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Policy strategies to reach net-zero in the building sector

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building decarbonization

A new report released today by the Center for Global Sustainability (CGS) at the University of Maryland offers near-term policy opportunities to achieve long-term net-zero carbon and energy across the building sector. The report, Pathways to Building Sector Decarbonization: A Focus on Net-Zero Carbon Buildings, examines best practices in achieving decarbonization toward eventual net-zero emissions in buildings, which already account for 40% of global carbon emissions. Based on a broad analysis and a focus on existing successes in the State of California and City of Boston, the authors propose a set of key strategies to enhance ongoing action while introducing new and ambitious policy solutions to achieve net-zero in buildings. 

“Net-zero is an ambitious goal for the building sector, even with the growing trend towards high-ambition climate action,” says Dr. Sha Yu, CGS Associate Research Scholar and corresponding author for the report. “However, the policy strategies we have developed build on this momentum towards net-zero, opening doors for new innovation, lower emissions, and the opportunity to mobilize a diverse range of stakeholders.” 

Based on several effective and broad policy approaches—building energy codes and standards; monitoring, benchmarking, and disclosure; building electrification; net-zero buildings; building efficiency retrofits; and financial incentives—the report identifies best practices for transformational change. 

“For example, we have seen that a common policy approach such as building energy codes and standards may benefit from mandated net-zero codes for publicly owned buildings,” says Yu. “While for net-zero buildings, we find that preventively preparing the market for net-zero standards allows for jurisdictions to successfully implement mandatory building codes.”

The report takes a look at the broader set of policy tools used to achieve decarbonization but also explores what net-zero has to offer through a deep examination of California and Boston’s policies. 

“We find that no one policy fits the bill,” says John O’Neill, lead author for the report. “In fact, there are an array of policy options that can be leveraged and combined to meet the unique needs of each jurisdiction. Our report takes these options and outlines a pathway for any jurisdiction to take on actionable net-zero policies.” 

Key strategies to move toward net-zero include jurisdictions taking on net-zero performance standards in their own buildings before requiring the private sector, aligning with stakeholders to spread messaging and engage otherwise underrepresented communities, and importantly putting a focus on just transition—extending the benefits of decarbonized buildings to affordable housing and creating high-value jobs. 

Although the policy tools and strategies laid out in the report offer opportunities for widely applicable action for a diverse range of countries, cities, and counties, the authors warn that policies do not exist in a vacuum. 

“The world is seeing a major shift towards wide-spread, ambitious climate action both from national-level policies but also from cities, states, businesses, universities, and more,” says Prof. Nate Hultman, Director of CGS. “All of these actors can play some part in decarbonization through buildings, whether through setting policies at state or national levels, or through making improvements in their own facilities. As we continue to see actors from all levels of government, the private sector, and other actors ramp up ambition and focus on their own existing and planned building infrastructure, the strategies outlined in this paper will provide helpful guidance and insight into how to achieve net-zero buildings.” 

Download the full report to read all the policy tools and strategies outlined to achieve decarbonization and net-zero in your building sector. For a breakdown of the key policy opportunities, you can view the factsheet


About CGS: The Center for Global Sustainability (CGS) at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy uses a collaborative approach to deliver research, education, and engagement for policy impact. Through research, education, field leadership, and collaboration, CGS is helping drive the global engine of ambition critical to meet goals related to climate, development, and sustainability. CGS is based at the University of Maryland, the major research university in the Washington DC area and a land-grant, sea-grant, public research university. It is ranked in the top 15 U.S. public research universities with a $2.1 billion annual budget and combined $1.1 billion in annual research awards. The School of Public Policy focuses on blending governance at local, state, national and international levels, with roughly 80 faculty and 1600 graduate, undergraduate, and executive students.


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