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"That Net Zero building? Clearly it's using coal." [Nexus Newsletter #99]

"That Net Zero building? Clearly it's using coal." [Nexus Newsletter #99]

Hey friends,

A few weeks back, we talked about avoiding carbon washing by using clear terminology. As we covered, the terms "carbon neutral" and "net zero" are sometimes murky, ambiguous, questionable, and misleading.

I've continued to dig into this topic, and when it comes to using similar terms to describe our buildings, it gets even more confusing!

Beyond carbon neutral and net zero, there are at least 25 more that are specifically for buildings. Examples include: Net Zero Carbon, Zero Net Carbon, Zero Energy, Zero Net Energy, Net Zero Site Energy, Net Zero Source Energy, Zero Emissions. You get the idea.

Well... do you? I didn't.

Turns out, official definitions for these terms differ based on six core questions:

  1. Is site vs. source energy considered?
  2. Do the renewables need to be generated on site?
  3. Are offsets or credits allowed?
  4. Is it an annual or hourly target?
  5. Are we talking about zero energy or zero carbon?
  6. Are we talking about both embodied and operational carbon or just operational?

It seems like most recent commitments are focusing on “Net Zero Emissions” or “Net Zero Carbon”. “Nearly Nero” is used in the EU and it’s very similar. These terms mean something like this:

  • “a highly energy efficient building that produces on-site, or procures, enough carbon-free renewable energy to meet building operations energy consumption annually.”
  • carbon-based energy consumption is reduced first through building design strategies and efficiency measures, then through on-site renewable energy generation, and finally through procurement of locally produced off-site renewable energy.
  • includes embodied energy and therefore applies to new buildings too

This represents the state of the art today and if every building was on its way there, we'd be making great progress. But, but, but...

As more and more are realizing, we can and should still do better than annual carbon accounting. As one Google employee put it in the Bloomberg article below:

“Take this data center, at this time... Clearly it is using coal.”

And clearly they needed a better goal: 24/7 carbon free. I expect that realization to continue and spread across corporate and government commitments. Microsoft has followed Google's lead. Who's next?

—James

P.S. I'm at IBcon for the next two days. If you're here too, hit reply and let's find a time to meet in person.