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There is no one-size-fits-all definition of a net zero building: how to align the unalignable

7 March 2024
Cristina Gamboa


When it comes to decarbonising buildings we’re speaking many different languages. But just as we’ve learned to communicate internationally, stronger alignment on buildings is possible too.

In 1887 a Polish doctor, Ludovic Zamenhof, proposed a new language called Esperanto. His vision was a simple, easy-to-learn language to erase global communication barriers.  

It never caught on. 

The reality is we don’t all want to be and sound the same. Humans thrive on diversity and cultural richness. And our communities and the built environments we live in are very similar.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise — buildings are so interwoven with our social fabric that they are not just shaped by cultures, but also shape cultures.

So when it comes to implementing decarbonisation and resilience strategies (let’s not forget buildings are responsible for almost 40% of global carbon emissions) we must not lose sight of their inherent diversity, or we won’t bring everyone along this zero carbon journey with us. 

It’s no surprise that the loudest voice calling for internationally harmonised definitions of “net zero” buildings is the financial sector’s. As built environment leaders convene with policymakers in Paris this week for the Buildings and Climate Global Forum, we must ensure as a sector we are moving towards the direction of more aligned methods for measuring the environmental impact of buildings, so that finance can flow more easily where it is needed.

There is no one-size-fits-all definition of a “net zero” building. How we decarbonise a historic legacy building will be hugely different to how we tackle shopping centres, homes and hospitals. 

It is because of this huge diversity in buildings that standardising targets is so difficult to do. As a result, we see a mismatch of metrics and standards used differently by different groups of actors. This confusion risks sending investors in the wrong direction and governments are unable to set more ambitious policies.


However, there is a way policymakers and investors alike can get on the same page. 

We need to firstly align around the right terminology. As an industry, we seem to be conflating building standards, ratings and policy — all important in the decarbonisation and resilience journey, but should be distinct from each other. And there’s confusion too about which tools are suitable for an individual building and those that should be used across a whole portfolio. 

Just as with language learning, we need a common understanding of the principles. When we understand the concepts of tense, verbs and adjectives, cases and conjugation, then learning and switching between languages becomes possible. This is the approach we need for the built environment: a common set of principles that underpin our understanding of decarbonisation across the sector, but that allows for diversity and context.


The challenge of contextualisation 

Globally, there are very different requirements when it comes to decarbonising buildings.

What makes sense in Northern Europe may not be appropriate in South America. 

Leaders should be honest with the market — a single global definition is not realistic and overlooks local situations that can deliver the most relevant impact.

What is realistic is to assess existing standards, policies and rating tools, and bring the stakeholder community together to define the scope of harmonised and compatible principles that enable alignment and provide the foundations for a global framework — one which upholds transparency of information and assumptions, allows regional appropriateness considering health, resilience, equity, resources and circularity measures, and ensures accountability through third-party verification. 

It does not mean we cannot go beyond alignment around key principles like we are in Europe, for example, where we are leaning into the leadership of Green Building Councils (GBCs) to deliver on aligned definitions of zero emission buildings that support the implementation of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD). 

A key tool to help us all get on the same page are National Decarbonisation Roadmaps, which give clarity to the market on next steps and leaves space for recognising the relevancy of setting. 

Across the globe, GBCs are already leading on such roadmaps, for example through our #BuildingLife initiative. These roadmaps are tailored to the specific needs of each market and co-developed with hundreds of experts. As we have witnessed in Europe, they offer a robust navigation tool for industry and governments to get on an alignment pathway to decarbonise buildings in an accelerated and coordinated way. 

Additional efforts to align on metrics and targets are also underway. On 78 March 2024 at the Buildings and Climate Global Forum, World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), with the support of the French Government and UNEP-GlobalABC, is leading on the dialogues on harmonisation with some key international organisations also driving this work, including International Code Council, RICS, WBCSD and others.


What happens once we are on the same page?

If policymakers have the same guidelines to help them set ambitious and implementable policies based on aligned standards, ultimately we will start to see rapid decarbonisation from one of the biggest carbon emitting sectors. 

Investors will be able to rely on rating tools to guide investments in line with ESG reporting requirements — in other words they can minimise physical and transitional risks, whilst having access to the needed information to unlock impactful investments.

Industry players will not need to worry about what tools they are using as they will be aligned with key principles.

We’ll also start to see enhanced energy stability and security, as well as spending shifts to decarbonised and sustainable buildings rather than on energy consumption, including reduced fossil fuel subsidies opening up governments’ budgets.

Next steps 

WorldGBC supports the Buildings Breakthrough, where the first priority action identified is linked to standards and certification. We have been selected as a ‘coordinating initiative’ that will support work on alignment of Whole Life Carbon (WLC) and resilience assessments.

Our collaborative leadership with key partners will deliver principles for the alignment and harmonisation of existing standards and support their effective implementation. Together with key partners we are exploring development of a ‘Whole Life Carbon and Resilience Framework’ to be delivered by the UN Climate Summit COP30 in Belem, Brasil.

And we can use the existing experience and resources of our network to feed into this work, including #BuildingLife. In addition to the twelve national and one EU WLC roadmaps, we have also published a position paper on WLC policy, which sets out how European policymakers can align.

And through the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment and our Sustainable Finance work we’re supporting industry with the tools and guidance to be part of this alignment journey.

Just as we learnt with Esperanto, we can’t afford to wait for everyone to agree on a single language. There may never be a one-size-fits-all definition of a “net zero” building, but that doesn’t mean we can’t achieve alignment and commonality, we just need national and cultural nuances to be allowed to thrive. Experience teaches us that this is the approach with the greatest chance of success.

We invite you to join us on this journey. Follow us to find out more about our work, and get in touch to see how you can be part of #BuildingTheTransition.