Perspective  |  June 12, 2023

Net Zero is bigger than any one building, but every building can help us get there

by Amanda D. Smith, Ph.D.


Rainbow over buildings and a forest
Anastasiya Dalenka | Unsplash

It’s Net Zero Buildings Week! Time to celebrate the progress we’ve made in making buildings better for people and for the rest of life on this planet. And time to get real about where the net zero concept is useful and where it’s not.

At Project Drawdown, we count net zero practices among our proven solutions in the buildings sector. We advocate moving toward a future where buildings support human communities and the communities of life outside of them—and where everyone has a building they can call home. So it might seem like an odd time to tell you that pushing for every individual building to be net zero is not how we get there.

Net zero is a story about what we want for the world—and in particular the atmosphere that wraps around the Earth. We want an atmosphere to support both people and all of the flora, fauna, and funga that make up the web of life. To protect and preserve life on Earth, we have to quit dumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere so quickly that they hang around and cause havoc.

The global net zero concept is simple: We’re currently emitting greenhouse gases much faster than nature or humans are able to take them out of the atmosphere. We’ll reach net zero when natural and manmade systems remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as fast as we emit them. That means the current sources of emissions shrink down until they’re no bigger than the existing sinks. Project Drawdown illustrates this system with the rainbow graph below. (Happy Pride Month!)

Emissions Sources and Natural Sinks

On this graphic we see greenhouse gas emissions on the left, divided into six big sectors that contribute to the problem. On the right, we see that our lands—from forests to prairies—and oceans are “sinks,” removing carbon dioxide (the primary greenhouse gas produced by human activities). Unfortunately, these sinks remove less than half of what we emit, and may not be able to keep it up as our emissions pile up in the atmosphere.

On the left hand side of the rainbow, we see that buildings account for about 6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Global emissions get assigned to sectors based on where those gases enter the atmosphere. For buildings, that means we’re counting only direct emissions that happen when a greenhouse gas is released at a building site. Those emissions predominantly come from burning fossil fuels to heat things up inside, such as air, water, and food. Not burning fossil fuels inside or next to our buildings is the best place to start in reducing buildings’ contribution to climate change.

But buildings have a much larger role to play in our journey to global net zero. Decisions we make about buildings will increase or reduce emissions in every one of these sectors.

So buildings are a critical piece of the puzzle if we’re going to reach global net zero. Should we advocate for making every building “do its part” by becoming net zero on its own?

While definitions vary, a net zero energy building will be energy-efficient and will produce renewable energy, preferably on site. The renewable energy produced, added up over a year, must be at least as much as the energy that the building uses over the same year. Zero energy buildings point our efforts toward energy efficiency and on-site use of renewable energy—a much-needed but limited set of the solutions available in the buildings and electricity sectors.

Similarly, a net zero carbon or net zero emissions building will balance the emissions it adds to the atmosphere with the emissions it removes from the atmosphere. That reflects our global net zero goal. Zero carbon buildings point our efforts toward material efficiency in design and non-polluting operations—critical advances that push us in the right direction.

So what’s the problem? There are several potential pitfalls. First, a net zero standard can create the temptation to “balance out” emissions with offsets. An emissions offset is supposed to incentivize someone else to cut emissions, but all too often this becomes a carbon shell game. We’re kidding ourselves if we believe that there’s always someone else to make the deep emissions cuts we need on a global scale.

Instead of making every individual building net zero, we should be focused on how we can use the buildings sector to achieve the deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions we know are necessary.

Second, a net zero standard that balances out energy or emissions over the year can mask variations that matter to the larger system made up of buildings plus the electrical grid. For example, a building with its own solar panels can still have days where it needs a lot of power from the grid. Grid operators have to balance the power demands from lots of buildings with the power supply coming from lots of generators, and they have to maintain this balance  instantaneously. Energy-efficient net zero buildings will have smaller power demands, which make the grid operator’s job easier. But focusing on the annual net zero metric means we don’t see all the variations that matter.

Third, a focus on individual buildings can mask opportunities for leveraging economies of scale. The best scale for reducing energy demands might not be the same as the best scale for meeting energy needs with renewables. For example, buildings within a neighborhood or campus might cut their emissions together with a group program deploying energy efficiency retrofits and then pool their savings to purchase clean energy provided by a local utility.

And finally, applying the same net zero metric to every building glosses over buildings’ individuality. Just like us, each building brings something unique to the world and each requires something different to fulfill its role. Hospitals need to consume a lot of energy to function even when they’re as efficient as possible, and that’s OK whether they have access to renewable energy or not. Instead of making every individual building net zero, we should be focused on how we can use the buildings sector to achieve the deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions we know are necessary.

Every decision we make about a building’s design, operation, and demolition drives us closer to an equitable future with a habitable planet—or further from it. Net zero practices are specialized tools in our climate solutions toolbox. We will also need other tools to complete big jobs like eliminating fossil fuel combustion altogether in buildings, electricity generation, and industry.

So what is the value of making your individual building meet a net zero standard? If the process of achieving that standard pushes you to take actions that cut emissions—wherever they occur—then go for it! But make sure you’re not duped into using more energy and resources than you need just because you can afford “enough” solar panels to make up for it or because you think you can buy your way out of taking responsibility for your project’s emissions. Don’t shy away from the bigger, thornier questions:  Does making my individual building net zero energy necessarily help with net zero emissions? If my annual energy use is net zero, are my energy use patterns during the year making it easier or harder for everyone else to go net zero?

As you work with any net zero standard, keep the big picture in mind. Your choices affect the emissions tied to an individual building, and they also have the potential to influence the collective. Let’s consider how to give each building what it needs to function well while remembering what matters. Net zero buildings are great, but we need a net zero planet.

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Feature  |  September 27, 2023
water droplet
The concentric circles of individual climate action
by Mary Hoff
When it comes to climate change, does individual action matter? Emphatically, yes.  While it’s true that eating less meat, biking instead of driving, or planting a tree only does so much to reduce emissions, actions like these are just the beginning when it comes to the impact that you as an individual can have. Personal climate action looks a lot like ripples expanding out from a pebble dropped in a pond. It starts with what you can do in your own home. But as you expand beyond your own personal space, your sphere of influence and impact grows, too.  If you’re feeling climate insignificant, check out the five circles of climate action below. Start with the innermost circle and work your way out. Notice how, as you move from learning and doing to sharing and advocating, the collective impact of you, your friends, neighbors, and colleagues expands. Soon, what started as a few isolated ripples can coalesce into a wave of change. Together, we can create the future we want at the speed we need. But it starts with individual action. So let’s get to work.   1: LEARN Familiarize yourself with climate solutions and how you can help deploy them. Check out the 93 technologies and practices that together can stop climate change. Watch the Drawdown Roadmap, Climate Solutions 101, and Drawdown’s Neighborhood video series for a comprehensive look at how humanity can halt climate disruption through concerted action.  2: DO Alter your own activities to reduce your personal contribution to climate change. Apply what you learn to become more climate friendly at home, at work, in your volunteer activities and hobbies, as you travel—in every aspect of your life! The opportunities are endless, and every action matters. Consider the climate impact of your consumer choices, and alter them accordingly. Check out other suggestions for mobilizing around climate solutions, including those from our partners Drawdown Ecochallenge, Rare, and Don’t Look Up, as well as from Science Moms, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the David Suzuki Foundation. 3: SHARE Communicate the opportunity to make a difference with others. Bring up the subject of climate change with individuals in your various spheres of influence: family, friends, neighbors, fellow faith community members, etc. Do so in a nonthreatening, nonjudgmental way. For example, you might start by mentioning unusual weather you’re having or a disaster in the news, and wondering if it’s related to climate change. Before you broach the topic, think about what the other person cares about. Tailor your conversation to connect climate change to what’s most important to them—their hobbies, their family, their health, their values. Listen to their thoughts. Then let them know the climate actions you’re taking and why. Explain how every person has a unique and important role to play in halting climate change. If they would like to learn more, share the link to this page.  Engage with people from all walks of life, not just those who think as you do. Like identity theft or the global economy, climate change affects everyone, not just environmentalists or those of particular political persuasions.  4: ADVOCATE Urge change makers to go all in on halting climate change. Think of three people in your sphere of influence who have exceptional impact: lawmakers, CEOs, community leaders, popular artists, social media influencers, journalists, consumer liaisons for brands you buy. Share with each, in language that resonates with them and what they care about, the importance of stopping climate change—and the evidence we have that it’s possible. If appropriate, start with the five basic facts about climate change): 1) it’s real, 2) It’s us, 3) It’s bad, 4) scientists agree, 5) there’s hope. Encourage them to check out the Drawdown Roadmap, which details strategies for strategically deploying solutions at the right time and in the right place, reaping multiple benefits, and overcoming barriers. Point out that climate solutions are not just about climate. They also offer numerous benefits for alleviating poverty, protecting biodiversity, advancing justice, reducing conflict, and more. Suggest one specific way in which the change maker can exert their influence to contribute to halting climate change. 5: AMPLIFY Enhance your impact by spreading the word. Let us know what you’re doing to help stop climate change. If you have additional resources to suggest or strategies to recommend, please pass them along so we can share with others.
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Perspective  |  September 5, 2023
worker with hardhat
Hats off to climate champions at work
by Jamie Alexander
The United States recently observed Labor Day, a celebration of the contributions of the American worker. It’s a time to acknowledge the people who build and maintain the foundation our country rests on—the people who, often without being noticed, enable us to power our lives, move from place to place, access food and shelter, and much more.  Today, for a world in the throes of an increasingly unstable climate and with a vanishing window of time to slash the greenhouse gas pollution that is causing it, the holiday is particularly meaningful. Because to solve climate change, we need to dramatically scale up climate solutions, and fast. That will take massive numbers of skilled workers building a future replete with heat pumps, mass transit, electric vehicles and chargers, solar panels, and much more, all aimed at permanently and comprehensively displacing the polluting industries of the past.  In other words, Labor Day celebrates the power of the worker to transform the world. 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Worker power—whether it’s security to ask for safer, more sustainable working conditions, tools to take climate action at work, or solidarity in holding employers accountable—is core to the work of Drawdown Labs.  This Labor Day, we’re taking a moment to celebrate those who are bringing climate solutions into the world and their work, transforming the existing system from the inside. Last week, we asked Project Drawdown newsletter subscribers to share how they are taking climate action at work. We were inspired by what we heard, and reminded that it is workers themselves who are best positioned to lead us into the future because they are closest to the issues and they know best how to implement solutions.  Here are some highlights from what you all have shared: Theme #1: You are making your everyday work—and that of your team members—more efficient and sustainable.  Some anesthesiologists are averting tons of greenhouse gas emissions by switching the anesthetic they use away from a potent greenhouse gas toward a more sustainable product. These anesthesiologists are also spreading the word with the goal of getting others to make the switch.  Concerned for their respiratory health, a fleet manager at a large tech company convinced their employer to switch to an all-electric fleet. Community workers pledged to use cargo bicycle services instead of diesel vans to transport equipment to local schools for scientific outreach events. Leadership at a top law firm decided to offer pro bono legal counsel to climate organizations and worker protection initiatives. Theme #2: You are integrating climate action or reduced emissions into the product or service you or your business provides. Product designers are sharing ways they have successfully integrated “sustainable nudges” into digital products. (For more specifically on the gaming sector, please see here.) Consultants are integrating climate action into their work by translating climate solutions into “business speak” for clients. Event caterers have transitioned their business model to offer fully vegetarian menus for events and meetings. A senior manager at a large multinational corporation established a task force to review and revise the organization’s procurement policy to include preferences and requirements for sustainable products, services, and suppliers. 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Theme #3: You are pushing your company to use its influence to affect climate change in the broader world.  An executive in the treasurer’s office for a private company is exploring how the company can decarbonize its banking and bring other businesses along with them on their journey. An advertising sales manager helped launch and acquire executive sponsorship for their company’s first employee green group and is helping others do the same within their own companies. Employees in the healthcare sector are encouraging low-carbon travel policies and calculating the carbon footprint of scientific research conferences. Solving climate change will require that each of us chooses, day after day, shift after shift, to work toward a healthier, more vibrant, more resilient future. We can’t just sit back and wait for our leaders to take us there. Every one of us must bring our unique talents and skills to bear on the task of shaping a better future together. The climate solutions that we know can do the job are the result of the work of countless farmers, builders, Indigenous people, engineers, educators, foresters, healthcare workers, and others who have brought these actions to light. Whether they will be applied at the scope and scale needed to stop climate change depends on what we choose to do next. Labor Day celebrates the power of the worker to transform the world. This year it matters more than ever. Because ultimately, our future rests on each and every one of us.
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