How to define (net) zero greenhouse gas emissions buildings: The results of an international survey as part of IEA EBC annex 72

Daniel Satola, Maria Balouktsi, Thomas Lutzkendorf, Aoife Houlihan Wiberg, Arild Gustavsen

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The concept of (net) zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emission(s) buildings is gaining wide international attention and is considered to be the main pathway for achieving climate neutrality targets in the built environment. However, there is an increasing plethora of differing terms, definitions, and approaches emerging worldwide. To understand the current progress of the ongoing discussion, this study provides an overview of terms, definitions, and key features from a review of 35 building assessment approaches. The investigation identified that 13 voluntary frameworks from 11 countries are particularly characterised by net zero-carbon/GHG emissions performance targets, which are then subject to a more detailed analysis. The review was organised in the context of the project IEA EBC Annex 72 on “Assessing Life Cycle Related Environmental Impacts Caused by Buildings”, which involves researchers from over 25 countries worldwide. In the current dynamic political surroundings and ongoing scientific debate, only an initial overview of this topic can be presented. However, providing typologies and fostering transparency would be instrumental in delivering clarity, limiting misunderstanding, and avoiding potential greenwashing. To this end, this article categorises the most critical methodological options—i.e., system boundaries for both operational and embodied GHG emissions, the type of GHG emission factor for electricity use, the approach to the “time” aspect, and the possibilities of GHG emission compensation—into a comprehensive framework for clarifying or setting (net) zero GHG emission building definitions in a more systematic way. The article concludes that although variations in the existing approaches will continue to exist, certain minimum directions should be considered for the future development of harmonised (net) zero GHG emissions building frameworks. As a minimum, it is recommended to extend the usual scope of the operational energy use balance. At the same time, minimum requirements must also be set for embodied GHG emissions even if they are not considered in the carbon/GHG emissions balance.

Original languageEnglish
Article number107619
JournalBuilding and Environment
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Daniel Satola together with Arild Gustavsen gratefully acknowledge the support from the Research Council of Norway and several partners through the Research Centre on Zero Emission Neighbourhoods in Smart Cities (FME ZEN) .

Funding Information:
Maria Balouktsi and Thomas Lützkendorf would like to thank the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy ( Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie: BMWi ) and the Project Management Organisation Jülich ( Projektträger Jülich: PtJ ) for funding and supporting their contribution to this paper as part of the project 03ET1550A .

Funding Information:
Aoife Houlihan Wiberg gratefully acknowledges the support from The Belfast School of Architecture and the Built Environment at Ulster University , UK.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Buildings
  • Carbon performance
  • Climate-positive buildings
  • GHG
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Low-carbon buildings
  • Net zero
  • System boundaries


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