Circular: energy neutral- climate neutral – system neutral

In recent projects we were forced to better define what energy-neutral and climate-neutral implies in practice, and to add a practical ambition. This has led to the above Tripartite goals. Since there is in general much debate about these terms, not in the least with organizations that have adopted these as a strategy with ambitions, I will explain how this was treated in a practical way for a client.

The focus has long been on energy , and mostly on direct operational demand of energy, for several functions and service in society. In the building sector positioned as strategies for energy -neutral, or 0-energy, or NOM, or ZEB, or BENG ( the Dutch near-0 buildings requirement) . In fact whether the (renewable) energy is supplied on or near the building, is physically not a big deal.

However, insights have grown, and there is more at stake: The Paris climate agreement talks about CO2 ( and other GHG emissions) which is more then operational energy. Its all CO2 related energy use, including embodied energy , the energy that is invested in winning processing and transport of materials and products, that provide a function, which in practice is a consumer of operational energy: a car, a building, a road , a telephone, to name a few. Energy neutral evolves into a whole life cycle approach.

Which is the climate –neutral target: Net 0-CO2, over all energy involved in a function or service for society. Whether a building or car , its the same.

The Paris climate agreement is therefor not only about operational energy, but on all CO2 related energy ( and other GHG, but for construction in general to be neglected)

Climate neutral, ( and the organizations that have adopted that as their ambition) implies that operational and embodied together becomes 0, and no that operational energy measures push the impact towards vast amount of materials invested. And; to become climate neutral is one thing,. But it comes with the obligation to stay climate neutral afterwards as well: no more CO2 emissions related to maintenance and replacement production energy…!

Even then we wont save the world….. In Europe alone we have to retrofit 255 million houses, let alone building huge wind-turbine parks and PV power plants to cover our energy demand. The input of materials to become energy and climate neutral is gigantic, and creates not only emissions from operation and production, but causes increased scarcity of materials, : It will cost energy to keep these materials available, to restore their original stocks, since if we only deplete we will run out of materials anyhow. Simple example is Wood: it has to be regrown using Solar energy. The energy is not the problem here, but the land impact.

Physically that counts for any material: it depletes and gets lost in the environment, the more diluted the more energy to spent to get it available again: from a waste storage or by filtering from ocean water. Which again costs energy and CO2 emissions. If not from the energy itself , then by land impact to generate renewable energy, to restore the diluted materials. And so on.

If generations after us should have some choices regarding energy and materials, it is required to restore materials as well. And that is what is here defined as system neutral: The whole chain of energy and materials combined is addressed and closed.

By the way: I have concentrated here on the materials aspects of our built environment. But the e-k-s approach applies similarly for our food supply or our water cycle. And in the end, ‘system-neutral’ unites all under one approach ( which ultimately can be traced back to land use: “ Embodied Land”, see  ) Think of the materials that are involved in drinking water production , and the energy in both materials and operational energy which also fall under CO2 rules. And the impact is fast growing, with many countries more and more relying on ocean water distillation for their water supplies.

Climate-neutral , practical:

If your organization wants to create energy neutral buildings or other activities, ( that is 0-operational fossil fuel) , and has a climate-neutral ambition for somewhere say 2030 , that implicates that already now the materials impact should be incorporated. The material investment, currently produced with fossil fuels, and expressed in CO2 emissions, should not be more as the reduced operational CO2 emissions up-to that (ambition date. If not, its cheating, its not climate neutral. In other words: if you want to be climate neutral in 2030, you will have to limit material impact to the maximum impact that would have been created operationally until 2030 without measures. Otherwise the overall CO2 emissions will reach beyond that date. Its not possible to be climate neutral sooner as on the date by which the material emissions ( per year averaged) are lower as the ones that would have been emitted by operational energy. In case of a building retrofit: there is a maximum embodied energy limit to the invested materials. If that amount of materials is not enough to create a 0-energy building, the energy demand has to be reduced first, by adapting building use, comfort or heated m2’s for instance.

System-neutral, practical:

System neutral implies not only taking responsibility for (materials-) energy ( CO2 emissions) but also for the materials (-stock) . Making sure that the materials stock remains in tact : by means of reserving land, or by extra energy production for restoring diluted stocks. The consequences are huge, but thats no wonder, we are with many, and use and consume as we wish. Without directly calculating, its obvious that its unavoidable that we also adapt our behavior and consumption in general, which limits the investments and compensations required in energy and material. For which many creative solutions are available, as I experienced in the recent projects .

Interested? : a lecture or workshops with your employees can show many examples and choices, to further explore and detail this for your organization. Information, mail:

Author: ronald rovers