Recent Developments in Legal Frameworks for Zero Emissions Buildings

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released the first National Definition of a Zero-Emissions Building. This definition aims to establish “standardized, consistent, and measurable minimum criteria” for public and private entities to adopt, supporting the transition of buildings toward zero emissions. This release follows the DOE’s National Blueprint for the Buildings Sector, published in April, which outlines actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. buildings by 65% by 2035 and 90% by 2050, compared to a 2005 baseline, with goals of equity, affordability, and resilience. While this definition is non-binding, it may influence other regulatory and industry standards as buildings move toward decarbonization.

According to the National Law Review, importantly, DOE’s definition does not provide verification standards, and the agency will not itself certify whether a building meets the criteria under this definition. Instead, where an entity employs the definition, it should determine how the criteria must be documented and verified.

This federal definition of a zero emissions building was released against the backdrop of states and municipalities taking legislative action to require or encourage building decarbonization through building performance standards which limit energy use or emissions. In Maryland, for example, a 2022 law requires covered buildings (those over 35,000 square feet) to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions and energy use intensity standards by 2040, with an incremental target of achieving 20% reduction in net direct greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. New York City’s Local Law 97, sets emissions limits for buildings over 25,000 square feet in New York City, which covers around 50,000 buildings and 50% of the City’s building emissions. The compliance period began in January of 2024 and there are incrementally more stringent requirements for compliance over time. While emissions limits will not require any buildings to become zero emissions in the near term, all covered buildings must demonstrate compliance with an emissions factor of zero beginning in 2050. In Massachusetts, a 2022 law requires improved building efficiency and mandatory reporting of energy usage for buildings of a certain size. This law, combined with a grant program to assist with a transition to higher performance buildings, lays the groundwork for the state to promulgate net-zero building performance standards in the future.

We may see state and local laws begin to coalesce around building performance standards incorporating the new federal definition for zero emissions buildings. Similarly, various voluntary green building certifications which often lack consistency across frameworks have agreed to align with DOE’s new definition. This includes the most commonly used LEED Certification from the US Green Building Council. Thus, this newly established federal definition of zero emissions buildings developed with input from thousands of stakeholders may drive both industry and regulators toward a more standardized framework for assessing building energy and emissions performance.

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