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The whats, whys and hows of net zero

Not so long ago, the concept of designing to net zero, whether energy, water, waste or carbon emissions, seemed beyond reach.

Then came the obvious weather extremes, many of which could be attributable to climate change. Now, the race is on to do something about it. In response, net zero has evolved from an abstract concept to encompassing strategies used by government and businesses to help tackle the causes of increasing climate-change risks.

But what is net zero? It can be many things including net zero energy, net zero water, net zero waste, etc. But, in this context, and probably the most holistic and metric that encompasses everything is net zero carbon. It is a state in which greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere are balanced by their removal from that same atmosphere.

This is the theory.

What’s missing is how businesses can implement, follow and achieve net zero emissions goals. Certainly, many companies are doing their best as they navigate these objectives and ideas. Many are embracing recycling strategies. They’re paying attention to power usage and are dedicated to installing smart electrical and HVAC systems. But a truly successful net zero emissions plan must go beyond placing a few recycling bins in the hallways and turning off the lights in empty rooms.

As an architecture, interior design and landscape architecture firm, our focus is on regeneration within our buildable projects. We understand that the impact of what we design is far greater than the impact of how we operate as a business. And yet, we also understand that for us to effectively counsel our clients to adopt low emissions strategies in our project together, we need to lead by example.

In response, Cuningham has shifted from sustainability to regenerative design. Rather than simply doing less harm, we seek to use design as a tool to restore the planet. Regeneration covers issues like eliminating tear-downs with facility and site re-use when possible. Regeneration also supports waste re-use, habitat and ecological preservation and a reduction of water use and fossil fuels. Net zero is a key part of this overall strategy.

But this focus doesn’t mean a whole lot if we, as a company, don’t walk the talk. We can’t ask our clients to enthusiastically embrace our mission of regeneration without examining the impact of our own behaviors on greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, we decided to do just that. We committed ourselves to net zero in our internal operations within five years, which we recently achieved. We committed ourselves to net zero in all of our projects by 2030. Then we got towork.

Here’s what we learned:

The big picture is essential

A successful net zero strategy requires a big-picture viewpoint, using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions categories as a framework.

Breaking this down further:

■ Scope 1 represents greenhouse gas emissions from activities under a company’s direct control, primarily from fossil fuels used in buildings and corporate vehicles. Many of our Cuningham offices are leased spaces where utility use is buried in the overall rent. In those cases, we estimate our share of utility use and translate that into equivalent greenhouse gas emissions to determine our Scope 1.

■ Scope 2 focuses on indirect emissions, primarily fossil fuels used to generate electricity at the power plant. Cuningham’s offices all use electricity for lighting, power, air conditioning, ventilation and heating. As described above, we estimate our share of electric utility use to determine our Scope 3 emissions.

■ Scope 3 is everything else not included with the above. For a design firm such as Cuningham, this consists primarily of transportation, office supplies, electronic equipment, food services and our many suppliers. Their Scope 1 emissions are our Scope 3 emissions. For our firm to reduce Scope 3 emissions, this meant cutting back on business trips and using video conferencing when possible (less air travel), reducing our use of rental cars and tapping more into ride-share services, and implementing work-from-home strategies to aid with commuter efficiencies.

Metrics are a must

Companies must keep track of greenhouse gasses to be sure they’re reducing them. There are several different greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels and from other industrial operations. Some of them are methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs). At Cuningham, as at most companies, we use metric tons of CO2 equivalents (CO2e) per year to keep track of our greenhouse gas emissions. This metric converts all greenhouse gases into an equivalent impact and totals them as if they were all CO2. We go further to track our Scopes 1 and 2, plus Scope 3 transportation, to determine our total CO2e emissions per employee and we update that every year.

Don’t leave it alone

Just designing a Net Zero framework isn’t enough — it requires ongoing monitoring to ensure goals are met (and if they’re not, what needs to change). Since beginning to track our Net Zero carbon initiative, our greenhouse gas emissions dropped from a high of 5.73 metric tons per employee per year to 2.21 metric tons per employee per year.

This was a 61 percent reduction. But it’s not enough — we want to do better. The 61 percent is something we’re building on.

But why do it?

Pursuing a net zero emissions carbon initiative requires systemic organizational change, time and patience and directed resources. True net zero achievement isn’t an easy task, but it’s worth it.

Certainly, a net zero strategy allows companies and individuals to do their part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But it also has practical business applications, too. It can build reputations, which aids in attracting and retaining employees and customers. It also has a direct and positive impact on the bottom line. A net zero strategy can help reduce the costs of waste and operations, while allowing a better hedge against fossil fuel volatility.

We only have one Earth and sustainability measures aren’t cutting it anymore — we must do more. We’re witnessing an increase in natural disasters that are generated by ongoing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s important to understand that reducing those emissions require strategic initiatives involved with a net zero focus.

Sukreet Singh is the director of energy analytics at Cuningham.

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