Fresh guidelines for ‘credible’ net-zero buildings

The UK Green Building Council has published “vital” guidance on ensuring that net-zero buildings and organisations in the UK are truly sustainable, setting out principles around high-quality renewable energy procurement and carbon offsets.

The guidance seeks to ensure that organisations and buildings make credible net-zero claims and avoid “greenwashing” – giving the impression of being environmentally conscious without making a meaningful difference.

Renewable energy is among the key themes in the report, which argues that the procurement of green energy in the UK has a limited impact and, in some cases, no impact at all on emissions reductions for the organisation or for the country.

Most renewable energy use involves energy that already exists, such as from an existing wind farm, or is supported by government subsidies. As a result, UKGBC said, “the procurement does not guarantee a causal relationship between an organisation’s action and any emission reduction delivered”.

The guidance outlines the principles organisations should use to evaluate the quality of their renewable energy procurement strategies. These should, crucially, include a focus on creating additionality – increasing the UK’s capacity for renewable energy.

The guidance also argues that carbon offsets can be used as a “credible pathway” toward net-zero if used responsibly. However, offsets should be used only to compensate for unavoidable emissions.

UKGBC set out how to determine the “environmental integrity” of an offset and how to use offsets to support the development of a broader value proposition.

Chris Oglesby, CEO of Bruntwood, said: “This guidance provides a vital definition of what good looks like. This will help the industry on its path towards a more sustainable future and, by setting clear standards to live up to, safeguard against greenwash.

“The UK is establishing an enviable track record in renewable power, but there are many hard yards left to run in the race to net zero. Property has a mission critical role to play in investing in the infrastructure and technologies needed to reduce the sizeable share of emissions from the built environment.”

The report sets out principles around four key areas, each of which includes technical requirements outlining the approach organisations should follow and a rationale for that approach. Its guidance includes the following:

Fossil fuel use in net-zero buildings

Heating, hot water and cooking should not be powered using fossil fuel as the primary energy source in new buildings, which all should have energy systems compatible with renewable energy sources.

In existing buildings, fossil fuels should be phased out and should have energy systems compatible with renewable energy sources “by their next replacement cycle”. This could include extensive retrofitting, and where replacement is not immediately feasible, a plan should be put in place to phase.

The guidance points to direct carbon emissions accounting for 17% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, largely due to heating.

Renewable electricity procurement

The quality of procurement will be determined by whether:

  • There is exclusive ownership of the energy attribute
  • It is renewable sourced energy
  • It provides credible additionality

That means renewable energy must be either generated on-site or be verified with a Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origins (REGO) certificate. The guidance emphasises the need for additionality, meaning that procurement should result in new renewable energy capacity that otherwise would not have been possible.

Public disclosure will also help provide greater transparency in the market and highlight growing demand for green products, the UKGBC said.

Carbon accounting

The residual carbon balance – the emissions that need to be offset – need to be calculated using the Net Zero Carbon Buildings (NZCB) framework definition approach, an accounting approach developed to address concerns around the additionality of renewable electricity procurement.

UKGBC said this needs to be supported by standardised dual location- and market-based reporting, as set out by the GHG Protocol Scope 2 guidelines. In doing so, organisations can accurately reflect their overall carbon impact, minimise double counting and support the development of energy storage and flexibility strategies.

Carbon offsetting

Carbon offsets need to meet the following principles:

  • Real: reductions, removals and the projects that generate them have to be proven to have actually taken place
  • Avoid leakage: the project has to account for indirect increases in emissions elsewhere
  • Measurable: reductions and removals have to be quantifiable and should avoid overestimation of emission reductions
  • Permanence: carbon credits have to represent permanent emission reductions and removals; where projects carry a risk of reversibility, there need to be safeguards that minimise risk
  • Additional: projects have to demonstrate that they cannot take place without the carbon finance from selling credits and that the reductions or removals they facilitate would not have occurred if the project had not been carried out
  • Independently verified: the project has to be independently verified by an accredited and recognised independent third party
  • Unique: no more than one carbon credit can be associated with a single emission reduction or removal of one metric tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent
  • Avoid social and environmental harms: for a project to produce high-quality offset credits, it should not significantly contribute to social and environmental harms

Julie Hiriogoyen, CEO of UKGBC, said: “Designing for reductions in whole life carbon and greater energy efficiency are just two pieces of a complex puzzle when it comes to our transition to net-zero carbon buildings.

“The importance of the principles put forward in this guidance to evaluate the quality of renewable energy procurement routes, to calculate the residual emissions, and to offset those residual emissions in a meaningful way, is paramount to ensure the credibility of any net-zero carbon building claim. This guidance marks an important step forward in helping the industry to deliver on our net-zero targets, and ultimately respond to the climate crisis with buildings that are fit for the future.”

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