SBTi building guidelines: What do they mean?

The main image for this comundo blog post about the SBTi building guidelines shows a close-up photo of the corner of a building against a blue sky. The building facade is white and the windows reflect the blue sky. It's a pleasing image
The path to net zero

The Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) has released the draft for net zero emissions target-setting guidelines for the building sector. The process for creating the guide began in October 2021, and the draft was released to the public in May 2023. The detailed document was crafted with the help of multiple stakeholders in the building industry and PwC. The guidelines are undergoing a pilot study and are slated to be finalised by mid-2024.  

SBTi creates science-based target-setting guidelines specific to industries and has previously published detailed drafts for important sectors such as apparel, aviation, Information and Communication Technology, and finance. This is the first time the initiative has devised a guide for the building industry, which is said to be responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions.

Notably, the new building sector-specific guidelines are increasingly robust and align with the Paris Agreement’s goal of a 1.5 °C temperature rise from pre-industrial levels. If you’re worried about complying with the SBTi building guidelines, don’t stress, comundo has your back! In this article, we’ll explain who the SBTi guidance is aimed at, some noteworthy highlights when it will be finalised, and the next steps. 


Who is the SBTi building guidance for? 

The new SBTi target guidelines for the building sector target not just construction or real estate companies but stakeholders in the entire value chain of a building. These guidelines may apply to parties such as developers, owners, building managers, and tenants. 

The guidelines also feature a separate section for financial institutes, as they play a pivotal role in the construction and management of buildings. Even though the SBTi has issued guidelines for financial institutions separately, this guide also addresses critical aspects of the building industry, such as financed emissions. The tools provided for setting targets pertain to both embodied and operating emissions of a building. 

Although not required, companies in the building sector may choose to get SBTi certification by developing and submitting their targets directly to SBTi and reporting on their progress. This can help ensure that targets are relevant and impactful. 

Quick side note: Embodied emissions are the emissions emitted during the making of a building. Whereas operational emissions refer to the greenhouse gases (GHG) produced due to the building’s energy consumption. This particular draft does not address entities that produce manufacturing material. However, other sector-specific drafts exist for the cement, aluminium, and steel industries. 

An extreme close-up photo of a building showing concrete panels and a window corner

Highlights of the SBTi buildings guidelines draft

The new guidelines for science-based targets (SBTs) for building emissions focus on near- and long-term targets. However, this new draft makes the rules and conditions for near-term targeting more stringent. Moreover, there’s more clarity about embodied emissions for new buildings. 

Let’s break down some noteworthy highlights of the draft:

Wider scope of targets with the ‘whole building approach’

With the new guidelines, the in-use operational emissions pathway will follow a ‘whole building approach.’ In other words, a building’s operational consumption must be targeted and reported regardless of the landlord (scopes 1 and 2, as per the GHG protocol) or tenant spaces (scope 3). 

Companies must use sector-specific pathways for buildings. However, construction companies can use cross-sector pathways for scope 1 and 2 emissions. The scope 3 targets are now aligned with the 1.5 °C goal, similar to scope 1 and 2 targets. The guidelines take a more ambitious approach to setting targets for reducing scope 3 emissions. 

Targets based on building type and location

The sector-specific tools from SBTi for target setting will now have more flexibility regarding building types and locations. The draft acknowledges that the location and type of building can influence the pathway for reducing its carbon footprint. The building typologies include office, retail, hotel, industrial distribution warehouse, healthcare, medical office, recreation, and residential. 

This change may add some complexity, but it takes a more tailored approach to calculate operational emissions. Moreover, the guidelines permit aggregating targets if represented by the same units. 

Upfront embodied emissions targets for new buildings

Entities that are the owner/purchaser of a new building or finance the construction or purchase shall set scope 3 targets for upfront embodied emissions. This is applicable whether or not their existing scope 3 emissions make up less than 40% of total emissions. 

Also, companies that have already set embodied emissions targets based on previous guidelines should revise them according to the new guidelines and tools. The earlier guidance on scope 3 emissions was based on a 2 °C temperature rise. Furthermore, different companies should include the scope 3 categories for the targets. For instance, developers must categorise these emissions by capital goods and use of sold products. 

Financed emissions guidelines for financial institutions 

The new building-specific guidelines for financial institutions build upon the existing detailed guidance. The SBTi identifies and recommends the Global GHG Accounting and Reporting Standard to measure portfolio-wide financed emissions. They can prioritise certain parts of their portfolio for setting achievable financed emissions targets. Financial institutions may use asset-class levels for portfolio target-setting. These include mortgage, real estate, and corporate instruments. 

End of fossil fuel heating and cooking by 2025

This one is a biggie! 

One of the near-term targets recommended in the new guidelines is ending the use of fossil fuels for heating and cooking before or by 2025. This includes avoiding new installations of heating and cooking systems that utilise fossil fuels from 2025. And companies must make this commitment public. Companies owning or managing buildings with existing fossil fuel-based heating and cooking systems may gradually phase them out in favour of all-electric solutions.

Think of it like replacing your high-powered, gas-guzzling V8 Ferrari with a Tesla: you reduce your carbon footprint AND save on a ton of fuel costs. 

Latest update: Changes announced with SBTi guidelines V0.2.1

After public and SBTi companies' feedback, the SBTi updated its building sector guidelines and released version 0.2.1 of the draft. Note that the guidelines are projected to go into effect in the latter half of 2024 after successfully completing the pilot program with participating organisations. Therefore, more changes may occur before the guidelines are finalised. 

The latest version of the draft has clearer language and some revised guidelines. Here are the most notable changes announced with version 0.2.1 of the SBTi target-setting guidelines for the building sector:

  • The earlier version mandated location-based accounting for Scope 2 emissions of properties, which is now optional (it’s still recommended and required for reporting purposes only)
  • The date to end the usage of fossil-fuel-based heating and cooking has been extended to 2030 from 2025, citing the difficulty of this target’s implementation 
  • Embodied carbon targets have a new threshold, with SBTi recommending that only companies whose embodied emissions exceed 20% of total emissions should set targets for such emissions
  • For embodied emissions-related targets, companies can use sector-specific (for example, cement) or cross-sector guidance from SBTi

When do the guidelines go into effect? 

The latest SBTi building sector guidelines draft was released in December 2023. It will follow a pilot study that may last into early 2024. After the pilot study, the guidelines may be revised. Companies in the building industry can expect to implement the new guidelines beginning in April 2024. 

Taking the next steps 

The inclusion of financial institutions in the new sector-specific guidance for SBTs indicates the importance banks and other financial companies play in the carbon footprint of buildings. To set ambitious yet achievable targets based on these guidelines, it's important first to measure the current emissions of your portfolio. 

comundo can help measure accurate emissions across the portfolio of properties, which can be categorised based on asset classes provided in the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) building guidelines draft. Empowered with the data, responsible companies can set both near- and long-term targets.


What is the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi)?

Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) is an organisation that creates science-backed guidelines for setting climate targets. It is a collaboration of several non-profit organisations, including the World Resources Institute (WRI), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), and the United Nations Global Compact. It’s run by employees and researchers from collaborative organisations.


What are science-based targets?

Science-based targets are backed by research that helps identify measures to reduce GHG emissions. These targets align with the Paris Agreement, which necessitates a net-zero carbon footprint by 2050 to limit temperature rise by 1.5 °C. 

How can a company set science-based targets?

Companies can follow sector-specific guidelines published by SBTi. They can also work directly with SBTi to set and validate their targets. The latter approach is a five-step process:

  1. Commit—the company submits a letter to establish intent
  2. Develop—sets target according to SBTi’s guidelines
  3. Submit—presents the targets for validation
  4. Communicate—announce the validated targets to stakeholders
  5. Disclose—report emissions and target progress of initiatives

The above process is for large corporations. Small and medium-sized enterprises can follow a more streamlined process. 

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Ryan Stevens

Technical content creator
Ryan is a senior technical content creator, helping tech businesses plan, launch, and run a successful content strategy. After an extensive academic career in engineering, he worked with dozens of tech startups and established brands to reach new clients through proven content creation strategies.
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