Accelerating the De-Carbonization of Buildings: The Net-Zero Carbon Cities Building Value Framework Best Digital-Marketing Spends for 2022

Executive summary

The transition to a greener built environment requires a shift in how value is defined and perceived.

With over half of the world’s population living in cities and producing over 70% of carbon emissions, cities play a key role in combatting climate change. Construction and the operation of buildings are responsible for 38% of global emissions, and there is an urgent need for solutions to help accelerate the decarbonization of the urban built environment to limit the global temperature rise to below 1.5°C.

Although some leaders in sustainable buildings have started to consider social and environmental impacts in their decision-making, many obstacles to investment in net-zero buildings still relate to financing, both real and perceived. The World Economic Forum’s Net-Zero Carbon Cities Building Value Framework seeks to accelerate investment by overcoming these barriers.

The framework proposes that a more holistic decision-making approach, which recognizes the importance of social and environmental outcomes and system performance, is key to increasing capital flow towards decarbonization solutions. The framework guides decision-makers to connect nonfinancial benefits such as “user satisfaction” and “systemic value efficiency” and correlate them with reducing risk or increasing return on investments.

The Building Value Framework has been developed and validated through case studies to understand the investment decisions and evaluate outcomes in real projects. From this process, key insights and a practical checklist (focusing on reducing operational emissions) have emerged to maximize value creation, as illustrated through the presented cases.

First, it is vital to invest in decarbonizing technologies and combine them to optimize impact. For example, the Belgian real estate company Extensa used complementary solar and geothermal technologies to renovate and refurbish an old railway station in Brussels. This project demonstrates how bundling these technologies greatly impacts flexibility and system resilience.

Second, investment in digital can maximize the benefits of decarbonizing technologies. In a case study from Turin, Italy, a municipality, in collaboration with Enel X, a leading smart energy service provider, retrofitted municipal buildings for energy efficiency and on-site renewable generation. Integrating these with a digital platform added value to the project by enabling data-driven management decisions across the municipal system.

Third, investing in city ecosystem services and equipping buildings with distributed renewable power generation, storage and smart energy management solutions can enhance local resilience and accelerate decarbonization across cities without the need for disruptive grid upgrades.

The flexibility of the Building Value Framework means it can be used for the retrofit and refurbishment of existing buildings, as well as for the construction of new buildings. It can be applied in diverse contexts across different types of building assets and used at any point on the investment planning and decarbonization timeline.

The urgency to transition the world’s cities towards a net-zero carbon future is abundantly clear. The Building Value Framework presents an approach to help accelerate the investments needed to deliver a greener urban built environment.


The World Economic Forum’s Net-Zero Carbon Cities programme aims to accelerate the transformation of urban ecosystems towards a more sustainable, resilient and equitable future through integrated solutions that address energy, buildings and mobility. If the world is to keep pace with limiting the global temperature rise to below 1.5ºC compared to pre-industrial levels, a transition to a clean electrified world is needed. Buildings account for up to 38% of global carbon emissions. Reducing emissions in the urban built environment will therefore be a critical strategy to meet this challenge, and more investment is needed in relevant solutions, ranging from electrification to energy efficiency, from more digitalization to better weatherization.

The Net-Zero Carbon Cities Building Value Framework seeks to accelerate this transformation of the urban built environment by elevating the tangential benefits that are often qualitative in nature and helping correlate these with the return on investment in green buildings. This approach proposes that integrating the holistic value of investments in the decision-making process could increase capital flows towards decarbonizing projects and solutions. This framework and its accompanying recommendations are presented as tools that asset owners and investors from the public and private sectors can use in capital investment decisions.

The role of buildings in combatting climate change

Buildings are the largest contributor to emissions in cities – responsible for 50-70% of city emissions and 38% of global emissions.

Cities are the frontline in lowering global carbon emissions. Over half of the world’s population live in cities, accounting for over 70% of CO2 emissions.1 Buildings are the largest contributor to emissions in cities, responsible for 50-70% of city emissions and 38% of global emissions.2 Roughly 75% of building emissions are operational emissions generated from building systems (e.g. heating, ventilation and air conditioning, lighting and IT servers). The remaining 25% come in the form of embodied emissions – carbon generated from the manufacture of building materials, construction and internal furnishings.3

As the world strives towards a net-zero economy, all buildings must become net zero by design. The steps needed to deliver this outcome are outlined in the Green Building Principles: The Action Plan for NetZero Carbon Buildings. Due to the relative lack of netzero buildings in existence (fewer than 1% of buildings worldwide are net-zero),4 adopting scalable solutions to transform urban building stock is urgently needed. The current pace of economic growth and population rise in emerging economies will lead to a doubling of global building floorspace from new construction over the next 40 years.5 Net zero by design is not limited to new construction, as 80% of all buildings that will exist in 2050 already exist today.6 Retrofit and refurbishment projects are critical in the movement to decarbonize. In Europe, between 1-1.5% of all building stock is being renovated every year. However, to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, the rate of renovation needs to reach 2-5% a year.7

Net-zero buildings are an essential tool in achieving global emissions goals. In addition, as energy systems evolve towards net zero, buildings will play a larger role in the energy system. Matching electricity supply to demand is a balancing act and buildings can host new distributed resources, store power and optimize demand to help strike this balance.

The Building Value Framework

Although traditional financial outcomes have historically driven investment decisions in the building ecosystem, many industry leaders are increasingly recognizing non-financial considerations8 and are often including outcomes such as environmental and social impacts in building construction, valuation and acquisition decisions. However, the World Green Building Council’s recent Beyond the Business Case report has found that three of the top five most substantial obstacles to investment in sustainable buildings still relate to financing, with 53% of respondents citing higher upfront costs, either real or perceived, as the biggest barrier.

The Building Value Framework9 helps tackle this barrier by contextualizing the value of sustainable buildings to include environmental and social benefits, as well as improvements to system performance. It aims to accelerate decarbonization investments by changing the perception of the holistic value and benefit of those investments for key decision-makers across the building life cycle.

The framework guides decision-makers to link these holistic performance outcomes to a reduction in risk or an increase in return on investment. For instance, increased user satisfaction in a green building may link to lower risks of vacancy and higher rents by attracting tenants willing to pay for higher standards.10

The Building Value Framework evaluates social, economic, environmental and energy system outcomes resulting from investments in decarbonization solutions

In analysing each case study, we ask: What risks are reduced through these outcomes? What returns are generated through these outcomes?

Source: World Economic Forum, Net-Zero Carbon Cities: Building Value Framework

Key insights

The above framework was used to evaluate the value of several real-life examples. Three key insights emerged to maximize value creation:

Invest in decarbonization technologies and bundle for impact

Technologies such as heat pumps, distributed renewable electricity and storage can have a greater aggregate impact on emissions reduction when implemented together rather than individually. For example, distributed energy generation is more impactful when combined with storage than when deployed alone.

Invest in digital

Buildings that are equipped to operationalize data (such as that for energy use and emissions) and connect systems within a building to enable smart optimization will be more future-proof. Digital and data fluency will amplify the impact of low-carbon technology interventions through enhanced operational decision support or automatic controls of building management systems. The use of digital twins can improve decision modelling and efficiency during construction, operation and maintenance.

Invest in city ecosystem services

Buildings can be a cornerstone of transport and energy decarbonization by providing services to the broader city ecosystem. Those buildings equipped with distributed renewable generation, storage and smart energy management solutions can contribute demand or frequency response services that accelerate city-wide decarbonization by offering solutions that do not require disruptive grid upgrades. Co-siting smart charging for electric vehicles with multiresidence or commercial buildings can provide grid services as well as contribute to the decarbonization of individual vehicle transportation

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