

To put the scale of the challenge in context, we need to achieve at least a 60% reduction in both operational energy and embodied carbon. Simply tweaking existing designs and ways of designing are likely to result in reductions of 20-30% at best. Net zero carbon buildings will ultimately look and feel considerably different from what is currently on the market, and we therefore need a complete system change if we are to succeed.

Luckily, the industry has responded with surprising speed and determination, and there have been a range of cross-industry initiatives implemented over the past year, which in the past would have taken years, if not decades, to achieve a consensus. This includes the UKGBC’s net zero carbon framework, and the operational energy, upfront embodied carbon and whole life carbon intensity targets set out by LETI, RIBA, UKGBC and others. In short, to be net zero carbon you must achieve the intensity targets before you generate and/or purchase renewable energy and finally offset any residual emissions.

Undertaking these assessments comes at a cost, and it has led many consultants to offer clients cheaper one-off assessments as an alternative, using the building regulation standards and adding a small allowance for unregulated energy loads. This results in significantly lower energy predictions which ultimately will not be realised in use.

The same is true with embodied and whole life carbon calculations with multiple assessment methodologies and software tools that give wildly varying results. Generally, the more experienced and detailed the assessment, the higher and more realistic the numbers which are produced.

Whilst the initial discussions about net zero carbon buildings with industry bodies weren’t in favour of implementing a new certification or badge because there are already so many, the reality is that we need one to ensure the transparency and integrity of the claims. Without a rigorous certification process, people will carry on building and designing to the same standards we have now, creating buildings that will be in use for the next 50-100 years. Only by radically changing the way we design buildings can we truly achieve net zero carbon. It is still early days, and there are very few buildings in the world that can truly claim to be net zero carbon. Yet we are seeing more and more buildings which were never designed to meet these standards make these claims. Is this just greenwash? Or are we just rebranding the status quo as net zero carbon? If this is the case, we truly are at risk of not achieving our goals.

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