Roundtable and Nareit Comment on National Definition for a “Zero Emissions Building”

Department of Energy building in Washington, DC

The Real Estate Roundtable (RER) and Nareit submitted comments today to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on its draft definition for Zero Emissions Buildings (ZEB). DOE’s initiative would impose no federal mandates while showing U.S. leadership on climate policy. (Joint comments cover letter and addendum | Roundtable Weekly, Jan. 5)

A “Path to ZEB”

  • The ZEB national definition aims to set voluntary criteria that could help building owners provide auditable, consistent statements to investors, tenants, and policy makers about long-term aspirations for a building’s decarbonization. (DOE announcement | National Definition Draft)
  • The RER/Nareit comments emphasize that few buildings today could meet zero emissions status. Rather, the ZEB definition can be a guideline to support lifecycle investments when boilers, water heaters, and other systems reliant on fossil fuels reach the end of their lives after years of use. (Joint comments cover letter and addendum)
  • Concrete actions that owners can take now to show an asset is “on the path” to zero emissions status are key to ZEB’s success as a long-term goal.
  • The joint comments urge DOE to recognize “NextGen”—the imminent label for low-carbon buildings from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—as the intermediate step for a building that aspires to reach ZEB status.  

Comments on the National ZEB Definition

Comments from
The Real Estate Roundtable and Nareit®
Regarding the Draft National Definition of a Zero Emissions Building (“ZEB”)

Topline points from the RER/Nareit comments (cover letter and addendum) include:

  • ZEB should provide ambitious but attainable policy for individual buildings and portfolios, residential and commercial, across product types.
  • DOE’s national definition should be leveraged to bring consistency and uniformity to the patchwork of building related climate programs, which are imposed by state and local performance standards and pushed by international frameworks. (Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 15 and RER’s Climate and Energy Priorities, Jan. 2024)
  • DOE should not re-invent the wheel. It should align the ZEB definition with the ecosystem of federal data, methods, and guides that already pertain to buildings.
  • ZEB’s general nationwide definition must consider regional variables such as the climate and electric grid conditions pertinent to where a building is located.
  • A “zero” emissions standard requires a reasonable exclusion of emissions from emergency power generators. This exclusion to protect health and safety is necessary for building operations to continue when the electric grid fails.
  • Many buildings have physical and regulatory restrictions that preclude onsite solar panels, wind turbines, and battery storage. DOE’s draft correctly permits valid and credible “market-based” measures, such as the purchase of renewable energy certificates (“RECs”), to meet the definition’s renewable energy criteria.

A final ZEB definition is expected later this year. The real estate sector also awaits final climate risk corporate disclosure rules this spring from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. (Roundtable Weekly, Jan. 12)

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Building Emissions Policies Picking Up Steam in 2024

A confluence of mandatory rules and voluntary guidelines pertaining to real estate’s climate impacts—including a first-ever U.S. definition for the term Zero Emissions Building (“ZEB”) and an imminent Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) greenhouse gas disclosure rule—will be a key focus of policy makers in 2024.

ZEB Definition

  • On Jan. 9, GlobeSt reported that The Roundtable supports the direction of the Biden administration’s recently released voluntary ZEB draft definition pertinent to private sector existing buildings and new construction. (Roundtable Weekly, Jan. 5)
  • The ZEB definition proposes voluntary criteria for buildings to be highly energy efficient and powered solely by clean energy sources to attain zero emissions status.

  • The Roundtable’s Sustainability Policy Advisory Committee (SPAC) is working on comments (due Feb. 5) in response to the Energy Department’s draft.

SEC & Scope 3

  • The SEC is expected to release its long-anticipated climate risk disclosure rule this spring. (Roundtable Weekly, March 10, 2023) On Jan. 11, Bisnow quoted Roundtable Senior Vice President and Counsel Duane Desiderio about the SEC’s impending rule and its impact on CRE and other industries. 
  • Desiderio explained to Bisnow, “Let’s hope the SEC delivers some workable rules and brings rationality to this space, especially regarding Scope 3 indirect emissions” that cover sources in a company’s supply chain beyond its immediate control. Desiderio added, “The market is certainly moving in the direction of the SEC rule.” (RER Fact Sheets: SEC’s Proposed Rule and California’s Climate Disclosure bills)

179D & BPS

  • Another federal rule expected in the coming weeks concerns the section 179D tax deduction for energy efficient buildings, substantially revamped by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). (Roundtable Weekly, Dec. 1).The Internal Revenue Service will propose a regulation for comment that addresses how existing building retrofits may qualify for this incentive.
  • Axios (Jan. 9) reported this week about trends at the local level to enact building performance standards (BPS) such as LL 97 in New York City. While Congress has not granted authority for a national emissions mandate on buildings, more cities and states are expected to run with these efforts in 2024. (Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 15).
  • A report from the Rhodium Group this week shows U.S. GHG emissions decreased nearly 2 percent year-on-year in 2023. The report also notes that emissions from commercial and residential buildings dropped by 4 percent, which the researchers attributed primarily to a mild winter. (PoliticoPro and The Hill, Jan. 10)  

SCOTUS to Consider Federal Agency “Deference”

The Supreme Court
  • A wild card in the effectiveness and durability of federal regulations—not just in the climate arena, but from any U.S. agency—will be at the fore this spring when SCOTUS renders a decision in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo.
  • Loper will consider whether an administrative law doctrine from 1984 known as “Chevron deference,” which grants wide latitude to federal agencies when crafting rules to implement laws passed by Congress, should be overruled. (SCOTUS Blog, May 1, 2023)
  • The Department of Commerce stated in their brief that overruling Chevron “would be a convulsive shock to the legal system.” Oral argument will take place next Wednesday, with a decision expected by early summer. (SCOTUS Blog, Jan. 8, 2024)

Officials from the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department and leading non-governmental organizations will address issues at the nexus of buildings and climate policy on January 24 at the Roundtable’s all-member 2024 State of the Industry Meeting.

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U.S. Joins Global Push to Slash Building Emissions

The United States joined China, the UK, and the larger European Union this week in an international initiative to accelerate the buildings sector’s ability to reach “near zero” emissions by 2030. (United Nations press release, Dec. 6)

  • The initiative is a pledge by countries to cut emissions from building operations and construction materials down or close to zero. A Buildings and Climate Global Forum scheduled for March in Paris will flesh-out details.
  • The Biden-Harris administration’s imminent release of a proposed zero emissions building (“ZEB”) definition aligns with this international effort. The ZEB definition will be the first federal government guideline providing voluntary criteria for buildings that aspire to zero emissions status. (Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 29)

SBTi

  • SBTi’s latest guidance includes important revisions urged by The Roundtable and Nareit in joint comments submitted last summer. (Roundtable Weekly, July 14).
  • Notably, SBTi changed course from its original proposal and will allow companies to set science-based emissions targets based on “market-based” solutions such as purchases of renewable energy certificates (RECs).
  • Real estate companies can apply to participate in SBTi’s pilot program through December 10. (SBTi Call for Applicants)

CFTC Guidelines and EPA’s Portfolio Manager

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is holding a workshop session for Real Estate Roundtable members on improvements to its ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager benchmarking tool. The workshop will take place on January 24, 2024 as part of The Roundtable’s State of the Industry meeting in Washington, DC. (Contact RER Meetings about registration)

EPA’s improvements to its free online Portfolio Manager tool, used by nearly 25% of U.S. building space to measure energy use and GHG emissions, is widely supported by the CRE industry. (Coalition letter to EPA, Sept. 14 and Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 15)

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California Passes Corporate Climate Disclosure Package; Biden Administration Releases Net-Zero Emissions Principles for Financial Institutions

Recent government actions amplify the increasing focus by policymakers on climate laws and guidelines—and their heightened impact on CRE. The California legislature recently passed first-of-its-kind state laws that require companies to disclose their emissions, beating to the punch anticipated federal climate reporting rules from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). (Politico, Sept. 17)

Meanwhile, the Biden administration issued voluntary principles this week for asset managers, banks, insurers, and venture capital companies with goals for “net zero” emissions investments, including real estate. (Treasury news release, Sept. 19)

California’s Climate Risk Disclosure Package

  • California’s legislature passed two bills (SB 253 and SB 261) last week requiring climate-related disclosures from certain companies doing business in the state. Most notably, the Climate Corporate Data Accountability Act (SB 253) would require entities with total annual global revenues greater than $1 billion to quantify and publicly report Scopes 1, 2, and 3 emissions.
  • SB 253 is estimated to regulate around 5,400 companies. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) pledged to sign both bills, although he may request changes when the legislature reconvenes in January. The laws could be challenged in court before they take effect over the next several years. (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 20 and New York Times, Sept 17)
  • The California legislature “leapfrog[ged]” the U.S. SEC (Bloomberg, Sept. 12), which has yet to release highly anticipated federal rules that are expected to require registered companies to report to investors on material climate-related financial risks in 10-Ks and other filings. (See RER’s 2022 comments on SEC proposal | Roundtable Weekly, March 10 and June 10, 2022)

U.S. Treasury’s Net-Zero Emissions Investment PrinciplesU.S. Treasury’s Net-Zero Emissions Investment Principles -- publication imageThe Treasury Department’s Principles for Net-Zero Financing & Investment is focused on “financial institutions’ scope 3 financed and facilitated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” It urges private sector financial institutions to align their GHG reduction efforts and net-zero goals with their “portfolio companies,” “portfolio of assets,” and “client base.”

  • The document notes that clients and portfolio companies should provide to their financial institutions their own net-zero plans, including “metrics and targets” for Scopes 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Buildings and real estate assets have long been considered part of a financial institution’s Scope 3 emissions “value chain.” 
  • The set of nine principles encourage greater adoption of emerging best practices for private sector financial institutions that have made net-zero commitments, while promoting consistent and credible implementation approaches.

A Sept. 12 podcast featuring Roundtable Senior Vice President & Counsel Duane Desiderio, and Nareit’s Senior Vice President of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Jessica Long, discusses the imminent SEC rule and other real estate policy priorities in the energy and climate arena. (Listen to Nareit’s “Real Estate Roundtable says CRE Playing Key Role in Success of Federal Climate Programs”)

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Roundtable Comments to EPA on Building Performance Standards, Electrification

EPA sign

The Real Estate Roundtable submitted comments this week encouraging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use its grant authority to foster consistent, practicable, and cost-efficient local building mandates and electrification programs. (Roundtable letter, Jan. 18)

Consistency Urged in Building Performance Standards

EPA letter image capture

  • In addition to clean energy tax incentives for the private sector, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) devotes billions in grant money for EPA to dole-out to states and cities for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction programs. [White House Guidebook, Dec. 15]
  • IRA grants could support localities as they develop and enforce building performance standards (BPS) that mandate owners to reduce energy use and emissions. Dozens of BPS laws have emerged in jurisdictions across the United States. (EPA Policy Brief, Jan. 19) (Roundtable Weekly, July 1, 2022)
  • The Roundtable’s Jan. 18 letter urges EPA to use its grant authority to encourage consistency in BPS mandates. A “hodge-podge” of state and local laws complicates compliance by building owners with nationwide real estate portfolios and hinders responsible investment strategies, according to The Roundtable’s letter.
  • The Roundtable’s position is that EPA should not award IRA grants unless state or local recipients ensure their BPS laws offer uniform federal tools, data, and protocols for enforcement and compliance.
  • These federal standards include EPA’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, its GHG Emissions Calculator, eGRID factors that convert electricity use to GHGs, and metrics already recommended by EPA to support BPS efforts.

Tenant Energy Data and “Practicable Electrification”

EPA letter electrification capture

  • The Roundtable letter also advocates that utilities should be eligible for EPA grants to develop technologies that provide owners of multi-tenant buildings with “whole building” energy data. Owners need data on tenants’ energy use to meet BPS mandates and to attain the IRA’s new tax deduction for building retrofits. (Fact Sheet, updated Jan. 5.)
  • In addition, The Roundtable letter advocates that grants to help standardize corporate climate reporting should prioritize consistency in accounting for emission benefits from the purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), and for embedded carbon in construction materials and building products purchased by real estate owners and developers.

IRA tax incentives and grant programs affecting CRE will be among the topics discussed during The Roundtable’s Sustainability Policy Advisory Committee (SPAC) Meeting on Jan. 25 in Washington, D.C., held in conjunction with Jan. 24 State of the Industry meeting.

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White House Releases Net-Zero “Road Map” as EPA Credits Strides in Building Efficiency

White House Climate Goals

The Biden administration this month released a “road map” to reach net zero emissions by 2050 by focusing on five key areas for research and development, including efficient buildings and grid decarbonization. (White House Fact Sheet)

Buildings Sector Emissions

  • One of the priorities in the administration’s net zero initiative is to accelerate innovation in “efficient building heating and cooling.” It notes that HVAC is responsible for nearly a fifth of commercial building energy use.
  • Innovation is required to reduce upfront costs to enable widespread adoption” of retrofits that replace traditional HVAC systems with heat pumps, automated controls that interact with the grid, and the switch to refrigerants with low global warming potential, according to the R&D report.

ENERGY STAR Commercial Buildings

ENERGY STAR - 2 Decades

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a separate report this week marking two decades of ENERGY STAR Commercial Buildings. EPA concluded that the overall stock of U.S. office buildings has become 30 percent more energy efficient since the turn of the century. Top-of-class “certified” office buildings decreased energy use by 30 percent in the last decade alone.
  • EPA’s “Two Decades of ENERGY STAR” study also found that owners and managers cite “operations and maintenance” as the most important factor to optimize building energy performance—more than investments in original design and construction, or to retrofit older buildings with new equipment.

Net-Zero Tracker

MSCI Net-Zero Tracker

  • New data show corporate emissions cuts still lag far behind their pledges. A Net-Zero Tracker by the investment research firm MSCI finds public companies’ emissions are out of step with global targets. (Axios, Oct. 18 and Nov. 3)
  • Additionally, an Accenture report shows that more than 90 percent of large companies that have made net zero emissions pledges will miss their goals at their current pace. (The Hill, Nov. 3)

Clean Energy Incentives

RER comments - image Nov4 2022

  • Various clean energy tax incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed by Congress in August were the focus of extensive comments submitted by The Real Estate Roundtable to the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) earlier this month. [Nov. 4 letter and Roundtable Weekly, Aug. 12]
  • Stacking multiple incentives on the same buildings “must be encouraged for the real estate industry to strive towards net zero emissions,” The Roundtable stated in its comments.

The Roundtable’s Sustainability Policy Advisory Committee (SPAC) will discuss the IRA’s clean energy incentives during its Jan. 25, 2023 meeting, which will be held in conjunction with The Roundtable’s State of The Industry meeting.

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Biden Administration Plans to Cut U.S. Carbon Emissions in Half by 2030; Fed Announces Climate Threat Monitoring Effort

Flooding of mixed used building

The Biden Administration continued to work this week on an aggressive goal to slash U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030, as the Fed announced plans to monitor climate change threats to the financial system. (Bloomberg, March 23 and E&E News, March 24)

A National Effort

  • White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy is leading a National Climate Task Force that will finalize U.S. goals and commitments before participating in an April 22 virtual global climate summit on Earth Day. (White House Readout of the Second National Climate Task Force Meeting, March 18)
     
  • The government-wide effort includes input from 21 federal agencies and industrial sectors, ranging from car manufacturers to aviation to the oil industry. (The Hill, March 22 and E&E News, March 23)
    • The prospects for both chambers of Congress to pass legislation that puts a price on carbon are still remote, even though key business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute have now come out in favor of “market-based” climate policy. (Axios Generate, March 26)

    Climate Change and Real Estate 

    • Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard this week emphasized the impact climate change could have on real estate markets. She stated during a March 23 speech, “… the usability of real estate in many areas will be directly affected by the increased risks of floods, wildfires, severe storms, and sea-level rise associated with climate change.”
    • She added, “Sudden realizations of climate-related risks could cause rapid shifts in investor sentiment and shocks to asset prices.” (Financial Stability Implications of Climate Change speech by Gov. Brainard, March 23)
    • Brainard announced the Fed has established new oversight committees “to identify, assess, and address climate-related risks to financial stability.”
    • Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Yellen also commented on their increased attention to the risks posed by climate change during a March 23 hearing before the House Financial Services Committee and a March 24 Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing.
       
    • Secretary Yellen will lead the first meeting of the Financial Stability Oversight Council under the Biden administration on March 30 to discuss climate-related financial risks. (The Hill, March 24) 

    The administration’s climate policy plans and their impact on CRE will be a focus of discussion during The Roundtable’s Spring Meeting on April 20 (held remotely). 

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