Decarbonization news

U.S. establishes national definition of zero-emissions buildings

U.S. establishes national definition of zero-emissions buildings

The Biden administration announces the first national definition of zero-emissions buildings (ZEB), aiming to create a standard for top-tier building energy performance in the United States.

Washington, D.C. — Announced on June 6, 2024, this initiative, introduced by White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi at the American Institute of Architects conference, was developed jointly by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

New zero-emissions building definition

The new definition outlines that ZEBs should be energy-efficient, produce no on-site greenhouse gas emissions, and be powered entirely by clean energy, either onsite or offsite. This definition is applicable to both new constructions and existing buildings undergoing adaptive reuse or renovations. The administration hopes this clear standard will guide the construction industry towards more sustainable practices, despite the definition having no regulatory force.

Implications for the construction industry

The DOE and EPA's guidance is expected to serve as a benchmark for the construction industry, signaling a shift towards more sustainable building practices. Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm emphasized that this definition will improve sustainability in the construction sector, “The National Definition of a Zero Emissions Building will support the sector as it advances innovative solutions essential to creating resilient communities and high-quality jobs. With today’s announcement, DOE is helping bring clarity to our public and private sector partners to support decarbonization efforts and drive investment — paving the way for cutting-edge clean energy technologies we need to make America’s buildings more comfortable and affordable.”

Focus on embodied carbon and energy efficiency

While the new federal definition primarily addresses operational carbon by focusing on energy efficiency and clean energy use, it also underscores the importance of considering embodied carbon. Embodied carbon refers to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, transportation, and installation of building materials. By highlighting the need for energy-efficient design and the use of clean energy, the definition implicitly encourages the construction industry to adopt practices that reduce embodied carbon as well.

Urgency and stakeholder engagement

The need for urgent action is driven by the fact that one-third of carbon emissions in the U.S. are attributable to residential and commercial buildings. The DOE’s blueprint aims to reduce U.S. building emissions by 65% by 2035 and 90% by 2050. Over the past several months, federal officials engaged more than 1,000 stakeholders to refine the criteria for ZEBs, ensuring the guidelines are both comprehensive and technically sound.

Industry response and adoption

Several industry leaders and organizations have already expressed support for the new definition.  American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) President, Ginger Scoggins, praised the guidance as providing a “...clear, consistent, and measurable framework for assessing zero-emissions buildings”. Additionally, the International Living Future Institute commended the federal government for developing guidelines to decarbonize the construction sector.

Practical steps for the construction industry

Implementing the new ZEB definition involves integrating energy-efficient designs, utilizing clean energy sources, and considering the life-cycle emissions of building materials. This holistic approach aims to reduce both operational and embodied carbon, promoting sustainable practices across the industry.


The establishment of a federal definition for zero-emissions buildings marks a significant milestone in the Biden administration's efforts to decarbonize the built environment. By providing a clear and actionable standard, the administration hopes to accelerate the transition towards sustainable building practices, ultimately contributing to the broader goal of reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.


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