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What is Decarbonization?

May 6, 2024
Decarbonization aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. Buildings are responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions, but there are strategies to achieve sustainable goals.

Over 70% of total global emissions are created in cities with buildings typically generating most of those emissions, according to Architecture 2030. Actions to meet 50% carbon emissions reductions in the built environment by 2030 and zero emissions by 2040 are vital to the management of climate change. The decarbonization of buildings includes opportunities to reduce carbon emissions in both the construction and operations phases.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, decarbonization “refers to the goal of ending our dependence on oil and gas as power sources to reduce the carbon dioxide (or CO2) emissions that raise global temperatures.”

Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the building section encompasses operational carbon, embodied carbon, refrigerants, electric mobility options and carbon sequestration.

IBM expands the decarbonization definition to include climate change mitigation and the process of reducing or eliminating CO2 and GHG emissions in the atmosphere.

To reduce the GHG emissions, comprised of CO2, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and fluorinated gases, it’s important to identify the sources.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tracks total U.S. emissions and publishes that data in the Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks. The data offers a glimpse into the estimated total national GHG emissions and removals connected to human activities in the United States by source, gas and economic sector.

Results from the 2022 study revealed GHG emissions by economic sector were 28% from transportation, 25% electric power, 23% industry, 13% residential and commercial buildings and 10% agriculture. Analysis of total GHG emissions by economic sector including electricity end-use indirect emissions were residential and commercial, 31%; industry, 30%; transportation, 29%; and agriculture, 10%. The EPA reports the spike in GHG emissions from commercial and residential buildings when emissions from electricity end-use are included since there is a large share of electricity use for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning as well as for lighting and appliances in those buildings.

The 2022 report found a 1% increase in emissions compared to 2021, driven by an influx in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. The increase paralleled an influx in energy use as the economy rebounded in economic activity after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The World Green Building Council notes that buildings are currently responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions. So how do these existing structures achieve sustainable goals of decarbonization?

Steps Toward Decarbonization

Organizations can draft a decarbonization strategy that will be feasible and effective. Some strategies include: 

  1. Boost operational efficiency: Assessment of a building’s operational efficiency can help eliminate energy waste and identify areas to increase efficiency by upgrading systems and building elements. Software can help monitor performance against key performance indicators (KPIs) or identify energy use issues.
  2. Renewable energy: A nearly 80% price reduction for solar energy over the last 10 years and a 40% price reduction in wind power make these renewable power sources more accessible. The use of low- and zero-carbon energy can include microgrids, a decentralized modular energy generation system, with distributed generation.
  3. Carbon capture: Carbon capture and storage (CCS) uses technology to combat climate change by reducing CO2 emissions. CCS projects store nearly 45 million tons of CO2 annually, the equivalent of CO2 emissions produced by 10 million vehicles. The process captures CO2 created when burning fossil fuels before it escapes into the atmosphere. The captured CO2 is injected deep into the surface to form a closed loop.
  4. Embrace digitalization: Commercial real estate (CRE) digitalization can provide real-time building data about operational efficiency that owners can adapt to for the building’s systems' longevity and the safety of staff and tenants. It can also enhance communication and decision-making across the organization reducing risk and streamlining standard operating procedures. Digitalization of building processes offers accurate reporting on building performance against decarbonization targets and makes building data accessible for onboarding and training team members. For more information, read, “Digitalization Strategies Are Key for CRE to Meet Sustainability Targets.”

LEED Certification

Architects seeking to decarbonize a project can follow LEED guidelines to help develop an integrated climate approach and maintain a baseline consideration of human health and clean water.

About the Author

Lauren Brant | Buildings Editor

Lauren Brant is the editor of Buildings. She is an award-winning editor and reporter whose work appeared in daily and weekly newspapers. In 2020, the weekly newspaper won the Rhoades Family Weekly Print Sweepstakes  — the division winner across the state's weekly newspapers. Lauren was also awarded the top feature photo across Class A papers. She holds a B.A. in journalism and media communications from Colorado State University - Fort Collins and a M.S. in organizational management from Chadron State College.

About the Author

Lauren Brant | Buildings Editor

Lauren Brant is the editor of Buildings. She is an award-winning editor and reporter whose work appeared in daily and weekly newspapers. In 2020, the weekly newspaper won the Rhoades Family Weekly Print Sweepstakes  — the division winner across the state's weekly newspapers. Lauren was also awarded the top feature photo across Class A papers. She holds a B.A. in journalism and media communications from Colorado State University - Fort Collins and a M.S. in organizational management from Chadron State College.

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