LEED Must Lead on Climate

The world urgently needs the building industry to tackle climate change, and LEED has to be part of that.

Contributed by these guest authors:

Greg Kats, Kevin Hydes, Anica Andreneau, Gunnar Hubbard, Vivian Loftness, Rob Watson, Mark MacCracken, Anthony Bernheim, Dan Burgoyne, Doug Farr, and David Gottfried

LEED, the great global green building design standard, has failed to adequately respond to climate change. The program—including both new construction and existing building rating systems—needs to reshape itself to take on the essential climate leadership role that its very name stands for.

LEED once transformed the market

We were deeply involved in shaping, guiding, and growing LEED as it emerged on the U.S. and world stage as a new way to think about, design, and judge building design and performance. LEED wove together a range of design and operational issues with different but related impacts, including health, climate, water, and equity.

And with traction and documentation came the data that allowed cost–benefit analysis to demonstrate that LEED costs were lower than widely perceived and the benefits greater. This in turn led to the mainstreaming of LEED from tens of LEED buildings to tens of thousands—and pushed thousands of manufacturers and suppliers to embrace more sustainable design.

LEED was created to drive transformative change—and this is measured in its impact.

But where is today’s transformation?

As it scaled, though, LEED began to measure itself based on market share, reflecting leadership from the consulting industry, where market share is a simple, measurable, and essential benchmark.

But a market-share focus had the perverse and pervasive logic of motivating weaker criteria to protect market share, and this contributed to LEED losing its way on climate. Going forward, LEED must be reshaped as originally intended—a reasonable effort (minimum 35% CO2e reduction) for new construction and major renovations to get certified, scaling more aggressively to Platinum as a stretch goal requiring net-zero carbon. The Platinum level for existing building projects should also reflect carbon neutrality.

That would still enable LEED to be accessible at entry level and greatly increase its climate impact at a time when this is our overwhelming and essential need.

Demand for zero is growing

LEED was established to address this question: how do we design and build such that our buildings do not damage the fragile ecosystems that enable life to flourish?

Overwhelmingly dominant among these life-systems issues is climate change—and this is where LEED is failing. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes brutally clear in its recent report on climate impacts, humanity is accelerating warming that is putting the lives and livelihoods of billions of people and a large percentage of species at extreme risk.

But today, a new construction or major renovation project can achieve LEED Platinum and have operational CO2 emissions less than 20% better than just meeting code. And despite the growing urgency of addressing embodied carbon, the rating system does not require reductions in this area: embodied life-cycle-impact reductions are optional. For existing buildings under LEED v4, the entry level is an Energy Star score of 75, reflecting above average—but far from exemplary—performance.

A LEED relaunch incorporating deep CO2e reductions would also respond to rapidly growing demand for carbon-neutral or -negative buildings and a rapid growth in very low or even zero-carbon building design standards like Passive House, the Living Building Challenge, and Australia’s GreenStar.

It’s time for sweeping change

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its stakeholders are undertaking a process of rethinking LEED, which is promising. Historically, LEED has been an essential market driver for change.

It can be again.

But LEED’s transformation must now be sweeping, not incremental; changes must be bold. LEED needs to incorporate climate-impact reduction as a major part of its core requirements and provide clear, transparent accounting on cumulative climate-change impact. Minimum climate performance at each level of LEED should be integral to the system, along with a clear pathway for declining climate impact of all LEED buildings in the next several years.

If LEED is not leading on climate, it is not leading.

Not optional

As individuals, we have dedicated a large part of our careers and lives to leading and supporting USGBC and LEED.

The timing of this piece is driven by the climate emergency and by our belief that a fundamental LEED reshaping around climate is not optional. A fundamental reset that reflects the terrifying climate realities conveyed in the recent IPCC impact report must radically reshape LEED to meet what may be the most urgent crisis in the course of human history

Published April 26, 2022

(2022, April 26). LEED Must Lead on Climate. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/leed-must-lead-climate

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May 2, 2022 - 3:46 pm

I really appreciate this post.  I think it is ok to share that when I was at the ILFI, running their Energy and Carbon programs 2012-2018, I actually was completely disappointed that LEED Zero was such a carbon offset-based dud.  I felt like if our legacy was to influence LEED to basically take Zero Energy and Zero Carbon and run with it, helping it scale, it would have been a good thing (I want to be clear here I am speaking for myself, not that ILFI would disagree).  

What would be powerful now would be for LEED, ILFI, CLF, The Climate Pledge, A2030, and other high road decarbonization entities to come together and launch a decisive standard to propel the market.  Frankly, in some sectors the importance of certifications as a market leader is just starting to wane (check out the new WA Commercial Energy code, now mandating heat pumps for primary heating, even in climate zone 5B, and becoming ubiquitous utility renewable power purchase options), but the next five years are SO critical.  

I am also concerned with the back to the future aspect of carbon offsets becoming a normative path for corporate decarbonization:  https://www.climateneutral.org/  A very well marketed org.  I recently interacted with a gentleman on LinkedIn whose business had the term "zero carbon" in it, and yet all they'd done is buy carbon offsets.  Yikes!  We have to accelerate clarity and brand integrity for zero carbon in the marketplace.  

I am heartened to see the new USGBC CEO, Peter Templeton, is keynoting Living Future.  

Let's go team!

May 2, 2022 - 6:23 pm

Thanks to all for underlining the urgent need/opportunity for LEED to lead again in very strong language. The part I would underline is the opportunity in Embodied Carbon, which is the cheapest, fastest way to reduce the climate impact of our buildings (RMI study says 27-46% reductions possible with less than %1 cost increase). This is also the way to send a clear signal to the building products industry that they must reduce the emissions from their business our lose our business.

May 2, 2022 - 6:41 pm

Energy sources, refrigerants, water & wastewater, materials, and transportation all have Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions related to the built environment that we help plan, build and maintain. Locations are unique with varying grids and transportation. Designers are largely ignorant of many of their projects' impacts. And LEED currently silos these impacts masking various parts' overall contributions. We can do better and raise the bar.

May 3, 2022 - 2:13 am

As we all know 1000s of builtings certified under LEED, worldwide, on monthly basis. However, this is done soley through documentation verification, with no on site visit verifications. How do we make sure all these projects acctually implement all the sustainable stratergies they have claimed to be implemented?? What's the point of raising the bar, if we cannot verify their implementation at the first place??

May 3, 2022 - 9:22 am

Couldn't agree more - bravo! Let's go USGBC.

May 3, 2022 - 1:14 pm

Important conversation on the future of our buildings and LEED. USGBC agrees. Climate change requires urgent action, and we are working to ensure LEED-certified projects are a key part of the solution at a global scale—first by mitigating greenhouse gases and second by making sure that buildings and communities are resilient to the impacts of climate change. View what we're doing here: USGBC Response: Help Create the Next LEED version | BuildingGreen

May 3, 2022 - 2:15 pm

I agree wiht the call to action. LEED changed at least our corner of the workd of design and construfciont, as well as industry, but has seemingly been content wiht non-transformational upgrades. Not only does this undermine continued relvancy, it feels like a catering to the status quo. 

Two things are paramount in my mind, my efforst, and what I see as the true potential for our shared future.

1) Embodied carbon, and a massive push for literacy throughout every single policy, law, marketing plan, R+D program, degree program, entrepreneurial innovation, and product we specify. Everthing...and not just in the building insdustry. When NYS has a CO2e reduction goal of 85% by 2050 for ALL SECTORS of the state, we need to take action - diffeerent action than what we are already doing.

2) A change in our process of design. This must happen in architecture and engineering if we are to multi-solve and use every single individual project to benefit communities and natural systems. This awareness of environment can no longer be set aside and we need to stop designing to 5' outside the walls of the project. I know LEED has credits for location. I know there is a benefit to mapping walking routes. I know landscape architecture is a valued aspect, and SITES is gaining traction...but the networked systems of community and of natural systems (soil, water, air, flora/fauna...) are not feeding our project designs. We are not acheving the fullest potential or even identifying the co-benefits (and co-burdens) to explore. We are missing too much information and the LEED system, even with integrative practice approaches, does not change the process enough to have us see or amplify the equity aspects, joy and beauty, community support, healing of Nature's systems, or the lifetime economic impacts of the choices in our designs.

May 4, 2022 - 2:25 pm

Thanks to all these authors for a timely and important, and hopefully effective, nudge to USGBC.  My extra bit is: Zero is a lousy, or anyway inadequate and boring, goal.  The latest IPCC report makes clear that we have to draw down carbon even while we reduce emissions.  So let's launch a competition:  who can store the most carbon in their product or building?  More than any other industry except, perhaps, agriculture, construction is poised to become a major absorber of carbon retrieved from the atmosphere and turned into durable building materials -- for better buildings!  And that's my simple point, friends:  Build Beyond Zero.  Pretty sure there's a book by that title now out . . .

May 5, 2022 - 8:27 am

If we are all aware of the climate imperative, we should also be activating drawdown approaches througout our lives and practices. Fair warning, I am a recent convert to a plant-based diet. I am not a rigorous vegan, in that I still use honey and likely occationally snag a possibly non-vegan cracker or forget to check if my bread is dairy-free.

Elimination of dairy and meat is HUGE. I never realized how important. Now with my knowing the degredation to water systems and soils, along with emmissions profiles from mega-farms and the harm to animals...I cannot go back.

If your firm occationally has lunches or celebrations, go plant-based. Think about where your coffee comes from. Encourage local beers when you do office events. Encourage work from home when it makes sense. Make sure the paperless approaches from the last 2 COVID years stick around. So very many things we can do to make this awareness real for everyone. 

Our solutions cannot just be in our building designs.

May 6, 2022 - 10:50 am

I completely agree.  the trade off approach of LEED lends to teams finding the easiest path to certification rather than the best path to protecting the environment.  And I agree about LEED needing to tackle embodied carbon and decarbonization.

May 13, 2022 - 1:35 pm

100% Agree. 

I can't help but note that many of the authors (and commentors) are former volunteers. Folks, it's time to re-engage. USGBC is us. There is new leadership, and willingness to listen.  There are many opprtunities to be involved.  So jump in.