Moving Beyond LEED (and other rating systems) to Cut Carbon Emissions

This book is a “must read” for people in the green building industry. It is well written, with good references and a clear message, certainly one of the most useful green building texts available. You hit the nail on the head!
— Eric T. Truelove, PE, GGA, LEED AP BD&C, Madison, Wisconsin

Beyond LEED, Green Globes and BREEAM—Cutting Carbon Emissions

Using a careful analysis in Reinventing Green Building, we distilled the primary reason why current rating systems aren’t going to work to cut carbon emissions from buildings quickly enough: they don’t address climate change strongly enough.

Each major green building rating system addresses so many diverse issues that it’s easy for building teams and building operators to skimp on investments in energy efficiency and renewables, by aiming for easier and cheaper points using other measures.

The benefits of a major transition to green buildings were clearly spelled out by energy expert Gregory Kats in his 2010 book, Greening Our Built World. In that work, Kats showed that a massive green building transition by 2020, resulting in a situation in which LEED certified 95 percent of new construction and 75 percent of existing buildings, could cut US carbon emissions by 14 percent in 2025 from a 2005 baseline. 

By cutting annual energy expenditures, Kats estimated that there would be an economic gain of $650 billion (net present value of future benefits.) Clearly, that scenario isn't going to happen, but the potential for long-term carbon reductions through green building still exists. In 2010 Kats thought that LEED could lead this transition, but in 2016 it’s clear that LEED isn’t capable of making it happen, so we need to try another approach.

A 2014 World Bank report stated that we need to decarbonize all developments to achieve zero net carbon emissions by 2100, and stresses that buildings with zero net carbon emissions are vital in this process:

Bringing net emissions to zero will require efforts on four fronts: (i) decreasing the carbon intensity of global electricity production to zero by 2050, (ii) increasing the use of this low carbon electricity and switching away from fossil fuels—particularly in the transport, building and industry sectors, (iii) boosting energy efficiency and minimizing loss and waste, of food in particular, and (iv) preserving and increasing natural carbon sinks through reforestation or better soil management, for example. Improving energy efficiency and public transportation could increase global output by over $1.8 trillion per year all while tackling climate change.

In my view, future green building rating systems should be at least 50 percent devoted to directly addressing climate change by radically cutting energy use, and 100 percent devoted to a few key performance indicators (KPIs) for green buildings: energy, water and waste, including induced carbon emissions from building materials (new construction) and purchasing practices (existing buildings) and Scope 3 carbon emissions such as employee commuting and corporate travel. That’s it: Nothing more!


Ask the question in a different way: What should our future green building rating systems be like? If they are not going to resemble LEED or Green Globes or BREEAM, then what? What should the key features be and how should these systems work for most building developers, homebuilders, building owners and managers?

I think such systems must incorporate self-assessment into the process as a key component, instead of using third-party verification for every project. This is a direct challenge to LEED’s delivery model right now. In this approach, third-party verification can use random, statistical sampling rather than examining documentation details for each project; doing this would cut costs enormously without sacrificing overall quality. If the US tax system can use this approach, why not LEED?

In essence, any new green building rating system must have 3 key characteristics, described in detail in the book:

1.     Smart—it readily incorporates new technologies and new approaches for building design and operations.

2.     Simple (but not simplistic)—it does not get enmeshed in overly refining measures such as energy efficiency or trying to incorporate every sustainability nuance (such as urban heat island effect or urban habitat creation).

3.     Sustainable—it deals with key sustainability issues, including energy use, water use and waste diversion, along with Scope 3 carbon emissions and ecological purchasing practices.

The key to any green building rating system that is likely to be widely adopted is that is has to mesh with the ongoing revolution in smart buildings, a point we return to repeatedly in Reinventing Green Building.