Operationalizing net zero: Key recommendations


Our industry is engaged in an important dialogue to improve sustainability through ESG transparency and industry collaboration. This article is a contribution to this larger conversation and does not necessarily reflect GRESB’s position.


Setting a net-zero target is one thing. Achieving it is another. How are real estate developers and operators working to operationalize net zero? And what do real estate organizations need to know early in their net-zero journey?

Mitigating embodied carbon

For real estate developers, managing the emissions associated with new developments and renovations is critical to achieving net zero. With a rapidly evolving landscape of codes, regulations, and incentives, we’re seeing among Stok’s clients an increased willingness to transition guidelines to requirements, moving “we would like” language to “we must.”

Core strategies for mitigating embodied carbon from construction include:

#1: Early design and life cycle assessments

Conducting whole building life cycle assessments (WBLCAs) during early design enables the identification of carbon hotspots and can drive decisions that prioritize low-carbon material selection and methods, including adaptive reuse. Early-stage WBLCAs are appropriate for all asset types and can be used to set embodied carbon thresholds and strategize early on, avoiding costly changes later in the process, and/or limited emissions reductions. Assessments are updated throughout the project lifecycle to explore and track design and materials changes, and a final assessment can be conducted once the project is complete to accurately account for the building’s footprint and achieved reductions against a baseline. For those new to using early WBLCAs, we recommend beginning with one or more pilot projects to understand the value, become familiar with the process, and explore the potential for this tool to contribute to overall net-zero goals.

#2: Material selection and procurement

The choice of construction materials and associated supply chains has a significant impact on embodied carbon. Identifying and partnering with geographically proximal and environmentally responsible suppliers aligns with a growing number of low-carbon procurement policies from state and federal jurisdictions. Noteworthy requirement-based initiatives include the Buy Clean California Act and the recently added embodied carbon requirements in California Green Building Standards Code (CALGreen). Some initiatives are incentive-based, such as the Low Embodied Carbon Concrete Leadership Act (LECCLA) in New York and New Jersey and provide tax incentives to bidders who can provide low-impact materials for state projects.

In practice: Embodied carbon

Since 2019, Stok has supported a real estate developer and operator with more than USD 4 billion assets under management to operationalize a net-zero pathway. Stok and the client have worked collaboratively to integrate more rigor within the client’s New Development Standard, and Stok has worked hand-in-hand with development managers to create checklists and reference tools that support them in implementing this standard within their day-to-day activities. In another case, Stok has collaborated closely with a developer and their design team to minimize embodied carbon impacts and pursue LEED certification for a California-based project. As a result of this proactive approach, the project is fully prepared to seamlessly meet the latest CALGreen requirements for embodied carbon without any further action.

Mitigating operational carbon

For real estate developers, operators, and AEC partners, quantifying and managing the emissions associated with energy use across owned and leased spaces is a crucial aspect of net zero. These emissions should be viewed not just through the lens of annual energy use, but also through the lens of the lifetime of the building. This is particularly true for developers, who should account for the lifetime operational emissions of buildings sold.

The approach to mitigating operational carbon can be thought of as a hierarchy of action areas, ranging from emissions avoidance as the highest priority, to reduction, replacement, and emissions neutralization through the application of high-quality carbon credits.

Regardless of industry and portfolio size, the crux of decarbonizing—particularly across standing assets—hinges on the ability to view and manage a strategy at two levels: the portfolio and the asset. In theory, this is simple, but in practice it’s anything but. The experience of our team and clients has illustrated time and again that understanding how and when to align asset-level goals to portfolio goals, and how and when to allow asset-level goals to diverge from portfolio goals, can make or break your decarbonization efforts.

#1: Portfolio view

This is the 30,000-foot view, or the forest, where assets are aggregated by use type, market, and other key characteristics. Through this view, organizations develop a data-informed portfolio strategy that optimizes impact, effort, cost, and timeline. This strategy provides the overarching vision and direction for operational decarbonization, and helps organizations identify groups of assets that may be prioritized for acquisition and disposition, further investigation and data improvement, and emissions mitigation.

#2: Asset view

This is the up-close view, or the trees, where individual asset performance and investments come into play. At this level, we work with organizations to identify individual assets for investment, and to set asset-level targets. Accurate data is particularly powerful at this level because it drives decisions related to where and when certain strategies will be deployed, as well as the required investment and payback periods.

At the asset level, engagement is the linchpin of strategic action. It’s worth every minute to solicit new ideas, gain buy-in, build ownership, and ensure alignment—all of which are required for operational decarbonization, which is a highly cross-functional effort.

In practice: Electrification

From a net-zero perspective, electrification of all new developments and of standing assets must occur, as it’s the only way to directly eliminate an existing building’s fossil fuel consumption. This transition is relatively easy to incorporate into portfolio-level forecasts and high-level mitigation planning but is much more complex to plan for and implement at assets.

Since 2009, Stok has partnered with the County of San Diego in developing and operationalizing net-zero energy and net-zero carbon across the County’s facilities. Electrification is a key feature of this work. All new County facilities are all-electric; all existing facilities are being studied for electrification. To date, Stok has completed electrification feasibility studies across 11 facilities covering 1.2M square feet, identifying GHG savings of approximately 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

In developing the County’s Zero Carbon Portfolio Plan in 2022, it became clear that achieving net-zero-carbon goals on time would require the County to replace gas-fired equipment ahead of end-of-life and/or to pursue significant project volume leading up to their target year. The County opted to take a proactive approach, spreading out projects between now and 2030 to smooth out funding requirements.

Funding, of course, is not the only challenge electrification presents. An additional challenge is planning for downtime at critical facilities. While planning for these challenges is underway, forward movement has not stalled. Stok is working today with clients to implement the supporting infrastructure for electrification, inclusive of onsite renewables, battery storage, and electric vehicle charging stations. These measures are generally less costly and easier to implement, making near-term action more accessible than larger capital projects.

Recommendations for your net-zero journey

As real estate developers and operators work to operationalize net zero across embodied and operational carbon, we recommend the following actions:

#1: Commit significant resources to educate and engage

One of the key missteps we see from organizations pursuing net zero is a lack of sufficient and dedicated resources to educate and engage internal and external stakeholders. At its core, operationalizing net zero requires transformational shifts in day-to-day operations and strategic decision-making across the business. Too often we see organizations underestimate the magnitude of change—and the timeline, effort, and cross-team staff critical to navigating it well. Sufficient and committed resources in terms of hours and budget go a long way to paving the path toward net zero and ensuring that one step forward doesn’t become two steps back.

#2: Define clear guidelines—and requirements

In some instances, guidelines may be sufficient while in others, requirements will be necessary to achieve outcomes. Requirements are most effective when they are used to drive critical actions that are ambitious yet feasible and are supported by streamlined and well-defined processes.

#3: Work with end users to establish fit-for-purpose tools that evolve over time

Ensure that any guidelines and requirements can be followed by those making the decisions and doing the work. Collaborate with end users to design and iterate workflows and tools that can be easily integrated into daily tasks without significant burden on both internal staff as well as external stakeholders, such as vendors. Assume that all tools will evolve over time and prioritize their continual improvement.

#4: Pilot before you scale

For many companies and the staff tasked with climate action efforts, it can be challenging to translate the sheer magnitude of net zero into bite-sized actions, and to gain internal buy-in for larger programmatic and capital investments. Many of our clients have found success in conducting pilot projects prior to scaling across their portfolio. Pilots provide a “safe to try” environment where learning is one of the core expectations. Learnings can then be applied to fine-tune mitigation measures across more projects or entire portfolios.

On the path to net zero, there’s a daunting gap between setting targets and achieving them. By tackling embodied carbon early in design and approaching operational carbon cohesively at the portfolio and asset level, real estate developers and operators can effectively operationalize net zero.

This article was written by Colette Crouse, Director of Carbon Services at Stok and Shreya Das, Carbon Services Project Manager at Stok.


The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, World Green Building Council.

California Adopts First-in-Nation Building Code Revision to Reduce Embodied Carbon, Architectural Record, Aaron Smolar, August 2023.

Electrification: A New Value-Add Approach to Avoid Common Costly Pitfalls, Xun Jia, Stok, June 20, 2023.

County of San Diego Zero Carbon Portfolio Plan, Stok.