Net Zero Carbon – How BREEAM is leading on decarbonization of the built environment

As a sponsor of the 2023 Getting to Zero Forum, BREEAM is committed to helping decarbonize the built environment. Here we’re highlighting an update on them following through with this commitment.

The world faces a stark challenge in the fight against climate change. The international scientific consensus is that we must keep global warming below 1.5°C, with anything above this representing a serious threat to humankind. To achieve 1.5°C, global net carbon emissions must be reduced by around 50% by 2030 (from 2010 levels) and reach zero by 2050. While current trajectories indicate that 1.5°C is highly unlikely at this stage, the ability to avoid the catastrophic impacts (above 2.0°C) is still within reach.

The buildings and construction sectors play a significant role in greenhouse gas emissions, with operational energy representing around a quarter (25%) and the construction sector contributing to 38% of global emissions. Fortunately, we already have solutions that can play a huge role in addressing climate change; but in addition to mitigation, we must also consider the direct and indirect risks related to climate change, taking measures to address these concerns as well.

The risk to building asset value is becoming clearer as the impacts of climate change through extreme events are increasing – and the scale of the challenge is considerable. Despite significant effort being taken by many to reduce emissions, the most recent research indicates annual emissions from our sector have yet to be stabilized and demonstrate a clear downward trend.

As a major carbon emitter, it is imperative that the construction and real estate sectors take action to measure and ultimately reduce their carbon emissions.

This article sets out how BREEAM helps developers and asset owners drive down emissions today, and how we plan to continue evolving BREEAM to deliver science-led solutions to drive decarbonization in the built environment.


How BREEAM measures asset impacts to climate change today

Scientists regard carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions as the single-most important basis for measuring and reporting the contribution of organizations, societies and countries to climate change. As a science-led solution, BREEAM put carbon at the heart of our program since our inception 30 years ago, with the majority of credits linked to energy and climate.

The two major areas offering the most significant potential in respect to carbon reduction are:

  • “Operational carbon” — heating, cooling, and power during use
  • “Embodied carbon” — the construction product supply chain including energy consumption, chemical reactions, transport, and installation/construction activities

What BREEAM does already

New Construction

The Energy category in this standard rewards developments reducing and managing operational carbon linked to energy use. The majority of credits are awarded based on expected operational carbon emissions from the asset. Credits are calculated awarding building efficiency and addressing carbon intensity of the energy sources. Additionally, there are minimum energy and carbon performance requirements to achieve our two top ratings, Excellent and Outstanding.

Three critical aspects that this standard considers when awarding credits:

  • The expected carbon emissions from the building based on just meeting applicable local building code, must be reported and is factored into the credit calculation. Only those assets that achieve improvements over applicable local building code can be awarded credits.
  • The measurement is about the asset’s energy demand for heating and cooling, as well as direct and indirect carbon emissions. The emphasis on building efficiency delivers better whole life carbon performance and high-quality internal environments which protects asset value. On-site renewables are key to providing both verifiable and long-term source energy solutions for the asset.
  • The maximum credits are offered for a very low carbon or better carbon outcomes with net positive carbon performance.

Additional credits are offered in this category for energy efficient systems and equipment to further reduce energy consumption when the development is complete and operational. Refrigerants, a lesser known but significant contributor to climate change, are addressed in the Pollution category.

Embodied carbon is captured in our Materials category where Life Cycle Analysis is the methodology rewarded. We consider embodied carbon and the sustainability of the materials in the context of the whole lifecycle of the building, with maintenance and replacement cycle influencing decision making.

Want to dive into the details on the credits? Check out the International New Construction standard which is available in full, at no cost online.

Learn more about how the New Construction program works and what the other categories address.


Our In-Use program for existing buildings is structured into two separate Parts: Asset Performance (Part 1) and Management Performance (Part 2).

Under Part 1, two-thirds of the credits in the Energy category measure the energy efficiency of the building envelope, installed services and systems. Additional credits are available for the deployment of on-site renewables.

Under Part 2, credits are awarded for actual carbon emissions per square meter/foot over the previous 12-month period, with all fuel sources considered. The carbon emission factor for the local grid electricity, other fuels and any on-site renewables are included; off-site generation, Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) and carbon offsets are not. Net zero carbon emissions from energy is the only outcome in which maximum credits are awarded. We also offer up to 5 exemplary credits for net positive performance.

Additional credits are available for the annual reduction of carbon emissions over a three-year period and monitoring and reporting activities.

How BREEAM is pivoting

Setting minimum standards for carbon performance linked to higher BREEAM ratings

BREEAM provides flexibility and encourages clients to pursue strategies that protect and enhance the value of their assets, with the BREEAM rating providing the transparency and validation that stakeholders are demanding. We do this first by weighting our categories (thereby encouraging the categories with the biggest impact to be addressed first) and secondly, by setting minimum standards to achieve our higher ratings.

Minimum standards cap the rating that can be received unless specific performance is met. This ensures that assets pursuing the higher ratings adopt a broader approach to sustainability while still encouraging certification to be achieved at the lower levels.

We will be introducing minimum carbon performance standards for BREEAM Excellent and Outstanding, our two top ratings, in future versions of our standards with In-Use as a priority and potentially strengthening these where they exist in New Construction.

Working toward and supporting a stronger, industry-wide consensus on how to achieve net zero carbon

There are a lot of definitions out there that aim to outline a preferred pathway to net zero– we’re working with stakeholders to ensure the science drives the evolution and to work towards consensus on an ubiquitous definition of how to deliver meaningful carbon reductions.

BREEAM will support the measurement and reporting of asset Scope 1, 2 and 3 by utilizing the data already gathered for the BREEAM assessment and offering additional optional data fields.

Developing and testing proposals for a new ‘zero whole life carbon’ methodology; prioritizing the new construction programs

BREEAM methodologies are evolving to include a ‘whole life carbon’ approach that includes both embodied and operational emissions from assets.

We intend to combine operational and embodied carbon into a dedicated carbon category which will link the two explicitly and ensure that embodied is considered alongside operational carbon to achieve an optimum outcome.

Mapping alignment between BREEAM standards and science-based carbon reduction pathways

Getting to net zero is going to require consistent focus and capital planning to make the necessary changes to assets over the coming years and decades.

Adopting a pathway approach for existing assets provides

  • An opportunity to regularly review performance
  • Accounting for externalities such as grid decarbonization into account
  • A chance to modify interventions that are not working as planned
  • A sense of accountability by assets and their owners to their commitments and goals

On the development side, it allows developers to manage the risks they are designing and building into the development, including:

  • Selling a building without the ability to achieve net zero without further capital investment and renovation by the new owner (or their subsequent buyer)
  • Identifying the potential for residual embodied carbon emissions to be offset by the asset’s own operational carbon savings, if they are sufficiently lower than required by the pathway and avoid any reliance on external offsets.

Being able to measure today’s progress against a future decarbonization trajectory is critical. BREEAM will begin with Carbon Risk Real Estate Monitor Project (CRREM) trajectories. These are operational energy-focused decarbonization maps, which show a pathway to net zero carbon by 2050 to be in line with the 1.5°C and 2.0°C scenarios. Most importantly, it will provide insight into the risk of “stranded assets” – properties that will not meet future energy efficiency standards and market expectations, and may be increasingly exposed to the risk of early economic obsolescence.

Pathways are uncertain, as with all predictions, so regular updates are required. BREEAM has pledged to refine and revise these regularly to ensure the best information currently available is informing these pathways and avoiding disincentives for decarbonizing.

Developing and testing proposals for a new net zero carbon verification service

While there may not be a consensus on definitions for what net zero means, many organizations are making commitments to pursue one or more of the definitions that have been established. Most of these definitions require data that are already gathered as part of the BREEAM assessment. We are seeking to support clients in leveraging these data to determine whether an asset fulfills the requirements of net zero carbon initiatives and definitions they are pursuing.

BRE is currently establishing the external standards/definitions that will be included in our Net Zero Carbon module including any minimum requirements that will BRE may require for inclusion (for example, caps on the proportion of emissions that are allowed to be offset).

As BREEAM is taking an agnostic approach on the definition (until a single definition has consensus), communication of the results will make it clear that a net zero carbon status is according to the respective initiative rather than a BREEAM definition of net zero carbon.

Nearly all of these definitions focus on operational carbon, but we intend to expand into embodied carbon as these are developed.