In the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, the world of work has changed profoundly, with well-established ideas about the role and function of the office now altered forever. Fully understanding the paradigms of this new normal and the role of the office in the future may take many years but one clear priority is already emerging – the urgent need to achieve Net Zero by creating what is a net zero office.
Research by the World Green Building Council suggests that every building on the planet must be ‘Net Zero carbon’ by 2050 if we want to keep global warming below 2°C but what exactly is a Net Zero building and what does this mean for the future of the office?
“We need nothing short of a dramatic and ambitious transformation from a world of thousands of Net Zero buildings, to one of billions if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” Terri Wills, CEO of the World Green Building Council, comments. “Businesses, governments and NGOs hold the key to this transformation, but they must commit to aggressive action. It is possible to create a world in which every single building produces zero carbon emissions, but we must start today.”
For over a century, the key metrics related to office use were typically cost and productivity, with the company managing the building as a hub for employees to make the daily trek from their home to their desk and back. In recent years however, this model has changed dramatically, and energy use and wastage are now among the top priorities for many firms.
According to the US Department of Energy office buildings now account for 19 per cent of all commercial energy consumption and within this figure, around 70 per cent of office building energy consumption is electricity for lighting, heating, cooling, and office equipment.
“The first approach to identifying energy waste in a building would be to carry-out data analysis and surveys.” Rita Dimitri, senior consultant at real estate service provider JLL notes. “This provides a better understanding whether the building is operated as intended, eliminating excessive energy consumption.”
As awareness of the environmental impact from offices has grown so too has the need for a set of performance measurements that can quantify the true carbon footprint of every busines process. To tackle this, the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) protocol has developed as a global standard for accounting and reporting, designed to measure emissions related to operations. Under this protocol, measurements are split into three tiers:
- Scope 1 covering direct emissions from operations;
- Scope 2 for emissions attributed to direct suppliers; and
- Scope 3 covering emissions associated with the wider supply chain.
For a typical office, the total carbon footprint will be a mix of all three, for instance, emissions from onsite boilers would fall under Scope 1, emissions related to the production of the paper that fills the printer would be Scope 2, while emissions required to run the paper producer’s own business would be Scope 3.
The easiest place to begin the journey to Net Zero for many firms is by changing assets and processes directly in the office. This could mean replacing equipment – such as light bulbs, computers, vacuum cleaners, or printers – with more energy-efficient alternatives or changing employee behaviours to encourage energy savings – such as turning off computers at the end of the day or setting heating a few degrees lower.
For nearly all offices these two aspects must be developed hand in hand, with training to increase employees’ awareness of carbon impacts feeding into more sustainable purchasing decisions.
Dr Milena Buchs, Associate Professor in Sustainability, Economics and Low Carbon Transitions, at the University of Leeds, notes that “research has shown that [carbon literacy] can really help organisations to build new momentum and buy-in from staff to support carbon reduction. One of the main reasons why it works is that organisation-wide training can contribute to organisational culture change and create a shared purpose to collectively contribute to a greater common good, such as tackling climate change.”
Despite some easy wins, the scale of the challenge remains steep however with the UK’s Green Building Council (UKGBC) recommending that the offices sector must reduce energy demand by 60 per cent on average by 2050 if the country is to achieve Net Zero.