Insights article

Analysing The Carbon Neutral Vs Net Zero Debate In Housing

Sebastian Weise
Published: 18/04/2023

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The carbon neutral vs net zero housing debate refers to actions designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change in the built environment. Terminologies can often be confusing. In this article, we explain the essential distinction between the two terms.

When discussing climate change, it is easy to become bogged down by the myriad of terms used to describe local, national, and international policies. For organisations that deliver building projects, it’s essential to transparently define carbon neutral and net zero development to take a sustainable approach when considering environmental effects. 

Carbon neutral vs net zero housing debate

Scope is key in defining how to measure carbon reduction, as it is such an incredibly hard to grasp concept. It does not help that carbon in itself is often not visible.

Many world governments, including the UK, have already set net-zero targets. France, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are also working towards achieving net zero—but what separates carbon neutral from net zero?

Carbon neutrality and net zero are often used to discuss climate change initiatives. They both refer to balancing greenhouse gas emissions with their removal from society and the atmosphere, often through carbon offsetting.

What is a carbon-neutral building?

Carbon neutrality is the balance between releasing and absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere—a goal shared by all countries signed up to the Paris Climate Agreement

In the context of developments, carbon neutrality is often limited to the operational use of a building, specifically the ‘operational carbon’ emitted every day, month, or year a development is used. 

To achieve carbon neutrality in a development, organisations must calculate their developments' current or expected emissions and then develop suitable compensation measures that offset emissions generated by a building. 

This can be done with carbon credits or renewable energy schemes. Organisations that achieve carbon neutrality are awarded a certificate and badge for showing their commitment to reducing their carbon footprint and taking action against climate change.

What is a net zero building?

The reference term net zero became popular with the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement held in Dec 2015

On the other side of the carbon neutral vs net zero debate in housing, net zero is the goal of limiting all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and often also actively considers embodied carbon in construction to be at least carbon neutral but ideally carbon negative.

To reach this target, carbon emissions from fossil fuels and landfill activities must be drastically reduced while geological and biological sinks are increased to achieve overall balance. For a netzero building, this needs to be done across the entire value chain and every single component making up the resulting development. 

The significant distinction in the carbon neutral vs net zero debate is that net zero considers a building’s total greenhouse gas emissions, while carbon neutral traditionally referred to operational emissions (in use).

In the UK, the Green Building Council (UKGBC) is worth to look at for further definitions on net zero scopes for buildings. See below from Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition

UKGBC netzero scopes

How does the carbon neutral vs net zero housing debate affect new house building?

House builders can double down on the energy crises by enforcing ambitious net zero strategies. This will require a transparent documentation process for the energy impact of the production of homes and the entire value chain that enabled its construction. 

There is movement in the sector, with Barratt initially outlining a ‘science-based’ strategy to achieve net zero by 2040 (more here). However, only a handful of builders have signed up to the United Nations benchmark for strategy, the Race to Zero campaign. 

A key challenge for home builders in controlling their emissions is that they cannot influence how homeowners will use their homes. The emissions a building generates often result from how eventual house buyers use their buildings over the building life span (read earlier notion of operational carbon neutrality). Building UK notes that “Barratt estimates the figure at 99%, while Countryside puts it at 98%.”

Due to the business model of selling homes, builders consider the effects of products as ‘scope 3’ emissions, even beyond their operational carbon neutrality of operations, and their wider supply chain. This leaves the door open for deferring responsibility away from achieving netzero new build properties. 

Unfortunately, house builders lack a comparable standard on how house builders should measure and document the Scope 3 emissions, which include projections of the environmental impacts of homes they sell. 

How does the carbon neutral vs net zero debate affect retrofitting?

Only 7% of developments in England were built in 2012 or after, some of which a small fraction will be ‘net zero’. The broad majority (93%) of older buildings will need to be looked at in the light of carbon neutrality, i.e. ensuring that the actual use of the building comes as close to energy balance as possible. 

In the retrofit arena, housing associations and local governments maintaining or building homes are key to decarbonising the built environment. According to UK government statistics, registered providers of social housing own 4.4 million homes across England

Housing associations are already taking action to reduce energy demand and CO2 emissions from homes, which saves residents money on their energy bills, helping them avoid living in fuel poverty. New rental property requirements enforce a minimum energy efficiency rating of “C”. 

The Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund is a crucial mechanism. Read more here: Understanding the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund.

Access to data per building can help devise decarbonisation strategies taking into account the various factors mentioned above. Such a view help residents in the neighbourhood understand and engage in the issue. 

As part of the Challenge North Tyne programme, PlaceChangers has been working towards net zero baseline. Find out more about the place analytics toolkit and register for a demo project here: PlaceChangers Site Insights free trail

place-based energy efficiency

Carbon neutral vs net zero housing debate: the impact on neighbourhoods

Carbon neutral vs net zero debate is multi-faceted and needs to be addressed with nuanced data, considering factors such as ownership, building age, materials / make, finance availability, and more. 

Undoubtably transparent and up-front citizen engagement is also needed for any initiatives to decarbonise the existing build environment, which accounts for buildings built before 2012, which represents 93% of all buildings in England.  

Going further than simply choosing an effective means to reduce emissions, netzero and carbon neutral objectives can positively impact local neighbourhoods. First and foremost, areas with a lower carbon footprint, producing less greenhouse gas emissions, are cleaner and less polluted—improving the health and well-being of community residents.

Better health leads to better social opportunities, including education and employment, which drives the economic value of a neighbourhood based on the assets of those who live there. Greater wealth. There are also lower cost bills, which means communities have more money to spend on lifestyle.

Our insights can power your projects

Here at PlaceChangers, our unique Site Insights tool generates the charts and analytics needed for your planning projects and analyses areas for energy efficiency of homes to develop intervention strategies. Get in touch with us today to discover how you can transform your projects through visual demonstrations.

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Set up powerful resident surveys to enable discussions around net zero initiatives with residents. 

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