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Synergies between LEED and SDGs

Synergies between LEED and SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a collection of 17 global goals set by the United Nations (U.N.) in September 2015 to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all by 2030. Meeting the targets and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals represents an ambitious undertaking, so the U.N. and its member states are calling on governments of all sizes, as well as the private sector, civil society and the general public to contribute to the mission, both individually and collaboratively.

LEED categories can contribute toward meeting the SDGs, not only by saving water, increasing energy efficiency, minimizing of carbon emissions (GHGs) and significantly reduce health harmful air pollutants, etc. but also by promoting education, creating jobs, improving health and well-being, enhancing community resilience, and much more. Policymakers, planners, and builders can use LEED and sustainable building practices as strategies for achieving the UN SDGs.

There are many synergies between LEED and the SDGs. Explore the synergies between LEED and the SDGs below, to identify strategies to achieve specific SDGs through LEED certification.

Good Health and Well-being aims to ensure healthy lives for people of all ages. USGBC sees health as imperative in all of its work. Green building can directly contribute to some of the SDG 3 targets. For example, when a project is designed to mimic its site's natural hydrology and water balance, based on regional undeveloped ecosystems, it can help reduce water contamination and flooding, which can pose health risks downstream, especially when considered cumulatively.

Also, when projects reduce their fossil fuel use, through energy performance and renewable energy use, they reduce their potential contribution to heat island effects and to local air pollution, both of which have significant health impacts. These building strategies can help protect people in the watershed and airshed, not only at the project site itself.

Green building projects can also support community health by serving functions like providing space for recreation, implementing strategies that address existing health needs and minimizing project features that could present risks to health.

LEED pushes project teams, building owners, and operators to address the relationship between the indoor environment and human health in several ways. The Indoor Environmental Quality credit category in the rating system is dedicated to protecting the health and comfort of building occupants.

Clean Water and Sanitation ensures the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. A sustainable built environment preserves access to safe water and regenerates natural resources. The LEED rating system encourages water use reduction, rainwater management and the employment of alternative, nonpotable water sources for appropriate end uses. In addition, it goes to the heart of the root causes—climate changes making water scarcity worse—with a focus on overall carbon reduction.

In LEED v4.1 for Building Design and Construction (BD+C), Outdoor Water Use Reduction, Indoor Water Use Reduction and Building-level Water Metering are required prerequisites for achieving Water Efficiency (WE) credits.

Affordable and Clean Energy seeks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all people by 2030. Access to energy has been identified as a key component of continued development, especially in the global south. However, as countries develop, this will require greater and greater access to energy, which has been historically produced by fossil fuels, exacerbating our already dire climate crisis. Following the U.N.’s declaration that development is an inalienable right of all persons, peoples and states, SDG 7 aims to guarantee this right for future generations while protecting our climate—by encouraging a transition to a clean, sustainable energy future.

Because buildings account for almost 40% of global energy usage, promoting efficient and sustainable energy use in the building sector is critical to achieving the goals laid out in SDG 7. Reducing the carbon footprint and energy usage of buildings is a key part of USGBC’s mission and one of the driving forces behind the LEED rating system. High-performing green buildings, like the ones certified under LEED, demonstrate energy efficiency and drive the adoption of sustainable energy technologies. Additionally, LEED Zero Energy and Zero Carbon certifications recognize the achievement of net zero goals in building operations by maximizing energy efficiency and implementing renewable energy.

Finally, USGBC and partner organizations are working on the GridOptimal project, which will develop standards for how buildings can use energy and interact with the grid to further promote an affordable and reliable electricity supply.

Organizations across a number of sectors understand that green practices are good for their bottom lines—lowering energy and water bills, improving employee health and productivity, and building up a reservoir of goodwill among customers and other stakeholders who value sustainability.

Green building continues to impact a growing green economy from solar panel sales teams to sustainable construction consultants, from manufacturers of low-VOC paint to green cleaning contractors, from architects and engineers to landscapers and HVAC installers—whose jobs have either been created or forever changed by the new green economy.

Green infrastructure helps align sustainable development efforts and foster social and economic development.

USGBC is well positioned to help cities incorporate these strategies into tangible green infrastructure development. LEED provides a framework that validates best practices and that can be used as useful guides for green infrastructure development. LEED helps ensure that best practices are being strategically implemented through an array of initiatives.

Green infrastructure is most prominently rewarded in LEED’s Sustainable Sites and Location and Transportation credit categories. The Sustainable Sites category presents opportunities to incorporate naturally functioning landscapes that increase ecosystem services. Location and Transportation credits reward projects that protect sensitive land and that encourage high-density infill development that reduces impervious surfaces.

In addition, LEED drives project teams to improve energy efficiency by investing in green infrastructure that provides shading and wind protection. For example, green roofs add insulation and extend the lifetime of roof materials, reducing both energy demand and life cycle material costs. Reduced building footprints preserve land for high-performing sites that can use permeable surfaces, catchment systems and water-efficient landscaping to reproduce natural conditions and achieve Water Efficiency credits.

LEED for Neighborhood Development advocates incorporating green infrastructure into buildings, landscapes and the many connecting spaces between. This rating system includes a Green Infrastructure and Buildings category, which accentuates the importance of green infrastructure at different scales throughout cities.

LEED is updated through a continuous improvement process and with each new version USGBC is evolving LEED’s approach and challenging the building sector to be more resource efficient and sustainable. Building owners are pivoting focus to the occupants to reduce inequality, combat health concerns and deliver value to support the day-to-day needs of everyone.

LEED v4.1 emphasizes the human experience and pushes project teams to create spaces that not only reduce carbon emissions, energy, water use and waste, but also improve the health and well-being of the people who live, work, learn and play in these buildings, cities and communities every day.

Sustainable Cities and Communities is focused on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Urbanization is happening at a rapid pace in cities around the globe, creating acute environmental, social and economic challenges in these growing urban areas. SDG 11 aims to address these challenges through targets that

  • Ensure access to adequate, safe and affordable housing.
  • Provide access to green space, reduce air pollution.
  • Prepare for weather-related risks.

In many ways, our mission at USGBC echoes the goals and targets of SDG 11. We want to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling a socially responsible, healthy and prosperous environment that improves quality of life for all.

Many credit categories in LEED directly address sustainable cities and communities. For example, LEED’s Sustainable Sites category promotes patterns of development that preserve natural systems and help combat urban sprawl. The Location and Transportation category addresses a key element of inclusive cities: access to accessible and affordable transportation. Plus, LEED’s new resilient design pilot credit rewards projects for addressing risks and vulnerabilities to both natural and human-caused disasters.

Going beyond an individual building, the new LEED for Cities and Communities rating system is directly connected to the goals of SDG 11. The rating system looks at the economic, environmental and social health of a city or community and provides a clear means for tracking progress, to provide a better quality of life of all residents.

Responsible Consumption and Production promotes the responsible and sustainable production and consumption of goods and services.

As the global population grows and standards of living improve, material consumption increases at a staggering rate across the world. If present trends in production and consumption continue, it is estimated that it will take three planets' worth of resources to sustain current lifestyles, if the world population reaches 9.6 billion by 2050. Therefore, SDG 12 sets targets to encourage lowering the life cycle impact of the goods and services we use.

At USGBC, we support the goals in SDG 12 by promoting the responsible production and consumption of materials. The LEED rating system drives the adoption of sustainable practices throughout the life cycle of a building, from construction to operations to renovation or demolition.

However, if we only focused on sustainability in construction and operations, a huge piece of the carbon puzzle would be left out: the embodied carbon associated with the production and transportation of the materials used to build the building. Even if a building is 30% more energy-efficient than the average, operationally, it can still take somewhere between 10 and 80 years for that energy efficiency to offset the emissions generated by the embodied carbon in the building.

With the percentage of the world’s population living in urban areas projected to swell from 55% to 68% by 2050, it is important that the new buildings built in this urban expansion be built with a focus on reducing embodied carbon. LEED v4.1, the newest version of the rating system, includes an updated Materials and Resources category, with a renewed focus on life cycle assessment.

Climate action calls for governments, nonprofits, private sector actors and the public to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

The effects of climate change are wide-ranging and will affect lives and economies around the globe. The climate change crisis represents a full-scale tragedy of the commons, as greenhouse gas emissions emitted anywhere in the world contribute to the accumulated atmospheric gases that are trapping heat and warming the planet.

Our vision at USGBC is that buildings and communities will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation. Addressing climate change is a central tenet of how we undertake our work in support of this vision.

Reversing the contribution of buildings to global climate change is a core goal in USGBC’s LEED rating system. High-performing green buildings, particularly LEED-certified buildings, can significantly reduce the contribution of greenhouse gas emissions over the life of the building. For this reason, 35 of the 100 total points in LEED v4 are distributed to reward climate change mitigation strategies. Also, as a partner in the Advancing Net Zero program, USGBC is developing a verification for projects that achieve net zero carbon emissions in Arc.

At USGBC, virtually all of our platforms and activities—rating systems, education, advocacy, partnerships and events—have a connection to reducing our impact on climate.

Sustainable landscapes create ecologically resilient places better able to withstand and recover from floods, droughts, wildfires and other catastrophic events. In addition, a growing body of research is revealing the benefits people derive from being in nature, such as improvements to cognitive functioning, decreases in anxiety and stress levels and increases in productivity.

The Sustainable Sites category in LEED prescribes ways to ensure that project sites are safe for human activity and respect the unique conditions of surrounding areas. The LEED credit for Site Development—Protect or Restore Habitat, seeks to conserve existing natural areas and restore damaged areas by promoting the planting of native or adapted vegetation on a significant portion of a given project site.

Innovation credits in LEED reward projects for community outreach and engagement. Community engagement happens through meetings with adjacent property owners, residents, business owners, and workers; local planning and community development officials; and any current residents or workers at the project site to solicit and document their input on the proposed project before beginning design. Project teams also host open community meetings and work directly with community associations and/or the local government.

USGBC recommends ongoing communication and outreach throughout a building’s lifecycle.

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