The number and rapidity of countries and organisations committing to Net Zero Carbon is breath-taking. Net Zero Carbon will require substantial changes in all aspects of the economy, especially buildings, whose construction, contents and energy use comprising a substantial proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions.
For those working in the building design, construction and fit-out sectors, Net Zero Carbon buildings presents an added challenge: the building construction cycle is long, meaning we will only have a few building cycles to perfect our solutions since many organisations are committing to be Net Zero by 2030.
What is Net Zero Carbon all about?
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), limiting global temperature warming to 1.5°C, with no or limited overshoot, will require global net human-generated CO2 emissions to decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.
Who has committed to Net Zero Carbon?
The UK Government committed to Net Zero Carbon by 2050 in July 2019.
A vast number of large organisations have followed with target dates ranging from 2030 to 2050.
These include (in no particular order): Land Securities, Lend Lease, British Land, National Trust, Heathrow, JLL, Accor, IKEA, Body Shop, Microsoft, AstraZeneca, Sky, Unilever, Apple, Tetra Pak, Rolls Royce, Sainsbury’s, BT, Nestle, British Airways, National Grid, BP, Barclays, Shell, John Lewis & Partners, Burberry, Capgemini, Colgate Palmolive, Diageo, Europcar, Inditex, Intuit, Salesforce, The Co-op, and Zurich Insurance Group.
What have they signed up for?
According to the Carbon Trust:
‘A net zero company will set and pursue an ambitious 1.5°C aligned science-based target for its full value-chain emissions. Any remaining hard-to-decarbonise emissions can be compensated using certified greenhouse gas removal.’
This means that suppliers to organisations who have committed to Net Zero Carbon will also need to be Net Zero Carbon, including those providing buildings and fit-outs.
Net Zero Carbon buildings
Buildings (and their contents) are a logical place for organisations to start tackling carbon emissions because they:
- Have easily quantified emissions
- Are not impacted by the concerns expressed around achieving Net Zero Carbon (see Exhibit 1)
- Reflect an organisation’s culture and values
- Set an example for staff
- Are where visitors, customers and potential recruits see the organisation for the first time
- Are currently undergoing change as a result of COVID-19 and increased home working
Tackling building-related emissions starts with understanding what the major sources of emissions are. Figure 1 shows the total greenhouse gas emissions of a commercial building over a 40-year life.
Building structure accounts for just 19%. The majority, at 81% of lifetime emissions, are driven by the fit-out. The largest contribution of all is furniture, driven by carbon intensive manufacture and an average lifetime of around 6 years, at which time it is mostly replaced by more furniture from virgin resources.
This means that substantial savings can be made when fitting out or refurbishing an office.
How to reduce building carbon emissions
Conventional responses to reduce emissions include using renewable energy (especially when generated on site) and energy efficiency.
Beyond these, two lesser-known options are now available to extend carbon savings:
- Circular Economy
The technology of remanufacturing is now sufficiently advanced to return items to as-new condition with no difference in appearance or performance compared to the same items made from virgin materials.
This saves 80% of their greenhouse gas emissions, saves money because the remanufactured items are lower cost and creates local jobs.
Circular economy office furniture (e.g. by Rype Office), IT and AV equipment (e.g. by Reconome), flooring, wall finishes (e.g. recycled paint), ceiling tiles, raised flooring panels, and kitchens can combine to reduce a building’s lifetime greenhouse gas emissions by over one third – while also saving money.
Remanufacturing of office furnishings is not new; for decades office photocopiers have been remanufactured to give them an average of seven lives.
- Carbon Negative Materials
Carbon negative materials have the net effect of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than adding it.
For example, Interface has developed a range of carbon negative carpet tiles. Graphene technology is being used in paint to absorb carbon dioxide after its application.
For the moment, carbon negative solutions are more expensive, but it is hoped that their costs will decrease over time.
Net Zero Carbon will affect all parts of the economy, especially buildings which, due to their prominence, measurability, and long cycles, are likely to be an early focus.
Net Zero Carbon buildings will require the widespread adoption of renewable energy, energy efficiency, the circular economy and carbon negative materials.
Exhibit 1: Contentions related to Net Zero Carbon
‘Full value chain emissions’ includes scopes 1, 2 and 3. Scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions are direct emissions from owned or controlled sources, for example from burning fossil fuels for heating. Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy, such as electricity. Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain.
That is, scope 3 includes purchased goods and services, business travel, employee commuting, waste disposal, buildings, FFE, use of sold products, transportation and distribution (up- and downstream), investments, leased assets and franchises.
Just measuring and tracking scope 3 emissions is difficult, let alone reducing them to zero.
- What classifies as ‘hard to decarbonise’?
While there is a clear imperative to make every effort to reduce or capture greenhouse gas emissions, this get-out clause could discredit carbon reduction efforts if it is misused.
- What is an appropriate compensatory offset?
Most offsetting approaches have come under criticism since carbon trading/offsetting began some 15 years ago. Planting trees, for example, one of the historically more popular carbon offsets, has been challenged because while the emissions to be offset have already occurred, trees take decades to grow, resulting in the CO2 staying in the atmosphere until the tree absorbs it over many years.
The Science Based Targets Initiative is currently working to resolve these issues.
 IPCC, 2018: Chapter 2 – Mitigation pathways compatible with 1.5°C in the context of sustainable development
 Source: Treloar, GJ. Et al, 1999, Embodied energy analysis of fixtures, fittings and furniture in office buildings, Facilities, Volume 17, Number 11, pp. 403-409 (Accessed on 14 June 2019 at https://www.academia.edu/18481731/Embodied_energy_analysis_of_fixtures_fittings_and_furniture_in_office_buildings)
 Source: https://www.carbontrust.com/resources/briefing-what-are-scope-3-emissions accessed on 19 September 2020.