June 20, 2024 | Alex Dews, Marshall Duer-Balkind

On June 6 the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) rolled out the National Definition of a Zero Emissions Building after gathering extensive stakeholder feedback, and the team at IMT is glad to see the input we provided reflected in the definition. If you are a building decarbonization advocate, having this clear, concise, and actionable definition is cause for celebration. We applaud the work of the federal team that developed this definition, including IMT’s own Lindsey Falasca, who is on detail at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) as the Director for Net Zero Federal Buildings.

“A building that achieves zero operational emissions from energy use must be: (1) energy efficient,
(2) free of on-site emissions from energy use, and (3) powered solely from clean energy.”

The definition gets a lot of things right. In particular, it:

  • prioritizes energy efficiency, 
  • applies to all buildings, 
  • focuses on decarbonizing all building energy use, regardless of who pays for it. 

That last part is essential for aligning the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that owners and tenants track and report with the emissions that governments measure, and are increasingly regulating. The definition also helpfully excludes the use of carbon offsets or biofuels. The whole building focus and exclusion of offsets keeps the definition clear and simple, without the muddying of the water that comes with talk of “net” emissions or “scopes.”

Commitments to net zero emissions for owned and leased spaces are common, but their value and impact is limited by the lack of consistency in what that means and how it can be measured. This definition will solve that challenge by being integrated into above-code certifications, financing requirements, and leasing standards.

The most significant addition to the definition is that it now more clearly applies to all building types, by including methods for evaluating energy efficiency that either specifically apply to single-family homes (the ENERGY STAR Residential New Construction program and the DOE Zero Energy Ready Home program) and/or have metrics specific to this sector (the ENERGY STAR Score and ASHRAE 100). The addition of ASHRAE 100 as an additional efficiency standard for existing buildings also aligns the definition more closely with the BPS approaches used in Washington State and Oregon.

How the industry will use the zero emissions definition

Eight green building certification programs have already committed to embedding or aligning with the definition. The timing is also important, as program administrators prepare to deploy $20 billion in capital for building improvements under EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. As for leasing, Studies by JLL show that demand for net-zero office space already outstrips supply in the U.S. by a factor of 10. With a net zero building standard in place, commercial tenants can now clearly define expectations, and landlords be assured that capital investments they make are aligned with market demands. 

The federal government is setting a good example and has already committed to using this definition for leasing net zero buildings, which will be part of the federal leasing standard as of 2030. Decarbonizing the federal portfolio is a big deal: they are the largest owner/operator and tenant of office space in the U.S., at more than 350,000 buildings and 3 billion square feet of space. Beyond the federal government’s own portfolio, the definition is not binding–and could not be, under current law. Thus, integration and market uptake will ultimately dictate its impact.

This is a very important first step, but the work on this definition is not done: the published definition is only “part 1,” focused on addressing operational emissions. “Part two” of the definition, which is yet to be developed, will address the embodied carbon emissions (related to the construction and renovation of buildings) and refrigerant emissions (related to HVAC equipment). We agree that these elements need to be part of comprehensive definition, and that work underway on both issues can be effectively aligned and integrated. In addition, we see an opportunity for the definition to incorporate grid-interactivity sooner rather than later, as eliminating onsite emissions in buildings and the power sector’s transition away from fossil fuels will require active load shifting and demand management from buildings.

A good foundation

The creation of clear and universal definitions like the Zero Emissions Building definition is a critical element of market transformation—ensuring that landlords and tenants, buyers and sellers, lenders and borrowers, and private actors and government all are speaking the same language and working on a level playing field. 

Congratulations to DOE on this milestone, and many thanks to all the people who contributed comments making this standard what it is today. We are excited for the critical foundation that we expect this new definition will have in moving us toward a future of high-performing, zero carbon places for all of us to live, work, and learn.

If you have questions or want to talk about how your organization can use this definition, just reach out to IMT!

Program Area(s):


Meet the Authors

Chief Executive Officer
Director of Policy Programs

Want to get regular updates from IMT?