Contributed by these guest authors:
Greg Kats, Kevin Hydes, Anica Landreneau, 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 stages 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.
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.
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