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State of health

Climate change will impact human life and health in nearly every way imaginable; from access to water, impact on agriculture and food supply, to jeopardising the future of our cities and infrastructure. It is termed by the WHO as ‘the greatest global health threat of the 21st century”1. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is predicted to lead to approximately 250,000 additional deaths each year caused by malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress. The economic cost of these health impacts is estimated to be US $2-4 billion per year by 20302.

With the building and construction sector responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions3, and expectations that the global building stock is expected to double in size by mid-century4, addressing emissions across the whole lifecycle of a building is urgent. While most emissions occur from the occupational phase of the building lifecycle, referred to as operational emissions, the substantial increase in new buildings will see a dramatic rise in embodied carbon. Embodied carbon is the emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole lifecycle of a building or infrastructure5.

Within occupied buildings, cooling is a growing issue that can lead to competing priorities between environment and human health, wellbeing, and development. Cooling technologies, such as refrigeration and air conditioning, emit large quantities of HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons). Although the HFCs serve as a replacement for the Ozone Depleting Substances i.e. chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), they are still potent greenhouse gases with ‘1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide’6. A UN report highlights that “cooling is now responsible for about 10% of global warming and growing rapidly”7.

The volume of HFCs in the atmosphere is increasing at 8-15% per year due to population growth and urbanisation, and their use is likely to increase as our climate warms further due to climate change8. The importance of sustainable development is unparalleled here, with 2.3 billion people across the world expected to soon purchase an air conditioning unit or fridge, and it is likely that choices will be limited to inefficient and highly emitting appliances9.

As the vast majority of HFC emissions occur at end of life stage for these technologies (estimated 90%6), sustainable removal and waste management of cooling appliances is an essential part of climate change mitigation in the built environment sector. This could prevent the release of HFC emissions10 equivalent to nearly 58 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which is equal to over 63 years of global aviation emissions (based on 2019 annual data).


All new and existing buildings demonstrate improvements in lifecycle energy efficiency, targeting net zero operational carbon emissions in all new buildings by 2030, and net zero embodied carbon in all new buildings by 2050 (including emissions from equivalent greenhouse gases, specifically HFCs).

Strategies across the lifecycle

Strategies for the building sector recommended are aligned to the WorldGBC Advancing Net Zero global project principles11:

For operational carbon:


  • Reduce energy demand, by prioritising efficiency and incorporating on-site renewable sources

  • Consider sustainable energy concepts both within a building and at scale, for example connection to local energy networks across multiple buildings, such as a campus or city quarter, to increase the efficiency of energy assets across buildings

  • Plan for the future: Set out trajectory of improvements and ‘trigger points’ in lifetime of investments to maximise likelihood and practicality of energy-efficient renovations


  • Measure and disclose carbon, with buildings working towards achieving annual operational net zero carbon emissions balance based on metered data

  • Reduce energy demand, by prioritising efficiency in use and minimising energy waste

  • Incorporate innovative business models that allow energy trading across various buildings to minimise energy waste and achieve highest efficiency

  • Generate power from renewables, supplying remaining energy balance through renewables, ideally on-site, followed by off-site, then offsets

  • Improve verification and rigour through expansion of sustainability scope and reporting

For embodied carbon:


  • Prevent: Question the need to use materials at all, considering alternative strategies for delivering the desired function, such as increasing utilisation of existing assets through renovation or reuse

    • Passive design strategies, particularly around thermal comfort, can eliminate the need for MEP equipment which will require replacement through lifecycle of a building

  • Reduce and optimise: Use low carbon design solutions in terms of upfront emission reductions and as part of a whole life approach. In early stages of design, use lifecycle analysis to target dematerialization, light-weighting of structural elements, switch to lower carbon material sources, and design for waste prevention by building with modular and prefabricated components. Such low carbon designs, zero carbon responsibly sourced materials, and low or zero carbon construction techniques will maximize efficiency and minimize waste on-site.

    • Selection of products with closed-loop or take-back programs to support a circular economy (see Principle 6.4)

  • Plan for the future: Consider future use scenarios and end of life, maximising the potential for maintenance, repair and renovation and designing for disassembly and deconstruction to facilitate future reuse


  • Offset: As a last resort, offset residual embodied carbon emissions either within the project or organisational boundary or through verified offset schemes

For HFC reduction:


  • Implement cooling technologies with low global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants in all new and renovated constructions

  • Improve passive design measures, such as insulation, shading and solar gain prevention and community scale master planning, to avoid or reduce the use of cooling systems (such as air-conditioning)


  • Use policy levers and wider mechanisms to undertake ambitious measures to improve energy efficiency in the cooling sector while phasing out HCFC and phasing down HFC refrigerants under the Montreal Protocol, such as developing national cooling plans based on domestic circumstances, using energy performance standards (MEPS)


  • Refrigerant and equipment management: replace HFCs in cooling technologies with low or zero-GWP alternatives, such as propane and ammonium12

  • Practice responsible management and servicing of existing equipment and better designs for future equipment to minimise leaks


  • By 2030, all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations will have at least 40% less embodied carbon with significant upfront carbon reduction, and all new buildings are net zero operational carbon

  • By 2050, new buildings, infrastructure and renovations will have net zero embodied carbon, and all buildings, including existing buildings must be net zero operational carbon

  • Organisations, cities and regions can commit to climate action through the WorldGBC Net Zero Carbon Building Commitment:

State of health

Every year natural disasters kill around 90,000 people and affect close to 160 million people worldwide13. Over the past decade, disasters have been responsible for 0.1% of deaths globally, but have severely impacted the health and wellbeing of millions more across the world, often in the most vulnerable nations14. Natural disasters displace more people than conflict and violence15. Data shows that flooding caused most disasters between 1994 and 2013, accounting for 43% of all recorded events and affecting nearly 2.5 billion people16.

Today, more people are at risk than 50 years ago, as construction in flood plains, earthquakes zones and other high-risk areas has increased the likelihood that a routine natural hazard may become a major catastrophe. Additionally, climate change is understood to lead to increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (2014) showed that changes in extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950, and attribution studies demonstrate evidence of human contribution through anthropogenic climate change in worsening these events in likelihood and/or severity17.

One of the most devastating socio-economic outcomes of environment disasters is the damage wreaked upon infrastructure, vital services, resources, and particularly housing and livelihood of local populations. Drought, fire, and famine are also direct results of the climate crisis, and indirectly linked to the building sector due to sectoral contribution to global emissions, which will have severe impacts on human health and quality of life.

Although communities equipped for disaster resilience are challenging to implement, particularly where multiple environmental threats persist, conscious design of the built environment with climate resilience strategies and adaptation to changing situations can offer relief against worst-case scenarios and provide possible long term benefits to these vital socio-economic determinants of health.


The design and operation of buildings and urban areas should incorporate strategies to enhance community resilience to the climate crisis. Strategies must not exacerbate societal inequalities and should account for the needs of vulnerable populations locally.

Strategies across the lifecycle


  • Resilient design strategies, considered for mitigation and adaptation to evolving environmental, social, and economic circumstances

  • Environmental assessments at building planning or master planning stage, specialised for situational risks, e.g. flood risk assessment

  • Design for reduced dependence on complex building controls and systems, providing manual overrides in case of malfunction or temporary power outages

  • Plan resilient systems, including independent power reserves or non-centralised power generation in areas at risk of natural disaster and national grid failures

  • Specify products and materials that will not off-gas or leak hazardous substances in the event of natural disaster, including avoidance of cooling systems that would leak highly polluting refrigerants in case of breakage

  • Utilise vernacular design practices that were prevalent before the advent of air conditioning and central heating. Combine these design strategies with modern materials to optimise resilient design to maximise human health and comfort in situations of system failure


  • Carry out water conservation practices and rely on annually replenished water resources, including, potentially, harvested rainwater, as the primary or back-up water supply

  • Practice community resilience and prepared response to natural disasters


UNDRR. ‘Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction’. 2015:

State of health 

Nearly 1.8 billion people in 17 countries, or a quarter of the world’s population, are veering towards a water crisis with the potential of severe shortages in the next few years. Of the 17 nations, 12 are in the Middle East and North Africa18. The ongoing rise in global population will continue to place pressure on this finite resource.

Water is used at all stages of a building’s lifecycle, from the extraction of raw materials, in manufacturing, during construction, and in the operational phase in buildings of all types. Water is a resource often used in the demolition process, which can include retrofit and de/reconstruction. Highest water use is typically during the in-use phase of buildings and is consequently regulated by building standards in many countries19.

Water in developed countries is pumped, purified, treated, and heated before it reaches building occupants. This process greatly increases the amount of energy that is used. Domestic hot water usage alone is responsible for 35 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, representing around 5% of national energy use20. When the water is wasted, so is the energy that is used in preparing it for use.

The public water supply represents 21% of the total water use in the EU – with buildings accounting for most of the usage, many initiatives are currently being implemented at local or national levels to reduce water consumption in buildings21. 


Reduce demand, enhance water efficiency, and ensure sustainable drainage and water management through the design, construction, and operation of built environment to reduce stress on water bodies and related ecosystems. Explore utilisation of other sources of water, such as treated greywater, on-site and at community level where feasible.

Strategies across the lifecycle


  • Re-use and recycle fresh water on-site, utilising grey and blackwater systems where feasible

  • Explore sustainable drainage opportunities, such as permeable hard surfacing, to facilitate responsible water management and reduce water waste


  • Commit to water reduction in material sourcing and construction stages of lifecycle


  • Carry out on-site water collection and conservation practices and rely on annually replenished water resources, including harvested rainwater as the primary or back-up water supply

  • Include low-flow and/or water-less features within operational buildings, for example low-flow toilets, faucet aerators, and showerheads, and water-less human waste disposal and wastewater systems

  • Install water leakage detection systems

  • Manage on-site water in a responsible manner, with aim of increasing water infiltration into soil and return to groundwater

  • Organisational advocacy around water efficiency; including water offsets, divestment from organisations that support fossil fuel pipelines across water sources, positive personal behaviour change


State of health 

Hazardous chemicals can be found everywhere. Modern life has brought hazardous chemicals into our homes and lives through everyday products such as clothing, electronics, and food packaging, and can increase the risk of serious illness. Exposure to toxic or polluting materials is an environmental and public health concern across all stages of the built environment lifecycle, from the production of materials to buildings in occupation and beyond.

The relationship between building materials and health in the built environment is multi-faceted; four core concepts to improve human health and quality of life are outlined below.

Safe production of materials:

Workers involved in generating materials across the supply chain needed for construction are at risk of diverse health issues, one example being the production of bricks. Brick kilns, 90% of which are in Asia, are recognised as one of the largest stationary sources of black carbon which, along with iron and steel production, contribute 20% of the total global black carbon emissions22. The consequential air pollution is damaging to human health on both local and global scales, as discussed in Principle 1.1. A reduction in wasted materials, both through higher site efficiencies and construction practices and the reuse of existing materials as part of a circular economy, would subsequently reduce the pollution from production.

Circular material use:

The concept of circular material use, and ‘cradle to cradle’ principles, are recognised as best practices in sustainability globally for the built environment, considering both materials within building interiors, as well as heavy materials utilised in construction. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation considers the transition to a circular economy as the required ‘fundamental shift in the global approach to cutting emissions’, and states the implementation of circular principles in five core areas worldwide could eliminate emissions on a scale equivalent to those generated by all transport globally23. Heavy industries (cement, steel, aluminium) represent three of the five core areas focused on in this research, and are substantial contributors to the embodied emissions of building and infrastructure projects, thus emphasising the major role the building and construction industry must play.

Materials found within healthy, sustainable buildings should be operating as part of a circular economy of material re-use. Materials must also mitigate risk of poor indoor environmental quality through the release of airborne pollutants, such as VOCs. These materials are termed ‘low-emissive’. Circular material use calls for re-use and recycling of existing resources, however, hazardous chemicals that currently exist within the built environment must be extracted through retrofit and deconstruction work, allowing reuse of non-contaminated materials only. The use of natural materials is also prioritised within a circular economy, which can be repurposed or recycled as part of a biological cycle of material use.

Non-hazardous chemicals:

Man-made toxic chemicals are common ingredients in many everyday products24, and studies are demonstrating serious long-term impacts on human health due to this continued exposure. For example, scientists have linked the fact that men in the Western world produce half as much sperm as they did 40 years ago to the exposure to toxic chemicals25, and that exposure to toxic chemicals can increase the risk of breast cancer in women26. Other studies link exposure to toxic chemicals to attributable IQ loss and intellectual disability in children27.

Many of the hazardous substances in widespread use are replaceable with safer alternatives. For many building products, hazards in product ingredients are unknown or protected by trade secrets. Seeking greater disclosure of building material ingredients as well as finding safer alternatives are ways the building and construction industry can support the transition to safer chemicals being used and developed.

Designing out waste:

For many cities, the disposal and treatment of waste is a growing burden that is increasingly difficult to tackle. From 2000-2012, waste generated in cities approximately doubled, increasing from 680 million tonnes to 1.3 billion tonnes per year. This figure is expected to nearly double again to 2.2 billion tonnes by 202528 as a result of increasing population, urbanisation, and changing consumption patterns.

The waste problem is most severe in urbanising regions and developing countries, where collection and disposal services do not exist or cannot cope with increasing amounts of waste. As a result, waste is either disposed in open and uncontrolled dumpsites, openly burned, or leaks into the land, waterways and oceans. This represents the third largest man-made source of methane29. Unmanaged waste may also become a breeding ground for microbes and toxins that contaminate the air, soil, and water30. Waste is also a severe risk-factor to marine ecosystems and natural life, particularly plastic pollution of ocean environments31. 

These practices have deleterious impacts on public health, the environment, and the wellbeing of waste workers and nearby residents. Our buildings and communities have a central role in waste reduction, both as the locations in which we live, work and use the majority of our products and resources, but also through the construction industry’s sustainable management and use of materials.


Building projects consciously avoid the use of hazardous materials and chemicals during construction projects (including retrofit and deconstruction), facilitating the extraction from existing materials and projects to avoid contamination and further circulation in industry. All projects support the built environment sector’s transition to a circular economy with minimal waste leakage into the natural environment.

Strategies across the lifecycle



  • Design for adaptation and flexibility in design and operational use of buildings, increasing lifespan of use and reduce the need for demolition and rebuilding

  • Minimise use of resources using life cycle assessment (to optimise balance between materials and energy use, dematerialization, waste generation, etc.)

  • Choosing products wisely based on chemical content/makeup/constitution, prioritising natural and low-emissive materials for environments occupied by people and transition away from hazardous chemical use, and utilise recovered materials to implement a circular economy of material use


  • Avoid hazardous substances, and safely remove, if feasible, to facilitate recycling and circular re-use of materials

  • Close the loop: design out waste, create circular products, and prefer refurbished, remanufactured, and recycled products in purchasing


  • Material use reporting: transparent monitoring and publication of resource use, targeting and encouraging circularity in site operations



  • Prevent waste from building design by using modular systems/components, eliminating finishes, and supporting manufacturers that participate in circular economy and zero waste design goals for products

  • Ensure projects have multiple waste streams (including food waste) with source separation to support occupant behaviour change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with operational waste


  • Support the reduction of construction and demolition waste by designing for material recovery, promoting higher-grade recovery applications where possible to facilitate longer lifespan of material re-use


  • Promote composting (food waste) and recycling on-site in buildings, from construction to operational stages of building lifecycle

  • Organic waste diversion to minimize food and landscape waste to landfills can reduce methane generation and avoid unnecessary expansion of landfill to accommodate excess waste

  • Prevent open waste burning: Promoting alternatives to open burning to reduce black carbon emissions and to prevent the release of cancer-causing compounds and other toxic substances.

  • Litter reduction programs to prevent leakage into the environment


  • Whole Building Life Cycle Assessments undertaken at design stage, benchmarked in accordance with national averages, or by comparing an innovative, low-carbon design against a similar building using traditional design and material

  • Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and product chemical transparency labelling schemes for specific products

  • Hazardous chemical lists, such as REACH restricted substances list (EU Regulation) and additional market resources

1 World Health Organization. ‘Climate Change and Human Health’: 

2 World Health Organization. 2018. ‘Climate Change and Health’: sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health

3 UN Environment and International Energy Agency. 2017. ‘Towards a Zero-Emission, Efficient, and  Resilient Buildings and Construction Sector. Global Status Report 2017’:…

4 United Nations Association – UK, Climate 2020. 2020. ‘Towards Zero-Carbon Building’:…‘s%20population%20increases,double%20in%20size%20by%20 2060

5 World Green Building Council. ‘Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront’: 

6 Drawdown. ‘Refrigerant Management’:

7 United Nations. 2019. ‘Keeping Cool in the Face of Climate Change’: 

8 Climate and Clean Air Coalition. 2015. ‘HFC Initiative Factsheet’: 

9 Sustainable Energy for All. ‘Chilling Prospects: Providing Sustainable Cooling for All’:…

10 ATAG. 2020. ‘Facts and Figures’:… CO2%20in%202019.

11 World Green Building Council. ‘Advancing Net Zero’: zero/what-net-zero

12 Drawdown. ‘Refrigerant Management’:

13 World Health Organization. ‘Environmental Health in Emergencies’: 

14 Our World in Data. 2019 (revised). ‘Natural Disasters’:

15 United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. 

16 Prevention Web. 2015. ‘The Human Cost of Natural Disasters: A Global Perspective’: 

17 Met Office. ‘How is Climate Linked to Extreme Weather?’: 

18 Bloomberg. 2019. ‘These Countries are the Most at Risk from a Water Crisis?: 

19 Construction Products Association. 2015. ‘Water Efficiency, the Contribution of Construction  Products’:…

20 Environment Agency. 2008. ‘Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Water Supply and Demand Management Options’:… 1728/scho0708bofv-e-e.pdf

21 European Commission. 2011. ‘Water Performance of Buildings’:…

22 Climate and Clean Air Coalition. ‘Bricks’:

23 The Ellen Macarthur Foundation. 2019. ‘Completing the Picture: How the Circular Economy Tackles  Climate Change’:… climate-change

24 ChemSec. 2019. ‘The Missing Piece. Chemicals in Circular Economy’: 

25 Dindyal, S. 2003. ‘The Sperm Count has been Decreasing Steadily for Many Years in Western  Industrialised Countries: Is there an Endocrine Basis for this Decrease?’. The Internet Journal of  Urology: 

26 Rodgers, K. et al. 2018. ‘Environmental Chemicals and Breast Cancer: An Updated Review of  Epidemiological Literature Informed by Biological Mechanisms’ Environmental Research:

27 Gaylord, A. et al. 2020. ‘Trends in Neurodevelopmental Disability Burden due to Early Life Chemical Exposure in the USA from 2001 to 2016: A Population-Based Disease Burden and Cost  Analysis’. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology:…

28 Climate and Clean Air Coalition. ‘Waste’:

29 Climate and Clean Air Coalition. ‘Landfill Gas Capture and Use’: 

30 Climate and Clean Air Coalition. ‘Landfill Gas Capture and Use’: bea 

31 WWF-UK. 2018. ‘Plastics: Why We Must Act Now’:

The resource lists for each sub-principle are a non-exhaustive set of references provided from the WorldGBC network, peer review panel and industry through the Framework consultation period. A regular update of resource lists will be undertaken by WorldGBC to ensure updated information is available.

WorldGBC supports all certifications and is proud to unite a network that runs over 40 rating tools, plus support the uptake of all tools across the industry. Rating scheme inclusion within the Framework is based on submission from global GBC network and consultation responses, with aim of amalgamating a host of resources for a global audience to offer further detail for users beyond the high-level outline of each principle.

Regarding specific certifications, eg. BEAM or Green Star, there are often a number of versions or tools available for different building types (eg. Design, As-Built, Interiors, Communities). To maintain brevity of Framework document, one building level tool (eg. Design or New Construction) and one larger scale tool (eg. community level) is included within the Resource List of each sub-principle. Users with alternative building projects in