Achieving Zero in the Built Environment

By Edward Mazria, Founder and CEO, Architecture 2030


(First published Sept 2016)  Without a dramatic change in the way built environments are designed, constructed, and operated, the world has no chance of adequately addressing climate change. Architecture 2030 has spent over ten years working with architects, designers and policymakers on programs and initiatives that will lead to zero emissions in the built environment by 2050.

Architecture 2030 received an invitation in March 2014 to attend meetings leading up to the December 2015 COP 21 Climate Conference in Paris. At these meetings, I presented a report entitled “Roadmap to Zero Emissions.” The report set out the country-specific international greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets needed to avert irreversible and devastating climate change. Architecture 2030 was one of the first to propose a zero emissions target.

Paris to World: An end to the fossil fuel era

At the COP 21 in Paris, Architecture 2030 and a group of colleagues presented a special daylong series of events titled “Buildings Day” [1] where we delivered the opening presentation. Later that week Architecture 2030 hosted a forum titled Zero Emissions by 2050. It looked at the specifics of how decarbonization could take place, and on December 12 2015, the world came together and reached a monumental climate change agreement. At the heart of the agreement is a “long-term goal”[2] to limit global average temperature increase to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.”


China Accord
Ed Mazria, Architecture 2030, and Chen Zhen, Secretary-General of the CEDAAB, sign the China Accord

To realize this goal, the scientific community estimates that the world must peak total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2020 and reach zero fossil fuel CO2 emissions by about mid-century.

COP 21 in Paris also provided an opportunity for Architecture 2030 to address the critical role that cities must play in reducing carbon emissions worldwide. Urban environments are responsible for over 70 percent of global energy consumption and GHG emissions, mostly from buildings. Over the next two decades, it is estimated that a staggering 900 billion square feet of building area will be newly built or rebuilt in cities worldwide to accommodate a projected 1.1 billion new urban inhabitants – a number equivalent to the current population of the entire western hemisphere.

These trends reveal an important opportunity to address the climate change crisis through the design of the urban built environment. In response, Architecture 2030 has initiated the following programs:

The China Accord

It is estimated that 53 percent of all global building construction [3] in the next fifteen years will occur in China and North America. Many US architecture and planning firms – including those also doing work in China – have already committed to meet aggressive targets for energy and carbon emissions reduction in their projects.In 2015, Architecture 2030 brought together many of these international architecture, engineering, and planning firms working in China, with China’s key Local Design Institutes (LDIs) to sign the China Accord [4] – a pledge to design cities, towns, urban developments, new buildings, and major renovations in China to low carbon/carbon neutral standards.

As a next step, these firms will collectively host a forum in October 2016 to develop professional training programs, adopt sustainable planning strategies, and expand the use of energy modeling software in the Chinese market.

Achieving Zero

Many cities are taking a leadership role in curbing GHG emissions – passing climate action plans and/or adopting reduction pledges of 80 percent by 2050, or even zero emissions by 2050. In 2015, Architecture 2030 undertook an overview of New York City’s energy use and emissions, and developed a plan to move the city’s building stock toward zero net carbon by 2050.

Achieving 80?50: Reducing Energy Use, Creating Jobs, and Phasing Out Carbon Emissions in New York City’s Buildings

The resulting report, Achieving 80 x 50: Transforming New York City’s Building Stock [5], became the foundation for Architecture 2030’s new initiative, Achieving Zero [6], which addresses both the opportunities and roadblocks that cities face in meeting their targets. At the core of Achieving Zero is a framework of effective policies for reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions for both new and existing buildings in urban areas. Additionally, a new online Zero Tool is launching soon, to allow owners and designers to benchmark their buildings against similar buildings by type, climate and use, as well as against established targets and building energy codes. Achieving Zero also promotes a more inclusive building performance definition, zero net carbon (ZNC) [7], which considers the procurement of renewable energy, an essential issue for buildings in dense urban areas with little potential for generating on-site renewable energy. To further advance the zero net carbon definition, Architecture 2030 has joined with the World Green Building Council as a lead partner [8] in developing common net zero certification pathways for green building councils (GBCs) worldwide. This work will help align GBCs in setting a high bar for building performance, one that will drive future adoption into building energy policy.

Education and Practice

In 2006, Architecture 2030 issued the 2030 Challenge [9], a set of incremental energy reduction targets for all new buildings, developments, and major renovations to be designed and planned carbon neutral by 2030. The Challenge was immediately adopted by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for its membership, and the AIA subsequently established the AIA 2030 Commitment [10] – a program to quantify and report the progress its members are making in their effort to meet the 2030 Challenge targets. Today over 350 AIA member firms [11] have made the Commitment – no small undertaking as it challenges them to rethink their approach to building performance across their entire portfolio. To help the firms design high-performance low carbon projects, AIA also developed the AIA 2030 Design Data Exchange (DDx) [12], a web tool where firms submit data, compare projects, and track their energy performance. Results from real-time performance-based design software such, as Autodesk’s Insight 360 [13], can now also be recorded into the DDx. And the 2030 Palette [14] – a free online platform of design and planning strategies for carbon neutral built environments – has been integrated into Climate Consultant and soon, into other design tools.

And finally, the AIA+2030 Professional Series [15], a professional education program developed as a partnership between Architecture 2030 and AIA Seattle, has been presented in 26 markets across North America, including a partner program in Canada. Due to the success of the Series, Architecture 2030 and AIA are co-producing the complementary AIA+2030 Online Series [16], which will reach an even more diverse audience of design professionals worldwide.

Embodied Carbon

Zero-NetBefore a new building begins generating emissions from its operations, it is already responsible for a large portion of GHG emissions. For ZNC buildings, embodied emissions will be an even larger concern. So as new buildings move to ZNC, we must begin to focus on dramatically reducing their embodied emissions. At the BuildWell conference in 2016, Architecture 2030 called for a carbon-free (embodied and operational emissions) built environment by 2050. In order to meet this goal. Architecture 2030 is working with the Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF) [17] and others to establish the Embodied Carbon Network (ECN), and with global stakeholders to define whole-building embodied carbon baselines that can be used to make comparisons and develop emissions reduction strategies. The newly formed ECN plans to publish these baselines in September 2016, to be followed by the development and publication of a whole-building Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) guide aimed at standardizing the collection and reporting of whole-building embodied carbon data.


2030 Districts

As an Architecture 2030 initiative, 2030 Districts [18] continue to dramatically expand their membership. 2030 Districts are led by the private sector, with local building industry leaders uniting around a shared vision for sustainability and economic growth – while aligning with local community groups and government to achieve significant energy, water, and emissions reductions within their commercial cores. There are now thirteen 2030 Districts in North America, including the cities of Seattle, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Cleveland, Dallas, Ithaca, Stamford, Los Angeles, Toronto, Albuquerque, San Antonio, Grand Rapids, and Denver. The 2030 Districts Network [19] brings Districts together to support peer exchange, store and share data, use the purchasing power of the District membership to secure reduced costs, create national partnership relationships, and influence national policy on transportation infrastructure and building water and energy efficiency.

In Closing

The U.S. building sector has made great progress since the 2030 Challenge was issued in 2006, keeping total U.S. energy consumption from rising, even as we continue to add billions of square feet to our building stock each year. Since 2006, building sector GHG emissions has dropped about 11.5 percent. While this is good news, the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s projections [20] for building sector energy consumption into the foreseeable future – to 2040 – is flat, where we need it go down. This means there is much work to do to reach zero building sector CO2 emissions by 2050, and Architecture 2030 intends to continue to play a leadership role.


About Architecture 2030:  Architecture 2030 is a non-profit organization established in 2002. Architecture 2030’s mission is to rapidly transform the built environment from the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a central part of the solution to the climate and energy crisis.

About the Author:  Edward Mazria is an internationally recognized architect, author, researcher, and educator. Over the past decade, his seminal research into the sustainability, resilience, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions of the built environment has redefined the role of architecture, planning, design, and building in reshaping our world. He is the founder and CEO of Architecture 2030 (, a think tank developing real-world solutions for 21st century problems, and host of the AIA+2030 ( Professional Education Series, 2030 Palette (, China Accord (, and the 2030 Districts ( movement in North American cities.

Mr. Mazria’s Awards include:  American Institute of Architects (AIA) Design Awards, American Planning Association Award, U.S. Department of Energy Awards, American Solar Energy Society Pioneer Award, Equinox Award, NWF National Conservation Achievement Award, Mumford Award from Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, Inaugural 2009 Hanley Award, Distinguished Career Award from Pratt Institute,Zia Award from the University of New Mexico, The Purpose Prize Game Changers Award from Metropolis Magazine, AIA Kemper Award, World Green Building Council Chairman’s Award, 2016 PLEA Award.

He is a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council, Fellow of the AIA, Honorary Fellow of the RAIC, and received an Honorary Doctor of Architecture degree from Illinois Institute of Technology.

Article Footnotes:





















Energy & Climate, Featured Articles, Sustainable Business

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Signup to receive GreenMoney's monthly eJournal

Privacy Policy
Copyright © GreenMoney Journal 2021

Global Events Calendar

View All Events


13sepAll Day16Net Zero Conference NZ21 - virtual and in LA

14sepAll Day16The Economist’s Climate Risk Europe Week - virtual

21sepAll Day24The Great Repricing Conference: Financial Advice in the Age of Climate Change – virtual

Send this to a friend