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‘Net zero ready’ – useful concept or more greenwashing?

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Karl Tomusk

Developers over the last year have promoted a growing number of schemes that are ‘net zero carbon-ready’. The idea is that these projects are designed to have the potential to not add any more carbon emissions into the atmosphere than they remove.

Peel Logistics and Macquarie Capital’s PLP, for example, announced a net zero ready speculative logistics development in Smithywood, Sheffield last June. More recently, Associated Architects revealed net zero ready plans for Birmingham’s Curzon Wharf and, last week, Savills Investment Management said it had received planning permission for an industrial development in Cambridgeshire that similarly was ready to be carbon neutral.

At a time when businesses and countries are scrambling to make net zero pledges – often with varying levels of scepticism from observers – does marketing a development as net zero ready make a real difference, or does it amount to shouting about sustainability without delivering results?

What does net zero ready mean?

Each of these developers has said its projects follow the UK Green Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Framework.

Bourn Exterior Savills IM

Savills IM’s Bourn Quarter development

In short, UKGBC says that a developer needs to reduce emissions during construction and design the building so that it can achieve lower emissions when it’s up and running.

For example, Savills IM’s Cambridgeshire development – Bourn Quarter – identified carbon savings of about 20% with the use of recycled material and calculated its predicted operational emissions, ensuring they meet reduction targets outlined by the RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge scheme.

UKGBC’s guidance adds that after all the emissions cuts are implemented, any remaining carbon from the construction and operational phases needs to be offset as a final resort. Offsetting should use recognised frameworks, such as the Clean Development Mechanism or Gold Standard. By doing so, developers should only offset emissions they cannot cut and ensure those offsets have real environmental value.

By using the term net zero ready, a developer is saying that it’s doing what it can to design and construct a building that can be operationally net zero when it’s completed. After all, marketing a development as net zero early on in its development would be misleading when actual operational emissions are still unknown.

Karl Desai, senior adviser at UKGBC, says that while there is no formal definition of net zero ready, it generally refers to delivering a low carbon building that can be operationally net zero. “The net zero carbon claim will be subject to other unknown variables, for example, future tenants and how they operate the space,” he adds.

Who is responsible for reducing a building’s operational emissions?

Because a building will be subject to these “unknown variables”, a developer, in theory, could market a project as net zero ready that ultimately fails to meet that aspiration.

At Bourn Quarter, Savills IM says its intention is to “engage with the end-users” in order to make the building operationally net zero carbon. This might include advice on power purchase agreements between the tenants and green energy providers.

Emily Hamilton, head of ESG at Savills IM, says it will use the UKGBC’s guidance for the operational phase of the building “as far as we can”, adding: “[Achieving operational net zero] will be part of the tenant lease and we will support [them] by providing PPA options, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of the tenant because of the lease type.”

Who will ensure emissions are reduced and offset?

The UKGBC framework requires developers to publicly disclose a whole life carbon assessment for the project alongside annual operational emissions when the building is complete and any offsets.

To avoid self-made claims, UKGBC also says these reports should be audited by third parties. Both PLP and Savills IM have said they will publicly disclose construction-related emissions upon completions and use an external auditor to validate their claims.

Does ‘net zero ready’ water down sustainability claims?

UKGBC Net Zero Framework

UKGBC’s guide to achieving a net zero carbon building

In the UKGBC’s framework, the organisation said its task group recommended developing net zero ready requirements. Because a building needs to be operational before anyone can make a net zero claim, new or renovated buildings fall outside the framework’s guidance on operational emissions. Therefore, developers need a “rigorous path” to show their plans are provisionally aligned with the framework, UKGBC said.

As if predicting potential criticism, the report argues: “This would not water down the requirements of the framework, as it would only be possible to claim that a building is net zero carbon once a year of in-use energy data is available to demonstrate this.”

Desai also tells PlaceTech: “Developers should be encouraged to deliver low carbon buildings, including having low embodied carbon, low energy use, no fossil fuel use on-site, provision of on-site renewables (where feasible) etc.

“This encourages a developer to affect the elements of a building for which they have direct control, before the building is potentially occupied by a separate entity.”

In that way, the term accomplishes two things: first, it ensures that developers do not prematurely suggest that their building is net zero. Second, it steers developments towards low carbon materials, energy sources and operations.

Responding to whether UKGBC is developing net zero ready guidance, Desai says: “UKGBC is focusing on exploring and potentially developing a verification scheme for net zero carbon buildings in 2021 that may include the verification of new buildings.

“This work won’t specifically define ‘net zero ready’, however [it] will aim to encourage the delivery of low carbon new buildings.”

That’s broadly what the term ‘net zero ready’ does: encourages developers to do what they can at the start of a project to steer a building’s entire lifecycle. In fact, Savills IM says that it is in the process of creating a series of documents that sets out net zero carbon as the house standard for all new developments in the UK. PLP is doing something similar.

But the trajectory of a building’s emissions does not end there. Claiming a building is net zero ready is just the start – a statement of intent to guide construction and building use over decades. There is no guarantee that a building actually reduces emissions or that the offsets a building uses are genuinely useful for the environment. The real work starts after the net zero ready klaxon has blared and the headlines have faded.

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