Back on Track: Closing the Decarbonization Gap

By Helen Sanders

“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator,” warned United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres at the opening of COP27 in November. The UN Environmental program 2022 Global Status Report identified that the building sector is not on track to reach its decarbonization goals.

There is a large gap between the UN Economic and Social Council’s framework for building energy efficiency standards, which sets a primary energy use intensity (EUI) target of 14 kBTU/ft², and current U.S. baseline code performance. A medium office building compliant with ASHRAE 90.1-2019 has a predicted EUI of 30 kBTU/ft².

However, three leading jurisdictions in North America—British Columbia, New York and Pennsylvania—are driving building performance faster than the current trajectory of baseline code development. The North American Passive House Network (NAPHN) analyzed key components of code and policy in those areas, identifying a framework for building decarbonization policymaking.

Policymaking Framework

Several common threads were identified that support the construction of high-performance buildings:
Clear specific targets for the industry to reach, which are measurable and with tools connected to support outcomes;
Available training tailored to support specific performance targets; and
Direct financial support for projects that are stepped, competitive and required reporting and monitoring.

All three also had active volunteer Passive House practitioner communities supporting policymakers. Where needed, policymakers also removed roadblocks that were embedded in baseline codes.

Key Policy Levers

A combination of policies that lie both inside and outside the building code processes were identified to encourage the use of higher performance standards, such as:

Zoning incentives, e.g. allowing additional height or smaller setbacks;
Accelerated plan approvals or reviews;
Availability of stretch codes, e.g. step codes, net zero pathways;
Alternative code compliance pathways, e.g. Passive House Planning Package;
Existing building performance standards, e.g. Local Law 97 in New York City;
Training subsidies;
Tax credits; and
Direct subsidies.

Additional keys to success were identified:
• Having tiered code adoption programs with weighted incentives directly tied to the long-term target, such as net-zero carbon; connecting voluntary standards; and baseline codes;
Connecting different regulatory codes, such as zoning and energy; and
• Having circular feedback loops for reporting outcomes and costs.

These insights can be important to jurisdictions seeking to make transformational changes in buildings to achieve climate change targets.

Helen Sanders is the general manager at Technoform North America Inc. based in Twinsburg, Ohio. Read her blog each month at

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