An Introduction to Net Zero Carbon Buildings
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An Introduction to Net Zero Carbon Buildings

Jon Thompson
Author: Jon Thompson Head of Product Innovation November 16, 2020

What kickstarted the Net Zero movement?

Since Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ hit our screens in 2006, the devastating impact we have on our planet has become widely accepted and understood. Thankfully, the climate change sceptics are now few and far between. But awareness of the issue is one thing, for a long time we lacked any notable action.

This all changed in 2016. The United Nations came together to sign the Paris Agreement which pledged to “to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels; and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C”.

This was undoubtedly the catalyst for change that was urgently needed. It kickstarted a chain of events as major economies and the world's largest organisation came forward and made a pledge to achieve Net Zero Carbon emissions by 2050.

The UK became the first major economy to pass net zero emissions as law. Major tech companies set even more ambitious targets of Net Zero emissions as early as 2030, accounting for emissions of their supply chain too (also known as scope 3 emissions). Even BP, the fossil fuel super power, has thrown its hat into the ring.

I don’t want to detract from the monumental progress that this represents but making a pledge is one thing, delivering on that pledge is all that matters.

Transparency will be of the utmost importance over the coming years. Reporting carbon emissions is somewhat of a dark art. The complexity allows for clever ‘carbon accounting’ that means organisations can appear ‘greener’ without making any physical changes. Microsoft's commitment to become carbon negative by 2030 has already come into question after close scrutiny.

The impact of the built environment

There are many factors that contribute to carbon emissions regardless of whether it’s on a global, national or organisational scale. What we do know however, is that the built environment plays a pivotal role.

According to the UN Environment Programme’s 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction

“buildings and construction sector accounted for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2018”

With this in mind, there is little doubt that reducing the amount of energy we use in building’s will contribute substantially to the fight against climate change and rising global temperatures. As we continue to build more technology intensive buildings with tenants and occupants that expect perfectly controlled environments, we must strike a balance.

The goal should be to use the absolute minimum amount of energy to meet the requirements of building occupants. To provide a comfortable and healthy space whilst optimising every detail for energy efficiency.

The good news (depending which way you look at it) is that our buildings are horrendously inefficient. Even cutting edge ‘green’ buildings are often operated inefficiently and don’t deliver the efficiences that were projected during the design phase. There is a wealth of opportunity to dramatically reduce the amount of energy we use in buildings.

What is a Net Zero Carbon Building

So if we need to reduce the energy we use in buildings, then a Net Zero Carbon building must be the gold standard. The UK Green Building Council defines a Net Zero Carbon building as being “highly energy efficient and powered from on-site and/or off-site renewable energy sources, with any remaining carbon balance offset”.

Or framed slightly differently “When the amount of carbon emissions associated with the building’s operational energy on an annual basis is zero or negative.”

The UKGBC have also set out a 5 step plan to achieve Net Zero Carbon buildings. Step 3 is named ‘Reduce Operational Energy Use’ which is split into two sections:

3.1 Reduction in energy demand and consumption should be prioritised over all other measures.

3.2 In-use energy consumption should be calculated and publicly disclosed on an annual basis.

At Fabriq, we are in complete agreement that the highest priority should be to reduce energy consumption in a transparent and data driven manner.

The Importance of an ‘Efficiency First’ approach

There’s no doubt whatsoever that renewable energy will play a crucial role in the road to Net Zero but an over reliance could result in complacency. The fact of the matter is we can’t realistically sustain our current consumption on renewable energy alone.

“buildings and construction sector accounted for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2018”

Research from Sir David Mackay of Cambridge University estimates we’d need to cover 20-25% of the UK’s total land area in solar farms and wind turbines to run on renewable energy alone. Maybe it’s an option. Maybe that’s what it will take. Either way it’s important to understand the scale of the issue.

It’s also worth considering that 80% of the buildings that will exist in 2050, already exist today. It’s important we design and build for the future but it will only play a minor role in the overall effort. We have to focus on our existing building stock. Most of which was constructed before the term ‘Net Zero Carbon’ had even been coined.

Energy efficiency is not only the most effective way to reduce a building’s carbon emissions, it’s also the cheapest. Renewables and offsetting come with sizable price tags attached. Technology improvements will continue to drive the unit price of solar and wind down, but payback on commercial projects remains north of 8 years.

On the other hand, energy efficiency measures often come at no additional expense. In the situation where equipment needs to be replaced or retrofitted, a payback of 2-5 years is often achievable.

The problem is we can’t figure any of this out until we have concrete performance data on our buildings. As shocking as it is, the majority of building operators wouldn’t be able to tell you how much energy their building uses or how it stack up against similar buildings. They're not to blame, the information is far from being easily accessible.

We need to adopt a data driven approach to energy efficiency if we want to stand any chance of making Net Zero Carbon buildings a reality. Transparency and visibility will be key to understanding where we are right now and where we need to get to.

Being truly data driven means putting data at the heart of the decision making process. Putting gut feel and intuition to one side and using expertise to interpret the data, rather than resorting to “how things have always been done”. In an industry saturated with ‘time-served experts’ this is a monumental challenge.

Our buildings are getting worse, not better. It’s time for a change.

On our recent webinar ‘Net Zero Carbon Buildings: How good is your data?’ we discussed the 3 key barriers to adopting a data driven approach to energy efficiency. Our audience of 200+ energy and sustainability experts voted on which was the most significant to their business. Plus, we discussed how to overcome each of them.

We also provided a detailed breakdown of our Top 5 Energy Analysis techniques that you can start using right away.