A recent United Nations climate change report issued a “code red for humanity,” noting that the world won’t meet its targets for emissions reductions unless significant cuts in carbon take place.
Unless decarbonization is universally adopted and championed, the planet’s average temperature will rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades — which may sound inconsequential, but is considered the threshold for widespread environmental chaos and economic upheaval. Just before the pandemic, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations around the world reached the highest levels in 2 million years.
With an existential threat to humanity looming over the planet, you might feel compelled to reduce your personal carbon footprint — whether by bringing your own bags to the supermarket, carpooling, or taking shorter showers. While these individual actions are commendable, they will not solve the large-scale problem of a changing climate. We need to think global.
We need a broad and holistic approach to addressing the climate crisis. In a world where 40 percent of CO2 emissions continue to come from buildings and where mass carbon output is tied to entire industries, Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), the world’s leading sustainability and health certification and credential body, is doubling down on global collaboration to decarbonize buildings, grids, communities, and more. A big part of our efforts to decarbonize buildings is centered in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, the world’s most widely used green building program.
Carbon reduction has been a foundation of LEED and a core strategy for the rating system’s success since its introduction to the market in 1998. As a pioneer of carbon reduction in the building sector, each new iteration of LEED brought greater advances and increased sophistication to our approaches and strategies.
Today’s version, LEED v4.1, continues to push the boundaries by adding a carbon metric for the first time, allowing new and existing buildings to directly measure their carbon impact as dictated by energy efficiency, onsite generation and storage, and the associated grid. LEED certification also helps to incorporate building design, construction materials and demolition processes leading to a lower carbon impact.
Even with all this effort, we know that a reduction in carbon is just that — a reduction. To meet the IPCC’s warnings, we must do more and focus on how we can create a roadmap to reach a net zero and carbon positive future. Resources, tools and technologies must be leveraged toward achieving net zero emissions and building a regenerative world. GBCI’s LEED Zero program helps projects break even on carbon, energy, waste, or water and lays the groundwork for LEED Positive — allowing buildings, cities and communities to cut more carbon than they use and give back more resources than they take.
While LEED remains the core of our decarbonization strategy, we know that one tool cannot address every opportunity to decarbonize. GBCI has a suite of nearly 10 certification programs and 15 professional credentials and certificates covering almost every facet of the sustainability industry — all of which build on LEED’s success and provide many other opportunities and avenues for businesses and companies to meet their carbon reduction goals and to decarbonize.
One clear-cut way to cut carbon is to cut waste. It’s not just the immediate use that boosts carbon output, but also the entire life cycle of a material — including resource extraction, transportation, manufacturing, disposal, landfill emissions, waste incineration, and pollution. GBCI’s TRUE program helps businesses and communities implement zero waste strategies. Beyond waste reduction, TRUE certification also supports decarbonization by encouraging the purchasing of recycled products, the elimination of unnecessary packaging, and the use of reprocessed materials on site. Companies around the globe are demonstrating leadership by achieving TRUE certification, including Colgate-Palmolive, which has committed to certifying 100 percent of global operations to TRUE. And just last month, TRUE celebrated achieving its 200th certification.
In the global struggle to combat climate change, the impact of the energy sector is also impossible to overlook, as energy production accounts for more than two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions growth. We can help mitigate this by investing in renewable energy, demand side management, clean grids, and energy efficiency. Currently, our figures show that Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal, or PEER-certified projects — the world’s first certification program for power system performance and energy infrastructure — are providing power to over 8 million people while reducing CO2 emissions annually by 21 million metric tons.
The carbon footprint of the built environment — whether the site of a public park, shopping mall, or office building — is also too often understood only in terms of construction, energy use and transportation, thus missing further opportunities to sequester carbon. GBCI’s SITES program promotes decarbonization strategies in sustainable land development projects, including conservation, healthy soil, native vegetation, green infrastructure for stormwater management, clean energy, and low-carbon materials.
Decarbonization efforts need financial backing to be successful, too. While comprehensive investment in energy efficiency could yield $1.2 trillion dollars in energy savings, barriers to mass investment remain. The Investor Confidence Project (ICP) and its IREE certification program can drive capital towards decarbonization through building retrofits by helping to lower the transaction costs for buyers and sellers of energy efficiency, increasing the reliability of savings, and reducing investor risk.
The magnitude of today’s climate crisis can be paralyzing, but trusted market solutions are at hand and ready for the taking. A comprehensive and multi-sector approach to cutting carbon could take the conversation away from worst-case scenarios for our planet — and shift the focus to actionable, meaningful, and positive restoration.
Mahesh Ramanujam is president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and Green Business Certification, Inc. (GBCI) — the forces behind LEED, the world’s most widely used green building standard.