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In this article excerpt, World Green Building Council CEO Terri Wills shares the organization's goal to make 100% of buildings net zero carbon by 2050, including some inspiring examples from around the world that show how important changes can be implemented today.
The goal of the World Green Building Council is to make 100% of buildings net zero carbon by 2050
The goal of the World Green Building Council is to make 100% of buildings net zero carbon by 2050

What net zero and green building mean

At the World Building Council (WorldGBC), we say that a green building is one that, in its design, construction, and day-to-day operations, reduces or eliminates negative impacts and creates positive impacts on climate and the natural environment. We often use the term “green building,” singular, in addition to “green buildings,” plural, because the action of building is as important to us as the building after it’s built.

Green building is about preserving precious natural resources, but it’s also improving quality of life. In the past, many people have had the idea that a green building is all about making sacrifices and doing less of something to preserve resources, but now we also think about how a green building can contribute positively. It’s about improving our quality of life, and improving our ability to thrive on the planet in the future.
What net zero and green building mean
Green building is about preserving precious natural resources, but it’s also improving quality of life
Like green building, net zero carbon can refer both to a building’s operation and to its construction
Like green building, net zero carbon can refer both to a building’s operation and to its construction. At WorldGBC, the definition of net zero carbon begins with operational efficiency, as we recognize that that is more achievable in a shorter time frame. Buildings that are net zero carbon utilize deep energy efficiency in their operations, and the energy that the building does use comes from renewable sources, either on site or off site. An example of an on-site source would be a solar panel on the roof. An example of an off-site source would be drawing power from a zero carbon district energy system or renewable energy source near the building.
Buildings that are net zero carbon utilize deep energy efficiency in their operations, and the energy that the building does use comes from renewable sources, either on site or off site
GCBC is focused on operating emissions
We’re also enabling individual Green Building Councils (GBCs) to tailor the definition of net zero carbon to their local situation. We’re finding that different countries have slightly different definitions because of different geographies, different cultures, and different political and regulatory environments where the meaning of net zero carbon has already been defined.
Some countries specifically define levels of energy efficiency. For example, in Australia, a net zero building must be approximately 20% to 30% more energy efficient than a standard building, at which point you can start layering on renewables. Australia is also willing to accept carbon offsets, such as investments into carbon sinks, so that can also count to make a building net zero in that country. Others countries are saying that they will offsets but within limits. In the Netherlands, for example, renewable sources of energy count so long as they’re located within 10 kilometers of a building. Investing in a solar farm located on the other side of the country, on the other hand, doesn’t count toward becoming a net zero building.

Today, we’re really focused on operating emissions. Over time, we’d also like to take into account emissions generated during the construction of buildings. Some countries are already starting to look at this aspect, but it’s much more difficult, and it’s going to take some time to get there.

GBCs often work very closely with national governments and companies. For example, in Australia and Canada, the local GBCs are in very close dialogue with the national governments and companies to understand what’s going to work from regulatory perspective, feasibility, and cost perspectives. Many GBCs are developing an initial definition, then piloting the definitions and related certifications in a number of projects in their country. These pilot projects test and refine the definitions and the assessment processes as they roll out net zero certifications. This is how the original green building certifications were developed, and some of the net zero certification and definitions are also being developed in this way.
GBCs often work very closely with national governments and companies
Maximizing the natural elements of design features and combining them with flexible technology is really, really important."

Terri Wills

CEO, World Green Building Council

New approaches, new technologies

To achieve net zero and green building goals, builders very much take a holistic approach, and must take geographic and climatic factors into consideration. We’re conducting net zero initiatives in 10 or 11 different countries. One of the biggest issues in getting to net zero in Canada is heating, so there are heating technologies that are really important there. In Australia, it’s the opposite—cooling technologies are important.

While some of the effort toward net zero will be handled through technology, some of it might also be handled through design. We do a lot of work with GBCs in the Middle East. In places such as Dubai, you get up to 50° C in the summer, so cooling is a serious issue. Do you need to expend so much energy on cooling, or is there a way to design buildings to naturally cool? In Masdar City, a net zero carbon city that’s being built in Abu Dhabi, they’ve started designing buildings in the way they used to in ancient times in the Middle East. How do you maximize cross breezes by positioning the building so that ventilation comes through the building? We’re seeing a mix of new technologies and old technologies. Insulation is important in many locations, and that could be handled through new technologies and new forms of insulation. On the other hand, we were in Morocco last year, and they’re using earth and mud as forms of insulation—old capabilities.

Many green buildings now are advocating for much better daylight. The more you can rely on daylight, the better. We have Philips lighting here in the UK Green Building Council office, which shares space with the WorldGBC. We have massive windows here, and we can rely on daylight, but the Philips lighting system mixes very well with the daylight. The lights come on when it’s darker outside but they’re not on when it’s light outside. I think maximizing the natural elements of design features and combining them with flexible technology like this is really, really important.
About the author
Terri Wills, CEO, World Green Building Council

Terri Wills

CEO, World Green Building Council

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