Building an Effective Net Zero Strategy With BREEAM

Authored by Martin Kemp, Sustainability Product Manager at BRE

Investors and owners in every major real estate market in the world are grappling with the risks and opportunities presented by climate change and the pressing need to decarbonize the built environment. It is clear that the opportunities surrounding net zero progress — and the growing, looming risks faced by owners and operators who fail to act — are only getting stronger, and now marks a critical time for the industry to look toward informed, science-backed resources to drive market-wide advancement of net zero efforts. As the science continues to make clear, rapid change is needed if the sector hopes to achieve net zero carbon, sustainability, and wider long-term ESG goals.

At BREEAM, we’re offering valuable resources and services to organizations looking to commence or strengthen their journey to net zero operations, providing the commercial real estate industry with robust guidelines and metrics to support emission reduction at the asset level — a critical foundation for a successful net zero strategy.

A Clear First Step Toward Minimizing Emissions

From the outset of the launch of BREEAM more than 30 years ago, energy and carbon have always played a key role in BREEAM’s building assessments. Energy consumption in buildings will continue to contribute significantly to their broader environmental impact on the environment. For owners who are involved in purchasing, constructing or fitting out new buildings — as well as those refurbishing existing assets — embodied carbon in building materials and products, a key part of Scope 3 emissions, is also very significant.

Across our BREEAM standards, we identify opportunities to address both operational carbon, which is generated primarily through building operations and on-site energy use, as well as embodied carbon throughout a building’s lifecycle. To date, roughly half of the available credits via BREEAM’s building certification platform address and assist in the reduction of energy use and consumption specifically, which play a critical role in buildings’ emission profiles. There are a number of methodologies the platform uses to support users’ achievement of net zero goals, including:

● Minimizing the asset’s energy consumption through improved fabric to reduce energy demand, using more energy-efficient building services and equipment, and encouraging the use of on-site renewables.
● Recognizing building features and best practices that facilitate efficient energy management, such as commissioning of building services, accessible controls, and submetering energy use.
● Identifying demand-side management capabilities that enable a higher proportion of renewable energy generation in the grid supply mix.
● Maximizing the use of recycled and reused materials in the construction and disassembly process at end of life, which further drives circularity in the sector.
● Minimizing operational emissions associated with water use and fugitive refrigerant gasses.

A Framework for Continued Progress

After the targeting of operational energy and embodied carbon, there are still some emissions which remain to be addressed — an often overlooked but important consideration given the imperative of reducing emissions as greatly as possible. To ensure the platform is providing users with the most holistic approach to emission reduction possible, BREEAM further boasts measures directly aimed at minimizing these emissions through assessment categories including Land Use and Ecology, Resilience and Transport.

Under the Land Use and Ecology section of BREEAM’s assessment, owners and operators are encouraged to drive the protection and enhancement of a site’s ecological features, such as trees, which absorb carbon and increase the biodiversity of the areas surrounding an asset. Nature-based solutions are a key tool in making meaningful net zero carbon advancements and helping address the rapid decline in biodiversity through ecological restoration — when executed correctly, these measures have the potential to solve many challenges simultaneously. For example, trees and other plant cover on-site can absorb carbon from the atmosphere, supporting long-term removal and sequestration goals, while well-placed landscaping can further help address overheating risks to build climate adaptation and resilience. While BREEAM strives to first minimize the impacts of climate change through mitigation measures, it is understood that the industry must also adapt to impacts that have already begun and will continue to affect the market in the near future.

Through BREEAM’s enhanced Resilience category and the thoughtful inclusion of resiliency measures throughout several of the platform’s standards, owners and operators can better understand necessary efforts to protect the asset from acute events (floods, tornadoes, hurricanes for example) and from chronic stressors such as heatwaves and extreme cold. In addressing building resilience, BREEAM’s looks at a wide array performance characteristics such as flood risk assessment, surface water run-off, emergency planning, and climate transition risks.

Through BREEAM’s service, users are encouraged to adopt protective measures and more durable systems and best practices that consider whole life carbon for the most effective reduction strategy — one which supports resiliency efforts by looking at the impact of the holistic emissions cycle in both the immediate future and in the years to come.

A Critical Assessment of Carbon Offsetting

While carbon offsetting is a widely used practice to reduce the emissions associated with an asset, its legitimacy as a way to reach net zero carbon is often questioned. Both the 2020 Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting and the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market (ICVCM) present ways to improve carbon offsetting and the carbon market to ensure meaningful progress and eliminate greenwashing.

Currently, market demand and industry best practices fall short of science-backed evidence to demonstrate that offsetting delivers credible carbon reductions. On the contrary, available evidence suggests that the majority of carbon offset projects do not deliver the level of carbon savings claimed. In a recent review of offsets available within the sector, the ICVCM found that an egregiously minimal 5% of these options actually removed carbon from the atmosphere. As such, BREEAM does not recognize carbon offsets, choosing instead to focus on more meaningful reduction efforts aimed at carbon impacts associated with the construction and use of buildings. The adoption of standards to ensure high quality and verifiable outcomes from offsets could greatly move the needle in the direction of progress.

A Hopeful Future

While different pathways to net zero may be adopted, it is crucial to note that some carbon reduction measures are compatible with achieving net zero carbon, while others are less effective and will reinforce outdated methods that prevent it. All sectors and organizations have a responsibility to reduce carbon emissions as part of the global battle against the climate crisis, and in the built environment, there is both massive risk and opportunity surrounding the action we take today.

To reach net zero, we need further action to close the gap between emissions and nature-based solutions that result in sequestration and the long-term storage of carbon — a goal BREEAM has and will continue to help owners and operators across all property types and geographic regions achieve for decades past and decades to come.