Zero-Carbon Building Pathways

How can we make zero-carbon buildings and districts achievable everywhere?

Zero-carbon buildings are crucial to global climate goals.

The importance of low or zero-carbon urban buildings to a sustainable future is clear. Buildings are responsible for roughly a third of global energy consumption, as well as a third of global human-induced CO2 emissions. In addition, more efficient buildings can create significant equity benefits by reducing energy poverty, strengthening energy resilience and improving energy access for all.

What’s unclear is how to achieve zero-carbon buildings (ZCBs), districts, or building portfolios in all cities. WRI is investigating pathways to achieve ZCBs today not just in wealthier cities but middle income and developing cities too. As the Secretariat for the UN SEforALL’s Building Efficiency Accelerator (BEA), WRI has established a unique, global network of cities and technical partners to tackle the ongoing challenge of making energy efficient buildings a recognized and central part of city sustainability. Average energy consumption per person in the global buildings sector remains practically unchanged since 1990, and, in 2015, 82 percent of building energy was still supplied from fossil fuels.

To help foster and accelerate ambition on zero-carbon buildings among urban decision-makers everywhere, WRI is developing a palette of options to effectively decarbonize existing building stock.

The zero-carbon building (ZCB) pathways concept recognizes that there are multiple ways to achieve sustainability. Each option consists of a combination of solutions, ranging from energy efficiency and on-site renewable energy to potentially off-site renewable energy and carbon offsets, if needed, to sustainable account for remaining energy demand. Together these components form a set of pathways.

Example Pathways

There are multiple ways to get to zero-carbon buildings.

By presenting a menu of pathways to arrive at net zero carbon for individual buildings, districts, or building portfolios, achieving carbon neutrality for a city’s building stock turns from merely an aspiration into a target well within reach.

Not every ZCB pathway would be equally preferable to pursue. Energy efficiency, for instance, is generally the cheapest, in terms of energy resource per kilowatt-hour of energy demand, well ahead of providing buildings with greener energy supplies.

WRI is working to lay out a set of principles to arrive at a hierarchy of pathways. In addition, we are considering the roles and degree of influence of municipal, national and/or state governments in achieving these ZCB pathways.

Putting pathways thinking in practice

WRI is conducting an analysis of the current ZCB policy framework in four countries – India, China, Mexico and Kenya – including the identification of key enabling and disabling policies, to understand how current policies put different ZCB pathways more or less within reach. In each country, examples of zero-carbon or nearly zero-carbon buildings already exist or are under development.

WRI aims to help raise ambition on the depth and scale at which ZCBs are being rolled out across all jurisdictions, showing that a decarbonized building stock is technically attainable and politically feasible in all jurisdictions.

After publishing the initial research work (forthcoming), WRI will recruit a select number of cities to initiate or enhance efforts in ZCBs, providing them with suitable technical support through the Building Efficiency Accelerator to more rapidly and feasibly accelerate the pace and scale of building decarbonization.

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