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NetZero | The Holy Grail

Written by Don Sandford
NetZero | The Holy Grail

Something that is eagerly pursued or sought after.

The definition of Net Zero is confusing and subject to greenwashing concerns as one of the latest marketing buzz words. Net Zero, is in our view, attached to circularity.

It covers a ‘lust to dust’ perspective on the journey that input and output products travel as part of their product lifecycle with the long term goal being carbon neutrality.

Some home builders have taken a much more pragmatic look at a more limited definition of Net Zero. For them, it is producing the same amount of renewable energy as consumed in a home based on the actual conventional energy performance of the home and the need for electric vehicle charging. Can you imagine achieving the economic sustainable goal of eliminating an escalating monthly energy utility bill? We can! We believe that it is important to follow the money and solve real problems for home purchasers like giving them more disposable income to spend on the things they like.

NetZero is so much more

But if you did dig deeper, Net Zero is much more. McKinsey defines Net Zero as “an ideal state where the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) released into the earth’s atmosphere is balanced by the amount of GHGs removed.” Decarbonization efforts are needed to reach net zero. This is a game changer.

We are talking about the daunting task of measuring and neutralizing the carbon footprints of all inputs and outputs through the entire circularity journey. According to McKinsey, a net-zero gain of GHG in the atmosphere is achieved when the level of GHG emissions released into the atmosphere is equal to the amount removed. This is also referred to as carbon neutrality.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a gas found in the Earth’s atmosphere—and it’s part of the planet’s air, along with nitrogen, oxygen, methane, and other gases. CO2 helps to trap heat, but too much of it can cause problems, such as heat waves or flooding. It occurs both naturally and as a by-product of human activities such as burning fossil fuels. All industries are focused on achieving Net Zero to avoid a permanently warmer planet. So we are now confronted with not just producing renewable energy matched with consumption but getting to a carbon neutral destination across an entire lifecycle logistics channel. This is a long term pursuit.

What is decarbonation

So, what exactly is decarbonization? McKinsey’s Sustainability Practice defines decarbonization “as the mitigation, cessation, or reduction of carbon in the atmosphere.” It is achieved by switching to energy sources or materials that emit less carbon, often from high carbon-emitting fossil fuels and by counteracting any carbon that is emitted. Keeping global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels by limiting the buildup of atmospheric GHGs will be necessary to prevent permanent warming of the planet and catastrophic consequences. Those efforts are referred to as decarbonization. Many companies, countries, and organizations have pledged to decarbonize, or to make the net-zero transition, in the coming years. The power, oil and gas, building, and transport industries are frequently cited as the biggest emitters, but all industries need to work toward decarbonization to achieve true net zero.

Getting to net zero is most significant at the global level, given the universal nature of the transition. Seven major energy and land-use systems (power, industry, mobility, buildings, agriculture, forestry, and waste) contribute to emissions, and all of them will need to undergo transformation, especially considering the interdependency of these systems. But people and organizations can set their own net-zero aspirations. Actions that can help include choosing low-carbon-emitting alternatives, such as solar and wind power, instead of fossil fuels, and counteracting any new emissions through active carbon removal. Circularity can also be a significant lever for decarbonization. For instance, in steel production, increasing the share of recycled steel—which emits less carbon dioxide than creating new steel—is an important pathway to reducing emissions. It’s not feasible to reduce carbon emissions to zero, so widely employing effective carbon removal and long-term storage will be necessary to halt the progression of global warming.

Being of the offense

To keep up, businesses must be bold. Instead of playing defense, as organizations have largely done until now, industry thought leaders such as Enclave must offer a philosophy and strategy that meets the growing demand for climate-friendly goods and services. A growing number of Generation X, Y and Z customers are demanding it as part of an emerging ecojustice belief system.

On a practical level for home construction the decarbonizing of buildings and the real estate sector will involve improving energy efficiency (for instance, by using different insulation and panels) and replacing heating and cooking equipment powered by fossil fuels with low-emissions systems.

More holistically speaking, homes of the future will benefit from the following three (3) major advances in technologies and forward-thinking strategies. Building envelopes will become highly efficient and provide a lower baseline for achieving sustainability goals. Secondly, energy systems known in the industry as HRV (Heat Recovery and Ventilation) systems will become highly efficient and dramatically improve indoor air quality design. An air-tight net zero house uses Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERV) or Heat Recovery Ventilators (HRV) to supply fresh air without wasting energy. An HRV/ERV acts as the lungs of the home, circulating fresh air in and the bad air out. Thirdly, renewable energy microgeneration will become common place as homeowners move to reduce or eliminate utility and EV charging costs.

The journey to circularity will be impacted by the use of locally available recycled materials in new home construction (e.g. steel, wood, insulation, plastics). The balkanisation of sourcing will reduce carbon footprints related to the transportation distance of goods. Globally sourced and locally adapted innovation will also improve sustainability and circularity. Realistically setting targets and accurately measuring progress towards Net Zero is complex given the number of parts, pieces, and systems required to build a home. So, there is lots to consider in the journey to Net Zero and its definition and measurement.

So what is NetZero

Is Net Zero circularity’s younger sibling? Is it a very sophisticated balancing of carbon neutrality? Is it the financial basecamp where utility bills begin to disappear through micro generation of renewable energy? Is it the first step to getting off the grid towards a more independent future?

To further complicate the issue passive homes are different than Net Zero homes in terms of how they achieve superior performance. According to Reid Madiuk, of Coastessential, the main difference is that passive and net zero projects use different strategies to obtain their targets. Passive houses must adhere to strict regulations for insulation, airtightness, and passive solar energy usage to lower the building’s energy requirements. As a result, achieving net zero in these houses requires little solar energy. The passive house design principles also instruct contractors on controlling the amount of heating, cooling, and airtightness in the structure.