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LEED Must Be Updated To Address Climate Change

If LEED does not incorporate deep CO2 reductions as a requirement, it will fail its most important test of leadership
Greg Kats
October 26, 2017

Greg Kats

Greg Kats

Over the last 20 years LEED has become the dominant U.S. green building design standard and is the most widely accepted and influential green building standard globally. This is an extraordinary achievement and has made for healthier, more productive and greener homes, workplaces, schools, hospitals and public spaces for tens of millions of families, students and workers.

But success and scale breed inertia and constrain flexibility. LEED has not kept up with the accelerating urgency of climate change or the availability of low and no cost ways to deeply cut carbon, particularly from very steep declines in the cost of solar and wind that make these now the lowest cost electricity source in many states. The rapid growth in ability to buy onsite and offsite wind and solar under a power purchase agreement (PPA) structure enables 3rd party financing with a 10-25 year commitment, allowing LEED building owners to buy carbon-free power at a fixed price at or below conventional utility rates. These onsite and offsite wind and solar options are available for most LEED buildings and can allow most LEED buildings to go to 100% zero carbon power at low or no cost, and in many cases can reduce the future cost of electricity.  See these slides for perspective on this.

In a world of accelerating climate change and fossil-fuel-funded denial, LEED has failed to maintain a carbon leadership role. LEED v4, as the current version of LEED launched in 2013, was not stringent enough for 2007—let alone for 2017. Many buildings receiving LEED Silver, Gold and even Platinum ratings deliver an anemic 15% or 20% lower energy use and CO2.  Science dictates that serious green building standards today must deliver large reductions in CO2, and LEED must step up to this.

The moral dimension of climate change responsibility also has its deniers. Some argue that responsibility for global warming can be left to future generations who will experience the largest costs of climate change but may have more money or technologies to manage or mitigate climate change. The moral or ethical aspects of when we take on responsibility for our own contamination of the earth has been spoken to directly by leading moral figures, including the Pope. At the end of 2016, Pope Francis stated, “Every year the problems are getting worse. We are at the limits. If I may use a strong word I would say that we are at the limits of suicide.”

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A LEED building that cuts CO2 and/or energy consumption by 15% or 20% is not a material step toward decarbonization. Buildings represent over 40% of energy use and about half of the emissions changing our climate. Buildings are central to any realistic rapid transition to a low carbon economy. And LEED—as the standard bearer for high performance buildings—must be central to this transition. LEED must be a leader on climate change.

To do so LEED should immediately be revised to require deep minimum carbon reductions for each level of LEED certification, both for new LEED buildings and for LEED rating renewals.

For many or most LEED buildings, a combination of energy efficiency, onsite renewable energy (primarily solar PV) and direct long term purchase of renewable energy can cost effectively deliver 100% reduction of CO2from building energy use.

Energy efficiency technologies such as LED lights and ground-source heat pumps, solar PV, wind and batteries have over the last decade experienced deep and sustained cost reductions, making zero net carbon buildings increasingly viable. Onsite energy efficiency and renewable energy combined with power purchase agreement contracts to buy carbon-free electricity under long-term fixed-price contracts makes net-zero-carbon building operations the lowest cost option in a growing number of cities and states.
Deep cost reductions in energy efficiency and renewable energy have also made more aggressive green building standards like net-zero-energy buildings and the Living Building Challenge increasingly viable. But these newer standards effect less than one tenth of 1% of buildings, so lack the scale to rapidly drive deep carbon reductions in buildings necessary to limit the worst effects of global warming. LEED can and must step up.

If LEED fails to incorporate deep CO2 reductions as a requirement at different levels of LEED (eg minimum 50% CO2 reduction from energy use for silver, 100% CO2 reduction for platinum) it will become increasingly irrelevant. Worse, by enabling buildings that are only marginally better on CO2 to claim a green mantle, LEED could impede the rapid deep decarbonization we must achieve if we are to heed scientific consensus and the Pope’s moral call to pull back from “the limits of suicide.”

Stepping up to this role is both a moral necessity and an opportunity for LEED to reinvigorate its green leadership and to fulfill its potential to be truly transformative. This must happen now, and USGBC must lead on this.

LEEDuser welcomes your comments on this guest post by Greg Kats.

Greg has played substantial roles in developing the clean energy and green building industries, and is a long-time thought leader and investor in the transition to a low carbon economy. He is Managing Director at ARENA Investments LLC,  a clean energy impact investment firm, and President of Capital E, which works with cities, corporations and financial institutions to design, scale and implement clean energy and low carbon strategies. Greg’s work on LEED includes serving on its steering committee for the first 6 years (where he led the effort to establish minimum energy performance and then led the push to reweight LEED around climate change), chairing the LEED Energy and Atmosphere technical advisory group for its first 5 years, and serving as the founding chair of the national USGBC chapter.

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April 20, 2018 - 4:06 pm

Corporate and institutional direct purchase of clean power continues to accelerate, enabling very deep and cost effective reductions of building and corporate global warming impact: See RMIs accounting

Intuit, with 2.8 million users, just developed and launched an effort to enable its customers, its employees and its business partners to buy fractional ownership in new wind generating projects, allowing deep and cost-effective carbon reductions. The Intuit VP who set this up commented that "It wasn't that hard, it really wasn't.”

This movement illustrates the reality that the declining cost of renewable energy and energy efficiency means that LEED buildings can get to zero net carbon at low or zero cost or – in some cases – while saving money. And it shows that LEED should no longer rely on much derided RECs for LEED buildings to achieve these reductions.

For most cites and companies, buildings are the single largest part of their CO2 footprint. Today there is no broadly adopted rigorous green design standard that is aggressive on climate change and that cities, corporations and other entities can use to drive deep CO2 reductions in their buildings. The obvious choice is LEED. There is now no good financial or market reason for LEED to not step up in V 4.1 to LEEding on climate change. And there is world of reasons for LEED to now step up to LEEDing on climate change.

December 31, 2017 - 6:17 am

Great discussion all! 

This issue has been identified by many Green Building Councils, who are taking action. The Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) released a new voluntary rating system in May 2017 which is only focused on carbon - the Zero Carbon Building Standard. This system requires net-zero operating carbon and at least some on-site renewable energy generation. It also includes a requirement for projects to calculate and report their embodied carbon. 

The World Green Building Council is currently putting together recommendations and tools to help other GBCs create similar systems for their regions - through their project, Advancing Net Zero

Lots of action happening, but is LEED keeping up?

November 18, 2017 - 11:42 pm

Greg, thank you, thank you, thank you, for saying boldly what must be said to all, all the time, over and over again.  It is so easy to think and do incremental change, which was ok 30 years ago.  But we have lost all that time (I wrote the 250 page Global Warming Prevention Act in 1989, which was cosponsored by one-third of the U.S. House of Representatives, and continuous end-use efficiency gains was the core of the bill).  I now listen to climate scientist Kevin Anderson [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-T22A7mvJoc ]and earth scientist Johann Rockstrom [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9ETiSaxyfk ] , who both are giving the critical talks of why transformational change is now imperative.

November 7, 2017 - 2:36 pm

There's been plenty said on this thread, but to reinfornce and take a different angle on Greg's original point... 

We are reaching diminishing returns on new construction projects in terms of energy efficiency. Codes are pushing EUIs down below 40 and moving towards 30 on many different building types. Squeezing renewables on a roof or a parking lot is easy for projects with big roofs and parking lots, but don't add much to dense, urban projects. I talk about some of this here.

At the same time, many states have created the opportunity for buildings to take their solar offsite. Not through RECs, (which should be removed from LEED entirely!), but through local grid capacity additions via mechanisms such as Remote Net Metering, Community Solar Gardens, and Community Choice Aggregation. That means, that all projects in these states, new or existing, should start with the goal of procuring 100% of their energy, including transportation, from renewables, and moving as much of their load to electricity. The energy section of LEED should then just become going electric, getting to 100% RE, doing monitoring based Cx and demand response (how about a load factor management credit in EBOM??) and, of course refrigerants selection and management. 

When buildings start electrifying, and going for 100% RE, utilities will need to add storage and manage the additional renewable load on the grid, and likely adjust rates to make them TOU based and incentiving storage (hopefully from EVs), and the demand response credit can evolve to be about using storage, clipping peak demand, and managing load factor (as the recent credit interpretation allows).  

In other words, we need to recognize the opportunity for 100% RE, NZ Carbon, or NZE (whatever we want to call it) on ALL projects, and then work to create the policy and utility mechanisms to enable it, and then push that goal through to building codes, and include existing buildings.

USGBC could help by emphasizing this goal in LEED, aligning with Architecture 2030 (which has the same NZC metric), and helping to create resources to show users where and how to do all this (a better use of resources than, say, Arc).

Looking forward to seeing everyone in Boston.


November 2, 2017 - 9:10 am

The confab Brendan is organizing for Thursday evening 8-10 at Greenbuild is well timed

The UN Environment Program's yearly "emissions gap" report, just released, warns us that current pledges make up only one-third of reductions needed to keep warming below 2 degrees C. Buildings must deliver a large part of those deep reductions.

Similalry, Pope Francis last year warned  that "there is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emissions of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gasses can be drastically reduced." Current LEED CO2 requirements do not meet the Pope’s call or address the UN emissions gap. But LEED has been able to change before and now must do so again.



November 1, 2017 - 12:54 pm

We're convening an informal chance to talk about these issues at the BuildingGreen/LEEDuser booth at Greenbuild, #932 at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday the 9th. Greg will be there, and I hope to see many of you there as well!

October 31, 2017 - 7:57 pm

I'll be there, too.  Just let us know . . .

October 31, 2017 - 7:53 pm

So long as I can still make my dinner date, I'll join that heated debate. Text me.

October 31, 2017 - 7:50 pm

Sandy, you hit the nail on the head!

October 31, 2017 - 7:48 pm

Greg, thank you for lending your highly articulate voice to this issue! I've been exceedingly disappointed in USGBC's failure to address this; ever since Rick Fedrizzi's announcement at GB in Denver (2006) that LEED would be addressing carbon, I've been waiting. Still waiting, more than a decade later, and I believe LEED has already become irrelevant as a result. USGBC has become increasingly corporate and non-responsive to rank-and-file concerns. I'll be at Greenbuild this year, but in many ways against my better judgment. It's to see all those of you who are continuing to do the REAL work of moving forward with the critical issues, NOT because I see USGBC delivering a lot of value. Sad to say ... 

October 31, 2017 - 3:40 pm

As an early adopter and long time advocate of LEED I've always felt that it left true energy efficiency on the table. I've long been a proponent of Envelope First design and have come to embrace the Passive House approach and standards as the simplest (not easiest) path to Net Zero Energy and Carbon. Both the US or International standard have the same basic elemets, but the keys to success are the rigor of testing or commissioning the envelope to acheive airtightness, thoughtful detailing to eliminate thermal bridges, high performance windows and doors that contribute to the energy balance, and energy recovey ventilation. Even getting close will get you close to being able to rach NZE with on site renewable. Passive House can form the basis of a LEED, Living Building Challenge, Well or any other high performance goal, as the core of Passive House is human comfort. 

I wish I could join you next wek in Boston, but would like to be part of this ongoing discussion.

October 31, 2017 - 10:24 am


Great idea! - you are on

Let us know when and where and we will be there 

October 31, 2017 - 9:49 am

Analyses presented here are very accurate and thoughtfully argued. So then I'll chip in with resulting action. 

This is by no means all it takes but it's an actual step we can take, which hopefully can catalyze larger change.

We could put together a pilot credit for deep (life-cycle) decarbonisation in LEED, while keeping it at a percentage which still is possible to hit for a thoughtfully designed project. There are such credits in other more demanding green building certification systems. This would provide incentive to do better for those who a credit will motivate.

Anyone interested in this I'm happy to set up a meeting in Boston on Tuesday pm or Friday sometime next week; or have a chat at our booth at Greenbuild #1155.

October 31, 2017 - 9:42 am

There’s so much here to dig in to. I’d love to spend a few hours coming up with something thoughtful to contribute to the discussion but Greenbuild is barreling down on us like a freight train and I have yet to finish developing any of the slides or words I’m on the hook for this year – I’m generally about this far behind at this point in the week but Boston this year is an unusually busy Greenbuild for me and I’m feeling the pressure.

So, rather than try to blog it out with you further like this is a Game of Thrones fan site, I suggest we use at least some of the time we’ll have together in Boston to bash heads. 

I’m going to assemble a team of smart people. 

Greg – if you do the same I suggest that we meet Thursday after President Clinton speaks to debate green building like we did back in 2004 – loudly, irreverently, passionately and - most importantly – in a bar.

You down for this Greg?

October 31, 2017 - 9:35 am

Great discussion on LEED and the biggest threat/challenge of our lifetime: climate change and how we stay under 2 degrees C.

Raising minimum CO2 reductions would have both positive and negative consequences.

On the negative side, buildings owners that want a green label but want to make limited effort to get the label might drop out, so that would tend to reduce ft2 under LEED. (Though, it is worth noting that when we added minimum energy performance to LEED there was concern this would reduce growth in LEED. No such slowdown occurred.)

On the plus side raising the minimum would make the LEED brand and green cachet more valuable and motivate more organizations to seek or require a LEED rating.

This concern of volume versus depth can be addressed by increasing the spread between Certified and Platinum buildings. If certified LEED minimum CO2 reduction was set at say 20% or 25%, this would be low enough to have limited adverse impact on LEED adoption rates (as Brendan notes, most LEED buildings substantially exceed this already, and Z comments that AIA 2030 Commitment reporting achieving a portfolio-wide average energy use reduction of 42%).

Raising CO2 reduction minimums for higher levels of LEED—say 50% minimum for Silver, 75% for Gold and 100% for Platinum would create a large spread in performance and a large difference in brand value between the levels of LEED, driving more ambitious users to achieve far deeper CO2 reductions. It would also accelerate innovation around purchasing of renewable energy through PPA and similar contracting approaches increasingly being deployed by corporations. See attached slides (USGBC might facilitate such clean power contracting for its members.)

A key issue in this debate is LEED’s impact on long-term cost curves of deep green technologies and services. Unlike shallow green buildings, deep green buildings deploy new approaches and technologies, in turn driving down cost. As market demand for high-performance technologies such as electrochromic windows, phase change materials, addressable LED ballasts and extremely high albedo surfaces double it has a large cost reduction impact, in turn increasing market demand and further reducing price. As volume of solar PV doubles, for example, cost drops by 15+%. See attached slides.  

When we designed LEED it had no market share, so changes in LEED then had limited impact on the rate of technology adoption. The ability to accelerate CO2 reductions by bending the cost/volume curve for advanced green products and services may be LEED’s most important and largest lever. LEED has helped drive these cost reductions. Establishing much higher minimum CO2 reductions would better harness this latent LEED power toward to solving the largest challenge we face as a species. And as Kevin notes, because what USGBC does with LEED has broad international impact, higher U.S. LEED CO2 minimums would likely have large CO2 reduction benefits outside the U.S. in what are increasingly global product and service markets.

As Marcus notes, LEED has to keep evolving—and as Mark puts it, we should “transform LEED into a tool that dramatically reduces energy-related GHG emissions in buildings.” LEED should also place far greater weight on embedded CO2, which as Nadav notes can dominate total CO2 for very efficient building buildings.

Having a substantial CO2 minimum would help drive the kind of integrated solution LEED was designed to encourage where, for example, dynamic management of natural lighting, integrated solar shading and advanced controls make for both lower CO2 and a more responsive and flexible workspace. A LEED Platinum level with minimum zero net CO2 from operations would move LEED into the regenerative design space (see Bill Reed’s attached slide), addressing the critique that LEED buildings just do less harm.

One of LEED’s great strengths is that it has attracted passionate motivated leaders, including millennials (see attached slides), many of who no longer view LEED as motivating/ leading on climate change. Having high minimum CO2 reductions for advanced levels of LEED would renew that passion.

October 31, 2017 - 9:28 am

I feel compelled to add another comment specifically in response to Brendan and Scot’s comments.  First, thank you both for all that you do and have done in support of LEED and your commitment to addressing the change we all seek.  I also want to validate the efficacy of USGBC and LEED in their catalytic roles in the past.  However, stepping away from the trees to see the forest, it is clear to me that USGBC, as an organization, and LEED, as a tool, are simply artifacts of the real catalytic phenomenon. 

What cannot be ignored is that the engine driving all of the change that we’ve collectively experienced in this industry is not USGBC or LEED.  It is, rather, the transformation of people.  It was the sometimes subtle, often radical epiphanies experienced by each of us and many thousands of others who woke up to the frightening realities and joyous opportunities of life on earth and to see themselves as part of a larger whole.  It was the infusion of profound meaning into workaday lives of tired architects, engineers, developers, product manufacturers, builders, etc.  It was Ray Anderson’s “spear in the chest.”  USGBC was built on that transformation and LEED was a product of it.    

As wimpy and imperfect as the first iteration of LEED seems today, it galvanized the small but growing community of “wakers” into action.  USGBC became an accidental nexus for connecting that growing community, and the ensuing network effect not only galvanized a sea change in what seemed an immovable and intractable industry, it shifted mainstream culture.  As Meg Wheatley has so simply put it, “The world doesn’t change one person at a time.  It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.”

LEED, which is an acronym, worked because of its “L.”  It was an expression of true Leadership that resonated within that network.  The ensuing culture change was not due to incremental shifts in the performance of buildings.  It was a product of that Leadership and the irresistible excitement of the vision that it embodied.  It was the exemplars (both buildings and people) that shouted, “Look, you actually can do this,” and the innovation and experimentation that those exemplars inspired.  You can directly trace the lineage of the sustainability efforts of whole cities back to through the people who were inspired by them.   

You may all debate this, but somewhere along the way, USGBC lost its way.  It became a business focused on catering to a market instead of a network responding to emergence and manifesting Leadership.  As Greg pointed out at the beginning of his post, “success and scale breed inertia and constrain flexibility.” 

We are living in unprecedented times governed by completely unpredictable nonlinear systems, climate change chief among them.  Striking a balance between stringency and pragmatism is pointless in the face of this.  And measuring the carbon impacts of every existing building, while important for supporting change, will not catalyze change.  Fear and compliance are poor motivators for most people.  As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote, “"If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."  Putting the “L” back in LEED might help.

October 31, 2017 - 8:46 am

Great! 25 years ago I had hoped that LCA's would be in the code - where now CO2 could be just part of the equation.  Still waiting for the future.  With the subject of the paper, Resilency, etc. - it's hard to see how the "capitalist system" in place has (had) any non-surficial answers -  not really cutting it to date.  So LEED seems to have run up against this wall as the piece shows.  It's a polical move then - either march into the Alley like the band in Animal House; or take down the bricks?

October 30, 2017 - 9:51 pm

Has this thread gone cold? I wasn't planning on going to Greenbuild this year, but if we all agree to hold an impromptu summit on future of LEED carbon metrics similar to the LEED 2009 energy performance update, then I'm in!

AIA COTE Top Ten isn't perfect or stringent enough in what it requires to be submitted versus what it encourages to be provided. AIA COTE submission doesn't require carbon accounting for materials--it encourages it, but allows for 1-minute estimations to be used. It also encourages transportation carbon impact assessment, but only requires a Walk Score. And doesn't include any water-related energy impacts. It does ask for operational energy use to be put into carbon, but curiously sticks with site energy metrics rather than source. It does ask for hours of operation and number of occupants, which qualitatively can be used to judge the EUI specified, but isn't granular enough to know how fully occupied a facility is and how frequent events, etc are held which could drive the building's energy use up or down. An asset-based rating would avoid the latter quirks and help level EUI numbers between like projects in the same climate zone. If you're unfamiliar with asset-based ratings, they function just like fuel economy stickers on new vehicles and EnergyGuide Labeling on appliances.

We need more research into grid and building interaction. WattTime claims to have 10-minute interval data on actual CO2e emissions for various grids. That's a far cry from a single annual average carbon intensity for an entire eGrid subregion. You can get monthly average hourly profiles from EIA, but if it's carbon we're aiming for, then we need to know what hourly generation is feeding the grid that we're connected to. TDV is a proxy for this, but most of us aren't even in CA. And owners and operators will need to know more than just TOU pricing--they'll need carbon intensity to decide whether to shed load or switch to batteries. To predict that and size systems, we need better data. EApc95 asks for users to contact their utility for this type of information, but why isn't something so critical to carbon assessment something USGBC is funding or providing? If the public sector is uncertain what it will do over the next 3 years, then universities, private entities and NGOs will have to step up.

Unless someone has a better idea, we need to assess all carbon emitted into atmosphere as was already suggested here. Any ZNC definition which excludes something as large as transportation or embodied energy will undoubtedly result in suboptimization or worse--poor land use all in the name of net zero operational energy. Urban infill projects will score well on their transportation carbon impacts while those outside the city likely have better solar access to offset operational energy and/or transportation. Adaptive reuse and major renovations will score well regarding materials reuse for embodied carbon reduction, while possibly not doing as well on operational energy as new construction. These are all rational trade offs we can weigh in a common metric, carbon and avoid any shell game of energy use.

We shouldn't let perfect be the enemy of the good. We clearly know ways to improve things now. We should make those updates today while making certain folks are adequately financed and researching the metrics for LEEDv5.

October 29, 2017 - 9:25 am

This post challenges LEED to focus more agressively on carbon or risk irrelevance.  So far so good.  A lot could be corrrected with how the whole rating system is structured (only 1 or 2 points out of 110 for reducing the carbon impact of construction, which may equal 10 to 30 years of operation--really?), but it will be many years before a LEED v5 might emerge.  

So let's think about what could be done quickly.  Without a complete revision of the system, LEED credits could be adapted, following the lead of the new AIA COTE Top Ten, to use carbon as the common currency for tracking the construction, operation, and transportation impact of buildings. LEED could also take the (radical) step of no longer allowing projects to submit (frequently fanciful) simulations of energy or water use, but instead require *actual performance data*--not just for LEED O&M, but for all certifications.  This would give design teams the incentive to become committed to seeing that buildings actually perform, and lead to substantial reductions in carbon impact; it would also increase the credibility of LEED.

Finally we should talk about what can have impact at the scale we need.  If LBC & AIA COTE Top Ten are for the exceptional buildings at the leading edge that show what's possible, and LEED is for the next tier of buildings to show what's practical, then we need other approaches to pick up the rest of what's being built or renovated.  It's interesting to note that although only 175 firms particpated in the AIA 2030 Commitment reporting process last year, their portfolios covered 2.7B square feet of work (more than three times the area certified by LEED last year) with a portfolio-wide average energy use reduction of 42%, saving 16 M metric tons / year of CO2 emissions.   These are just design-phase (not measured) results, but it shows the power of a portfolio-wide approach. 




October 27, 2017 - 11:54 pm

This is the most important conversation that we should be having at Greenbuild!  Is anyone arranging it?  Count me in. ​I agree that we must be seriously building and retrofitting buildings such that they are all net zero, a very tall order if we wish to include all existing buildings (and realistically, a tall order for new buildings, too).  However, achieving net zero carbon/energy for all buildings is also not likely to solve the climate crisis or reduce greenhouse gasses to a safe level such that climate change, melting ice and sea level rise don't continue at their ever increasing pace.  As building practitioners, this is what we know to work on and work on it we must, but is it sufficient, and in particular, is it sufficiently speedy and effective to deal with the increasing danger?  I am afraid that it is likely not.  So, how can our enlightened community work together (really, together!) to change the conversation, in particular the American conversation as it appears that we are becoming the laggards, such that dealing with climate change becomes the penultimate priority, not just in our government, but among our citizens?  What would that new conversation and new actions look like such that they address the activating force of rampaging greenhouse gas emissions increases and the restraining forces of denial and inertia?  This goes way beyond LEED.

October 27, 2017 - 11:23 pm

Good points, we need to achieve very deep carbon reductions in the next 20 - 30 years or the rest of what we do won't matter very much. I want to second Nadav's plug for reducing embiodied carbon, and and I want to add a plug for reducing operating emissions from existing buildings. New net zero buildings won't get us the reductions we need, we just aren't building enough new buildings to matter. In the U.S., as of 2009 we were building about 6 billion sq. ft. of  new buildings, and we we had about 310 billion sq.ft of existing. Operating those new building generates about 35 million tons of GHG emissions. Building those new buidlings generate about 350 million tons of GHG emissions. But to operate the 310 billion sf we already have we are generaging about 2.2 billion tons. New buildings should be ZNE and we should be building them out of low carbon and carbon sequestering materials, but the real opportunity is to make our existing building stock as close to zero as possible. I would love it if LEED paid more attention to and gave more credit for reusing and upgrading existing buildings. Upgrading xisting buildings is hard and not as sexy as new ZNE buildings, but that's where the big reductions are.

October 27, 2017 - 4:41 pm

Spot on Greg. Climate change is the only existential threat that we can impact daily through our work. The traditional, incremental strategies and tools that we use to drive GHG emissions reduction aren't sufficient and must be re-thought. We need transformational strategies and tools to drive us to a low-carbon economy. Bucky Fuller taught me that we shouldn't waste time fighting existing realities: instead we should envision and build new models that make the old models obsolete. We need to do this with the LEED program. We need to rethink it and make it more effective at reducing GHG emissions in the built environment. I know that this is easier said than done, but that doesn't diminish the importance of taking on this challenge. LEED has been one of the most effective and important market transformation tools in the industry. We must build off of that history and transform LEED into a tool that dramatically reduces energy-related GHG emissions in buildings.

October 27, 2017 - 3:59 pm

I love hearing from people who really care. :-) I do miss these kinds of exchanges that we had when LEED was young!

We all certainly agree that LEED by itself is not sufficient to address the issue of climate change. Of course we need to more effectively engage existing buildings. I have advocated as much for many years and LEED has had issues reaching this part of the market. However, back to Greg's point, can LEED do better as a contributor to this end. I would also think that we could agree that, yes it can. So the question is then how best to accomplish this?

LEED was established as a pull strategy in the market. Set the high bar and then let the market strive to get there. Those setting the example pull others in the same direction. As such it must be voluntary. There are many other strategies which push the market like codes, disclosure laws, and other requirements. Push strategies work because they carry a mandate and are required. It seems like LEED, on this issue in particular, has been trying to be a push strategy but without many mandates (there are some but thyey are not wide-spread). It is trying to get many to do a little instead of a few doing considerably more. However, given its very nature as a voluntary standard it can never really be a push strategy and will likely never, in its current forms, achieved a huge market share. It was not designed to do so. It is stuck, where it has always been, between market share and market transformation. Clearly a difficult balancing act. Don't get me wrong LEED has had a tremendous market effect far beyond numbers of certified projects but it feels like that effect in the market is waning somewhat due to it lack of development and its focus on growth. So how best to evolve LEED?

IMO raising the bar on a regular basis should be a given for a standard which purports to be a leadership standard. We also need to bring these dispirate pieces of the whole system together so they function as a more seemless whole. LEED certification should transcend new construction/major rennovation and become an ongoing system that is about continuous improvement. I know that is what Scot is doing with ARC and the whole system should be evolving in that direction. Certify design and construction but make the certification part of the on-going process of operating a building over time. Use real data, as ARC is doing, and connect the dots over the whole life-cycle of buildings. Can we create a voluntary standard that effectively does both huge market share and significant transformation?

All of us have a strong emotional connection to LEED. We all want our child to continue to grow and thrive. Many of us have let go of our parenting responsibilities as all good parents must. However, we all still want to see it live up to its potential. We can always do better. We continue to develop or we die, it is so with all things. Hopefully LEED will continue to develop in striving to reach its full potential. 

October 27, 2017 - 2:43 pm

Thank you for your leadership with LEED over the years, Greg.  I think you make an interesting point which you have certainly made before.  I am sure that we all agree on the sought for outcome as we all know and agree that climate change is real and that buildings account for 40% of CO2 emissions in the U.S. We cannot be satisfied with where we are.  

 The question is not whether LEED should be more aggressive in its goals, but how do we get more buildings to do more?  We all know that the best way to do this is with existing buildings.  One of my favorite examples is a back of the napkin calculation that Tom Hicks did back in 2007 to exemplify the purpose of doing a lot of small work rather than large proclamations and pre-requisites which would limit market uptake.  He pointed out that if you took all of the new commercial construction built in 2007 (over one billion square feet) and made it net zero, it would be the same as reducing 1% in the existing building stock.  This shows the potential impact that could be made to the existing building stock and the huge impact we can have if we stay focused. 

 Our new approach is to recognize leadership at all levels, not just the top 25% of the market.  We call this “all in.” What we want is more buildings doing more, no matter where they start.  We also want to know where their energy comes from so as buildings become the grid we can push harder in areas that have worse emissions.  

Arc uses carbon as a metric.  We use the Portfolio Manager methodology for tracking emissions so your score is related to where the energy is coming from.  This is allowing us to see some very important things as we approach 1 billion square feet using the platform in more than 45 countries in less than a year.  First, we see for sure that carbon is a great metric for moving across borders.  We also see that average buildings in Sweden emit less carbon than the best buildings in the U.S. 

This tells us a lot.  It exemplifies that buildings are part of a larger system and the entire system needs our attention (check out LEED for Transit and LEED for Cities).   It also provides incentives for building owners to use on site renewables in dirty grids, rather than just more renewables on clean grids.  And it helps us see that RECs and other approaches that were good ideas in the 90s don’t necessarily help us today.  To paraphrase McDonough, the atmosphere doesn’t care if you replace a molecule with an electron.  A molecule of carbon emitted is there whether you add a renewable electron or not.  How often is net zero simply more RECs?  In Arc, a perfect score is net zero carbon at the building.  

 I am in full agreement that every thing and everyone should do more to address climate change.  But let’s get real.  Is your building in Arc?  Are you measuring your carbon?  Of all the buildings you walk in to every day, are they measuring their carbon?  Can they tell you their scope 1 and 2 emissions?  Do you know how many gallons of water they are using?  The amount of waste, the VOC levels and CO2 levels, the carbon associated with how people are getting there and if they’re satisfied?  

Let’s keep looking to places that are actually addressing climate change and follow their lead.  How is it working there?  I am sure that it is not happening by looking to a single program.  We know that none of these issues can be addressed in isolation.  LEED is getting more buildings to do more things.  Focusing only on LEED pre-requisites is what Adam Grant calls “the narcissism of small differences.”  We have serious work to do and it will happen not when we put stakes in the ground but rather when we connect the pieces of the whole system.  It will happen when we connect actions that improve quality of all life.  

October 27, 2017 - 12:39 pm

There are so many people on this thread I want to have beer with! Maybe soon I hope. Greg, you seem to have struck a nerve. I can only hope the discussion stays this fascinating. I’m going to ease into my thoughts in response to Greg’s post with a story which I hope makes a point:

COP 21 was the first (and only) Conference of Parties I’ve ever attended. I was there to participate in activates related to the ‘Buildings Day’ side events which were an official part of the proceedings. The Paris meetings were remarkable on many levels but the thing that I still tend to find most surprising is that COP 21 marked the inaugural ‘Buildings Day’. I looked in to it – all of the previous 20 COPs had been conducted in buildings but the Paris conference (COP 21!!) was the first time that buildings were on the official agenda as a solution to the challenges being so hotly debated during the negotiations. In hindsight, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by how remedial the content delivered during Buildings Day 1 ended up being (did you know, for example, that buildings use lots and lots of energy?) but during the week I certainly was.

Even though I had no substantive role in the negotiations (I was there to engage around strategies that should be implemented to get us to our goals, not help determine what those goals should be) it was exhilarating to be a part of. The sense of optimism and momentum was palpable coming out of Paris. We were at a tipping point. Remember the heady days of late 2015 friends?


As with almost everything Greg writes this post is reasoned, well supported and pretty smart. Here’s my but… the problems haven’t proven to be as simple as having the right answer or cost effective technology – the problem is engaging the market to give a damn and act accordingly. LEED is the 800 lb. gorilla because we struck a balance between stringency and pragmatism. As unprecedented as LEED’s market impact has been, we all know an 800 lb. gorilla isn’t enough. We need an 800,000 lb. gorilla, a fifty-ton donkey, a million pound elephant and a few dozen blue whales as well.

Globally, more than 100,000 commercial projects and 400,000 residential projects are engaged via LEED. These numbers are impressive. But before we go breaking our arms patting ourselves on the back - these numbers necessarily need to be viewed only as a start. There are 5.6 million commercial buildings in the U.S. and another 135 million housing units (give or take). It really is tempting and it would certainly feel good to ratchet up stringency in acknowledgment that if we don’t, we’re cooked. But the unintended consequences of the technical/moral high ground Greg’s well intentioned suggestions occupy should also be considered. If we disconnect LEED from the market so that nobody uses it, the only people left in the conversation are the people who probably never needed something like LEED to begin with.

That said; let’s look at what actually does happen with LEED projects. For simplicity sake, I’m pulling numbers from BD+C projects. All new construction LEED projects are required to beat ASHRAE 90.1 by 5%. This, I’ll grant, isn’t that high a bar (although, energy is hardly the only place where LEED projects mitigate their carbon footprint) but the average LEED project does much more than comply with the prerequisite. The average LEED project earns 9 EAc1 points – equating to a 28% modeled energy savings (we can debate the ‘realness’ of these calculations in some other forum – for this discussion, I’m trying to convey the directionality/aspirations of LEED projects). Is this more than would have been accomplished if LEED wasn’t in play? I think it’s safe to say yes. Is that enough? Nope. Not close. Should it make us wonder how much further we can compel/inspire the market to go voluntarily? It probably should.

New construction and major renovation, are of course, only one piece of this puzzle. The opportunities to significantly improve the carbon performance of a new or substantially new building are fundamentally different than the opportunities in existing buildings not contemplating major upgrades. It’s much easier (and far cheaper) to change a drawing in a CAD file and a bid spec to improve HVAC and lighting efficiency than it is to bust through a brick wall to retrofit a chiller or re-ballast and re-lamp every light in a building. The bar in new construction and major renovation does need to be higher but at least in the U.S., the volume of existing buildings engaging is arguably of much larger imperative.

That’s the crux in my view. For the entirety of most all of our careers in the buildings industry – prior to working at USGBC virtually all of mine was in the existing buildings O&M space - it’s been the same story. People know the importance of these issues but they’re crowded out by competing priorities and action, if it comes, is painfully slow. We need to engage the unmotivated and we need to do it on a massive scale. There are many things that give me hope – mandatory energy use disclosure ordinances, Arc, Energy Jumpstart, what Mayor DeBlasio has proposed doing with energy use that’s been disclosed. Did I mention Arc? Ratcheting up stringency in LEED – moving the bottom rung of the ladder even higher – could very well put us further away from the goal of engaging the sector of the industry that’s currently disinclined to get into the mix. In doing so we lose the associated benefits that accrue when a project embraces integrative thinking across the health, social and other environmental benefits of green buildings.

Greg, wanna keep us going?

October 27, 2017 - 12:36 pm


I concur; LEED is less stringent than many energy codes. Most of the projects I work on are in jurisdictions which have adopted 90.1-2013/IECC 2015 or equivalent (CA, CO, MI, NY, TX, WA), whereas LEEDv4 still references 90.1-2010. PNNL’s assessment of 90.1-2013 was that it represented a modest 8% average reduction in regulated energy. EAp2 only requires a 5% reduction below 90.1-2010, which results in projects at the minimum legal threshold waltzing right over the LEED prerequisite. SAD.

While I applaud EApc95 for finally getting carbon into the metric, it’s optional and the focus is still on $. I didn’t expect the paper David Goldstein and I wrote in 2012 on expanded net zero carbon metrics (to include transportation, materials, water and operational energy) to feel so futuristic five years later.

October 27, 2017 - 12:20 pm

Absolutely! AND, keep in mind that in the near term (= several decades) any new building's carbon emissions are dominated by embodied carbon--the carbon emitting in manufacturing and transporting the materials, and constructing the building. So if we leave those out of the conversation we may have deferred the payoff until it's too late to matter. 

That's why I think California's new "Buy Clean" law is critical--it mandates lower-carbon procurement for state projects. It has to be amended, however, to put cement and concrete back in (those industries managed to wriggle out at the last minute, apparently). To LEED's credit, it was the EPD benchmarking method in LEED v4 that helped get this law over the transom.

October 27, 2017 - 11:17 am

This is exactly the point of my 2016 book, "Reinventing Green Building: Why Rating Systems Aren't Working and What We Can Do About It" (New Society Publishers). But you need to go beyond "% reduction" and aim as close to zero total energy use as possible, then monitor the results (for new construction). Beyond that, the entire system needs rethinking, along the lines I propose in the book. Just changing carbon reduction prerequisites will not increase use of LEED in the US or elsewhere; in fact, making them more stringent will just DECREASE use of LEED by everyone.

October 27, 2017 - 10:02 am

Hell yes!  This wouldn't be LEED's first mid-course correction on carbon, and that's a compelling case.  Thanks, Mr. Kats.

October 27, 2017 - 9:35 am

Hear, hear Mr. Kats! I was Greg's vice chair of the EA TAG and then served as chair after him. During all of the discussions about the development of LEED the intention was always to create a system that would evolve over time. Regarding energy performance we had laid out a progression of increasing energy performance over time as LEED was updated every three years. The original planning for LEED v4 was to get net zero projects on the scale that LEED measures and then continually increase the performance requirements so that all buildings would be at least net zero by 2030 in alignment with the 2030 Challenge. Also planned for v4 was a metric that was half cost and half carbon! We had begun to set the stage for what Greg is suggesting. Needless to say these ideas were stripped from LEED and as Sandy points out LEED has basically stopped eveolving. If you ask USGBC staff about what is happening regarding the development of LEED v5 you will probably get an eye roll or a chuckle.

LEED was created to transform the market, define green buildings, and prevent green washing. The question I ask myself is at what point does LEED's definition of a green building become green washing itself? I am not sure we are there yet but it appears it is headed in that direction.

October 27, 2017 - 2:14 am

This is an actual, and acute problem. It's made worse in some ways by unsophisticated parties being reassured of doing the right thing to the best of their ability with LEED. Projects could actually achieve significant carbon reductions if those targets were explained to them by the system they work with.

We conducted a comprehensive study of global multi-attribute national and local certification systems, standards and regulations and the total is well over 100; of those, over half address life-cycle carbon / life-cycle assessment (though in different ways). 

It's not a plaque that will keep the carbon impacts at bay.

October 26, 2017 - 8:48 pm

I absolutely agree, Greg.  In 2006, USGBC's board adopted this Vision Statement, "Buildings and communities will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation."  A generation, as we discussed then, is generally accepted as 25 years.  It really seemed possible then.  

At inception, the theory of change driving LEED was to put a stake in the ground... way out in the ground occupied by pioneers and early adopters... and then through their practice move the mainstream market.  Once the market moved, the idea was to pull up that stake and put it even further out, and then keep repeating that cycle relentlessly to keep the market moving.  Well the market moved, but the stake did not, at least not relative to energy and climate.  After its explosive growth in the last decade, USGBC (and LEED) seemed to become more interested in catering to the market than changing it and, in so doing, passed the apex of its effectiveness as a change agent.  

Perhaps LEED can be revived to take on climate in a meaningful way.  That would be great, but I doubt it will happen unless USGBC's board and leaders get back to their visionary roots.  In the meantime, the pioneers, which include whole cities and even whole countries, are not waiting around for it.  Neither am I.  

October 26, 2017 - 7:11 pm

Could not agree more with you Greg. The time has passed for incremental small steps in efficiency in hopes that it delivers carbon reductions. It is getting more and more and awkward with clients to push LEED, and not have it explcitly address Carbon. Using energy is not the problem. Emitting cabron is.

October 26, 2017 - 6:55 pm

I have been heavily involved with USGBC and LEED for over 25 years. I was Chair of the Cascadia Chapter, served 6 years on the National Board, served 2 years as Chair on the National Board, and was subsequent chair of the WorldGBC. I am now back on the local Northern California Advisory Board, and have been for the past 8 years.

Eleven years ago, when I was as Chair in 2006, we kicked off the year-long process of engaging the community to decide what to include in LEED V3.0.

During those extensive meetings involving hundreds of practioners, experts, users, and so on, the issue of Carbon as part of the revision was raised by many, and was included as a critical component to include in the next version of LEED v3.0.

During the decade that has ensued we have seen an increase in:

  1. 20 ppm CO2 (from 380 to 403). 
  2. Population increase globally by 1 billion people (from 6.6 billion to 7.6 billion) – that’s a 15% increase in 11 years
  3. 1 Billion more people have moved to cities (25% increase).
  4. Increased global temperature by half a Celsius degree.
  5. Acknowledgement by all countries around the world that climate change is REAL and needs immediate and direct action.
  6. LEED has moved from an emerging US voluntary rating tool to a GLOBAL standard.

It is a moral and ethical imperative of USGBC to include Carbon as a direct component of the rating system effective immediately.

October 26, 2017 - 4:56 pm

Interesting piece,  in effect the dramatic cost performance improvements for purchasing renewables on the grid have made us a bit lazy about the actually implications of energy use of the individual buildings.  It is one of the reasons that we focus in our work on going back to the basics for net-zero ready buildings; making the building as efficient as possible through passive design, good systems and end uses, then adding renewables.