Decarbonization may seem intuitively like a good thing for other aspects of sustainability, but nothing is guaranteed. It will take an integrated design approach to balance overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, goals. Higher levels of fresh air and filtration in “healthy” buildings, for example, will push energy use up. On-site renewables can improve resilience to extreme events and grid outages – but so can adding diesel-powered generators.
“It’s definitely not automatic,” says Joshua Radoff, a senior vice president with WSP in Colorado. “There are some things that are inherently good, like removing combustion, and if you’re doing a really efficient passive design, that should mean more thought about ventilation and fresh air. But it doesn’t necessarily mean better landscaping or public spaces or connectivity. You need to be explicit about these things as it’s pretty easy to leave them by the wayside. If you just focus with blinders around zero-carbon, you might engage in things that check all the boxes but don’t have any alternative benefits.”
This is particularly the case with offsets, which may or may not offer a wide spectrum of benefits over and above carbon reductions. “It might just be a wind farm in Texas that was going to happen anyway,” says Radoff, “That has benefit but it’s certainly not helping your community.” Companies may make a conscious decision to buy offsets that align with their mission and values, suggests Tim Parker, sustainability director at WSP in Sydney. “Indigenous engagement is a big thing in Australia, and gaining biodiversity credits from increasing bush in indigenous communities is a far more tangible and valuable offset than buying a wind farm in another country,” he says. “It’s probably going to cost more, but that’s for organizations to weigh up.”
This is the choice Danish member-owned supermarket Coop has made, with its “People’s Forest” (Folkeskove) programme to plant 1,000ha of new forest across the country by 2030. Coop could more easily meet its offset requirements in countries where land and labour costs are lower – but this way, it demonstrates a connection to consumers and enables them to experience co-benefits such as access to nature and greater local biodiversity. “If Coop’s only interest was to be carbon neutral, it would be much more efficient to create new forests in the tropics,” says Allan Bechsgaard, forest director at DDH, which is managing the land on its behalf. “But they see additional value in doing something local. It provides recreation opportunities for the people who live in the area, and for their own employees, and they can show that they’re giving something to society.” DDH, Denmark’s largest forest manager, is seeing increasing interest in such domestic forestry initiatives, he adds, particularly from membership-owned organizations, like Coop, and those with strong local connections.
On zero-carbon projects, there may be a limit to the additional benefits that can be extracted before the investment becomes unviable. One way to manage this is to rank your priorities, as Radoff’s team helped the City of Boulder do on a zero-carbon social housing project. There, affordability came out on top, but the list might look very different for a corporate headquarters. Another solution is to broaden the scope, perhaps securing finance for additional elements like large-scale solar or wind power, which can generally pay for themselves over the longer term. A third is to involve partners who also stand to benefit, such as utility providers. On a 14 million ft2 project in downtown Denver, WSP analysed whether the buildings could be heated from the waste heat from sewage treatment, potentially saving the need to construct a multimillion-dollar cooling plant. “We found it would be a breakeven for the project because you’re just displacing gas, but if we can loop in the benefit of the government not having to build such an expensive facility down the road, then everyone is winning.” The same could be true of electrifying a bus fleet, he adds, if you could quantify the benefits of lower rates of respiratory illness to the local health system. “If there are partners that can share the co-benefits, that can make it worthwhile.”