24 Jun 2019

Green Building Council publishes net zero carbon framework

by Ashley Crawford, Commercial Director - UK

Ashley Crawford analyses the new zero carbon framework for the UK construction industry that aims to help transition infrastructure to become net zero carbon by 2050.

Climate change is considered to be one of the greatest challenges of our times. In recent years, the Paris Climate Agreement demonstrated that the majority of world governments can and will work together in order to reduce carbon emissions and limit global warming to safer levels. However, the scientific community is now showing how quickly we are running out of time to avoid catastrophic and irreversible changes to the world around us. Urgent action needs to be taken to halve global emissions by 2030 and eliminate them completely by the middle of this century.

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) has published a new framework for the UK construction and property industry that aims to help transition new and existing buildings to become net zero carbon by 2050. This new framework has been created in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and provides consistent principles and metrics that can be used with tools, policies and practices, aiming to create a consensus on the approach to decarbonising buildings.

The UKGBC framework offers guidance for developers, owners and occupiers on achieving net zero carbon buildings and sets out key principles to follow. The UKGBC also sets out how this should be measured and evidenced. The framework is initially intended to act as guidance, with more stringent standards and targets to be developed over the next decade in order to drive further progress. Clearly, this is an important first step for buildings to become zero-carbon across their whole life cycle.

The UKGBC proposes two approaches to achieving net zero carbon which can be accurately measured:

  • net zero carbon, construction: the embodied emissions associated with products and construction should be measured, reduced and offset
  • net zero carbon, operational energy: the energy used by the building in operation should be reduced and demands met through renewable energy where possible. Remaining emissions from operational energy should be offset

It would seem that the advantages of the framework are clear, but this could be offset by a lack of enforcement options. Like the Paris Climate Agreement, the framework is not legally enforceable, simply a guidance
document setting out best practice. This could mean its impact may be limited in the short term. As more stringent standards and targets are developed it remains to be seen whether Parliament will opt to legislate to give legal effect to the same.

The UKGBC has spent six months engaged with the industry and consulted with over 180 experts and stakeholders, as well as being supported by 13 trade associations and bodies including the British Property Federation, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Richard Twinn, senior policy advisor at UKGBC, has said that the framework is necessary for our environment:

“The urgency of tackling climate change means that businesses must work together to drive down emissions as fast as possible. But this requires a shared vision for what needs to be achieved and the action that needs to be taken. This framework is intended as a catalyst for the construction and property industry to build consensus on the transition to net zero carbon buildings and start to work towards consistent and ambitious outcomes.”

The framework presented here sets out a challenge for the construction and property industry to reimagine the way buildings are designed, constructed and operated. These include the move towards in-use performance as the verifiable metric for energy and the future objective
to accurately assess and effectively reduce the whole life carbon impacts of buildings.

Implications for the construction industry

In-use energy performance

A net zero carbon building for operational energy is required to annually disclose in-use energy performance. A verified net zero carbon building is one that is based on in-use, rather than modelled, energy performance. Net zero carbon should not simply represent a label, but a process which demonstrates that a building’s performance is being maintained at net zero carbon.

This will require a realignment of objectives for construction and management. The emphasis will increasingly be placed on a building that works as it is supposed to, with the whole construction value chain taking greater ownership and responsibility for ensuring outcomes. This reflects the recommendations of the Building a Safer Future report that the industry should focus on performance rather than compliance. 1Achieving these outcomes during operation will also enable collaboration between building owners, managers and occupiers to ensure ongoing levels of performance in achieving a common goal.

Various industry initiatives are already beginning to address the issue of the ‘performance gap’ such as the Building Services Research and Information Association Soft Landings Framework2 and the Better Buildings Partnership Design for Performance initiative.3 The framework should provide an incentive for the use of
these types of approaches which will need to become standard practice for the industry in the future. Ultimately, the move towards in-use performance
will see a wholesale move in the industry towards ‘performance contracts’ that are based on achieving specified outcomes.

Whole life carbon

The framework also shows the direction for addressing whole life carbon for a building. Understanding the whole life carbon impacts of a building is still a relatively new area with challenges of data collection and asbuilt verification of impacts. Lifecycle assessments are becoming more commonly undertaken and the RICS guidance on whole life carbon assessment has provided greater consistency in how these are carried out. Significant gaps remain in the availability of data on embodied carbon of specific products, although these are beginning to be addressed through databases such as the Inventory of Carbon & Energy and the RICS Building Carbon Database.4

Beyond the issue of measurement, questions will also need to be addressed about accountability in achieving reductions in embodied and whole life carbon. Achieving net zero whole life carbon will require close collaboration within the supply chain to minimise embodied carbon and related liabilities for offsets. Similar to performance contracting for operational energy, this could involve a move towards carbon performance contracting with suppliers. Accounting for whole life carbon will also increase the emphasis on reusing structures and moving towards a circular economy that seeks to maintain value and utility from assets, materials and resources.


1 – building-a-safer-future-an-implementation-plan
2 – about-soft-landings/
3 – node/360

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