Buildings are responsible for about 40% of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Every home or building that exists today contributes CO2 emissions in two ways: through the energy required to operate the building and the energy required to build it in the first place. Making buildings even bigger contributors to CO2 emissions, every building is a destination, a place where people travel to and from — daily acts that require carbon based energy for transportation.

Every building constructed today will last for decades. Those that are designed and built well could stand for centuries. So the carbon impact of new construction is very long lasting. That is why every building that is planned from today forward must be well on the path to zero carbon — starting with zero energy.

The methods and materials for building zero energy buildings are well established and many are already mainstream. While zero energy buildings are zero carbon in terms of their operational energy, zero carbon buildings raise the bar to include zero carbon in the extraction, processing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and ultimate recycling of building materials. 

The final step to zero carbon buildings is the elimination of carbon from the transportation used to travel to and from buildings. For reduced carbon impact, every home, office, store, and factory should be centrally located, easily accessible to public transportation and bike paths, and/or provide enough renewable energy to power itself and all the transportation of its inhabitants.

In addition to building net zero energy homes and buildings, we need to take steps as soon as possible to decarbonize design, materials sourcing, construction processes and equipment. There’s no time to lose. Every building that comes out of the ground after today that doesn’t meet a zero carbon standard is a lost opportunity to move society on a more sustainable path. While it may take a decade or more to put all construction activity on the path to zero carbon, the ideas below offer a good place to start.