Save The Planet: Zero Net Carbon Scenario

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference
— Robert Frost

If what we've been doing so far hasn't resulted in greening the built environment in any substantial way, let's try something different. After all, the standard definition of being crazy is repeating over and over what you've been doing, and expecting different results! And I don't think the green building world is that crazy.

In our "Save the Planet - Zero Net Carbon" scenario, we abandon all efforts to load up green building’s definition with anything other than reducing buildings’ carbon impacts; we reconstruct all rating systems to reflect the carbon life-cycle, in direct energy use and indirect use in transportation, building services and building products, using Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) analyses for building materials, water use, etc. The system would consider Scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions, along with “Scope 4” carbon emissions that include life-cycle carbon impacts stemming from all sources related to building construction and operations.

In this scenario, an organization such as Architecture 2030 or New Buildings Institute (to name just two—there are many more) takes the net zero opportunity seriously enough to launch its own certification product, one that will drive low-energy buildings into the mainstream. One could even envision an adventurous and technologically sophisticated company such as Google/Nest or Tesla/Solar City taking on the challenge, both to add to their sustainability investments and to bundle hardware and software technologies into marketable and deliverable packages for many buildings and homes.

Support could also come from the Carbon Disclosure Project, the Carbon War Room, or another well-financed organization aiming squarely at the climate change issue. The Carbon War Room has significant credibility and a clear vision:

Our vision is a world where over $1 trillion invested in climate change solutions is an annual occurrence, not a historic milestone. In this world, market barriers will not exist in any sector where profitable carbon reduction solutions exist; and entrepreneurs who are passionate about preserving our planet’s resources are simultaneously tapping into the economic opportunity of our generation.

The problem with our net zero scenario is that it needs a prime mover with financial strength, credibility and strong technology offerings to make it happen. We envision a major US (or international) nonprofit with strong carbon-reduction credentials and an entrepreneurial management team taking advantage of LEED’s weaknesses in critical market segments such as smaller office buildings along with education, healthcare and retail building portfolios, to build a brand and a business that would eventually deliver carbon reductions along with green building certifications that many people want but are not willing to pay for at today’s prices.

As an initial market entry point, 685 US colleges and universities that have signed onto the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) could form a solid market base for a net zero carbon commitment, one that would have widespread support among academics and students, alumni and local businesses alike. A successful university initiative could open the way for targeted K12, government, healthcare and retail initiatives.