The layman's guide to sustainability compiled by Turner & Townsend


Sustainability is now firmly at the top of most organisations agendas, but what does it all mean and how do some of these new fangled, even weird and wonderful technologies work? Below we attempt to assist with some jargon busting, we have not attempted to provide precise technology definitions, merely a simple guide.

Wind turbine

So what are we talking about?

Zero Carbon or Zero Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Emissions

Carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels. A zero carbon building is one with “zero net emissions of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from all energy use in the building”, including uses such as for cooking, TVs, computers and other appliances.

It is not simply for space heating and hot water etc.

It means that over a year there are no net carbon emissions resulting from the operation of the building. Zero carbon buildings can be standalone or grouped. Essentially these buildings are meeting all their energy needs from a 100% of renewable energy resources – discussed in further editions.

Carbon Neutral

Carbon neutral refers to energy consumption (through day to day activities or normal operations) of a building complex which emit no more carbon dioxide than produced from renewables at the building complex. Often a process easier to talk about than actually achieve as lifestyle, knowledge, culture change and day to day practices which do not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. One method of achieving carbon neutrality is by “carbon offsetting”.


Beloved by large corporate organisations and the financial sector, but derided by the environmental lobby as a “cop out,” carbon-offsetting works on the good old fashioned principle of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

If you can’t, or chose not to, reduce your CO2 emissions then carbon offsetting is a way of compensating a poor eco attitude. Carbon-offsetting is where wealthier northern hemisphere nations fund environmentally sound projects in the emerging economies of Africa and Asia swapping their high CO2 emissions for the latter’s low or non-existent emissions.

Typical examples of the type of carbon offsetting undertaken is tree planting – prevalent in the UK; and renewable energy and ICT technologies in Africa and Asia.

A clear distinction should be made with ‘carbon trading’ which is highly regulated stock market activity and legally controlled.

Whole Life Costing (WLCC)

Whole life cycle costing is all about assessing the long term cost implications of a purchasing decision, taking into account the capital (up-front) costs, financing, inflation, operating costs including maintenance and any residual costs of the asset over its planned viable life span.

A sustainable approach very much takes the long view of the design and procurement of building projects, as a balance between environmentally sound practices and financial viability. WLCC aims to ensure that he who pays the piper gets value for money, not just at the projects inception, but throughout its viable financial life cycle.