Where Do You "Account" for Your Net Zero Carbon Building?

Hero Bennett

20 Oct 2020

For many organisations pursuit of a net zero carbon building may be as a result of a corporate sustainability strategy and so it is important to understand where their buildings’ emissions sit within the measurement of their climate impact and their wider accounting of carbon emissions.

The Green House Gas Protocol

It is acknowledged that in order to demonstrate and work towards Net Zero, organisations need to be able to account accurately for all their carbon emissions, not just those from the construction and use of their buildings. The most widely-used carbon accounting tool is the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which categorises Greenhouse Gas Emissions into three groups or ‘Scopes’ as illustrated below.

(c) World Resources Institute (WRI)

Scope 1 emissions (‘direct emissions’) are those released directly from buildings or assets owned and controlled by an organisation. This includes emissions from gas, oil, coal or other fuels burnt in boilers; emissions from company owned vehicles; emissions from any incinerators owned and operated by the organisation and any air-conditioning refrigeration leaks.

Scope 2 (‘energy indirect’) emissions related to heat, steam and electricity purchased by an organisation for use in buildings or assets that it owns and controls.

Scope 3 emissions (‘other indirect emissions') result from an organisation’s activities through their “corporate value chain” but over which they have no ownership or control. However, these emissions can often make up the greatest share of their climate footprint, covering emissions associated with business travel, procurement, waste and water. Scope 3 emissions frequently go under-reported.

Where Do You Account for Your Building or Work Space?

The buildings that an organisation operates can contribute to a significant portion of their climate footprint. If these buildings or parts of the building are under the operational control of the organisation, the energy consumption and the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions typically fall under scope 1 and scope 2. However, in circumstances where an organisation leases space within a building but does not have control over its operation, the energy consumption and resulting emissions may be better accounted for under an organisation’s Scope 3 emissions.

Setting the Operational Boundary for Carbon Accounting

Under the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, the reporting of Scope 1 and 2 emissions is mandatory, but for Scope 3 emissions it is voluntary. An organisation’s “operational boundary”, that is the declared boundary of their carbon audit, can include selected Scope 3 emissions or not. The operational boundary needs to be clearly defined when reporting annual performance.

In the case of developers or builders of new buildings, the “embodied carbon” or the carbon emissions arising from the construction of new buildings could be placed within their organisations’ Scope 3 emissions. These emissions could be roughly grouped into upstream construction emissions and downstream operational and end of life emissions. For developers or builders, the operational carbon emissions of those who buy or lease the building would sit within their downstream scope 3 emissions. Including these Scope 3 emissions within their accounting Operational Boundary would help developers and builders identify the wider climate impact of their business and ultimately to plan and set out improvements against this.

Scope 3 emissions can be the hardest emissions to measure or monitor and many organisations are daunted by the prospect of trying to account for them. However, many organisations already collect data ranging from travel expense claims, water bills and commuting surveys, to purchasing records or occupant energy consumption data. These can be monitored and converted into carbon emissions using published conversion factors.

The Benefits of Carbon Accounting

For any organisation, whether mandatory due to size or voluntary due to aspiration, carbon accounting can offer many rewarding opportunities:

  • Understanding their own Climate Impact
  • Catalysing energy efficiency and cost reduction opportunities
  • Reducing emissions from their value chain suppliers and through business travel and commuting
  • Raising awareness of energy efficiency with clients and collaborators
  • Driving demand for low carbon products or services
  • Developing a sustainable competitive advantage

In the built environment sector, organisations’ biggest climate impacts arise through the construction and use of the buildings developed, sold, leased and operated. A wider adoption of RICS Whole Life Carbon Assessment to measure upstream construction impacts and whole life carbon emissions of downstream operational carbon emissions would allow organisations involved in the built environment sector to account for these impacts. Understanding and reporting these climate impacts will allow organisations to plan how best to reduce their emissions and ultimately will help ensure that demand for buildings with low construction and operational carbon emissions continues to increase.

This video is courtesy of the UK Green Buildings Council (UKGBC)