November 3, 2020 Kate Zeile

Navigating Net Zero Energy and Net Zero Carbon Building Certifications

Kate is a Project Management & LEED Intern at Verdical Group, assisting our Project Management team with project research, analysis, and certification documentation. She is a student at UCLA pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Science with a concentration in Environmental Systems & Society, as well as a Minor in Geographic Information Systems & Technology (GIS&T). She holds her LEED Green Associate credential and is actively involved with USGBC-LA.

The time to build a net zero future is now. If we’re going to have any hope of curbing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis, net zero energy and net zero carbon buildings need to be in the picture.

The good news is that, in recent years, there has been significant growth in the number of zero energy and zero carbon projects as a result of increasingly stringent energy policies and greater awareness. From long-term cost savings to market differentiation to climate change mitigation, there are myriad reasons to pursue a net zero project.

So, if you’re sold on net zero design and implementation – let’s talk certification. To further encourage market growth, organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) have introduced certification programs to recognize high performing net zero projects, thereby giving them a competitive edge in the marketplace. The USGBC and ILFI net zero programs certainly have many overlaps, but there are also key differences that are important to note when determining the best fit for your project. To explore these differences, let’s take a deep dive into four of the dominant net zero certifications in the industry: LEED Zero Energy, LEED Zero Carbon, ILFI Zero Energy Certification, and ILFI Zero Carbon Certification.

Program Overview

The first step of any certification program is to register the project. In order to register a project in either of the LEED Zero programs, the project must have a LEED BD+C or LEED O+M Certification. On the other hand, there are no registration barriers for ILFI’s programs: any building type, size, or location is welcome.

One of the most notable differences between the LEED and ILFI programs is the pricing. The LEED Zero program fees come in at a maximum price of $3,000, while the ILFI program fees come in at a minimum price of $3,750, making the ILFI programs more expensive. However, the ILFI comprehensive fee covers registration, support services, a two-part third-party audit, and certification, which explains the discrepancy. While projects involved in the ILFI certification process must undergo an independent third-party audit, projects involved in the LEED Zero certification process simply submit documentation to GBCI for review, similar to the conventional LEED process.

For all four certification programs, twelve consecutive months of performance data are necessary to obtain the certification. This performance data includes utility bills, procurement contracts, and calculations to prove the net zero energy or net zero carbon status of the project.

Zero Energy

For LEED Zero Energy, the project must achieve a source energy use balance of zero for twelve months. In other words, the total site and source energy delivered must be offset by on-site renewable energy generated and exported to the grid, off-site renewable energy procurement, or carbon offsets. For the ILFI Zero Energy Certification, the project must meet 100% of its annual energy needs using on-site renewable energy, and combustion is not allowed. Two important differences to note here:

  • LEED Zero Energy considers both site and source energy, while ILFI Zero Energy only considers site energy.
  • ILFI Zero Energy only allows on-site renewable energy as an offset strategy, while LEED Zero Energy allows for more pathways.

Overall, the ILFI Zero Energy Certification is more stringent and difficult to achieve, as projects are only allowed to offset energy use with on-site renewable energy.

Zero Carbon

For LEED Zero Carbon, the project must achieve a carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) balance of zero for twelve months. In other words, the carbon emitted from delivered energy and occupant transportation must be offset by the carbon avoided from on-site renewable energy generated and exported to the grid, off-site renewable energy procurement, or carbon offsets. For the ILFI Zero Carbon Certification, the project must first reduce operational energy use and embodied carbon emissions from building materials and construction. The project then must offset 100% of its operational energy use with new on- or off-site renewable energy and disclose and offset 100% of its embodied carbon emissions. Two important differences to note here:

  • LEED Zero Carbon considers operational energy and occupant transportation, while ILFI Zero Carbon considers operational energy and embodied carbon.
  • ILFI Zero Carbon focuses on reducing, disclosing, and offsetting carbon emissions, while LEED Zero Carbon only focuses on offsetting emissions.

In this case, the ILFI Zero Carbon Certification is more demanding, as projects must consider more management pathways and must account for embodied carbon emissions.


When deciding which net zero certification program to pursue, it is important to consider project budget and energy use scope, as these are the two main differences between the LEED Zero and ILFI Certifications. When viewed holistically, the varied range of program costs and requirements associated with these Zero Carbon and Zero Energy Certifications is great news for the marketplace: more certification pathways and payment options means greater accessibility and more widespread adoption of net zero.

Still not sure which net zero certification is the right fit for your project?

Feel free to reach out to our team here at Verdical Group to help you navigate throughout the entire certification process. Let’s work together to build a net zero energy future!

References & Resources

LEED Zero Program Guide

ILFI Zero Energy Certification web page

ILFI Zero Energy Certification Documentation Requirements

ILFI Zero Carbon Certification web page