Which Countries Are Taking the Lead on LEED?

As the countries of the world work on becoming more green, governments and institutions have been developing distinct criteria for measuring energy efficiency. One of the frameworks that the US developed in the 90s – and which countries globally are using as a standard for energy efficiency in construction – is the LEED system.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it was developed by the US Green Building Council. Today, it has become a standard for green building construction among most of the world’s countries. LEED aims to measure and assess construction standards, rather than performance, so its certification system relies on how well companies fare during the building process itself.

This article will look at the parameters outlined by LEED and the standards that it aims to set for building construction. It will examine which countries are faring best according to LEED criteria, and which need to make improvements in order to make the grade. It is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather examine some of the notable features of countries that are leading the way in environmental construction efforts.

Where did LEED come from, and what is its purpose?

As mentioned above, LEED was formally launched in 1998 by the non-profit US Green Building Council. However, the Natural Resources Defense Council (supported by the USGBC) had started implementing a certificate program in 1993. In an effort to create a potentially global standard for environmentally-friendly construction, the USGBC decided to expand it into a wholesale framework with different certification levels to act as a potential construction guideline around the world. 

The goals of establishing the LEED certification are to save money, improve efficiency, lower carbon emissions, and generally create healthier places to live in. On a larger scale, the standardization aims to tackle climate change and meet the goals established in ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance), as well as the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

What does the framework entail?

LEED certification consists of four levels, and projects are rated on a points system.

Completed projects can be platinum, gold, silver, or “certified,” depending on how many points they are able to gain. The points system is somewhat complex, with certain categories being worthy of only single points, and others meriting more. Certification levels are based on the following system:

  • Platinum – projects that earn a total of 80 points or more
  • Gold – 60-79 points
  • Silver – 50-59 points
  • Basic certification – 40-49 points

The LEED certification looks at six different factors in its rating mechanism:

  • Location and access to transportation. Environmental factors have not only to do with building construction itself, but also how accessible transportation is to any given building. Also, if the neighborhood surrounding a particular construction is considered particularly “walkable,” it will gain more points.
  • Sustainable site development. This covers the entire development process, from the treatment of land to the final stages of building.
  • Water savings. This category rates the mechanisms that builders have incorporated to conserve water within a complex.
  • Energy efficiency. This category takes into consideration a range of factors related to energy efficiency, which will be explained in greater detail below.
  • Materials selection. Materials that companies use in construction are rated on how many recyclable components are used, and what waste management planning is included.
  • Indoor environmental quality. This includes such factors as air quality, the use of LED and other energy-conserving lights, etc.

The USGBC has revised these criteria several times since its initial incarnation, with upgraded versions coming out every 4-5 years. The most recent version is LEED 4.1, which the organization launched in 2019. The new components of version 4.1 include such things as the following:

  • an analysis of equitable stakeholder benefits among participating parties
  • the amount of time that a given project will likely benefit surrounding communities
  • the prioritization of sustainable materials 

Which countries are faring the best overall?

While LEED certification applies to individual construction projects, it is worthwhile to look at larger areas – geographically and politically – to assess how countries fare vis-a-vis one another according to this framework. The US still stands on top in terms of projects completed. It was, of course, the originator of the program. In this article, we will look at the next three countries on the list. 

Finally, we will look at some of the major counties that are either not participating in the system, or which for some reason failed to make the list of the leading participants.

China takes the lead

For the second year in a row, mainland China came out on top in terms of the number of LEED-certified building projects in 2022. China completed 1121 LEED-certified buildings last year, totaling almost 17 million square meters in space. 

Part of China’s success is thanks to its “Made in China 2025” program that the country launched in 2015. This program aims to decrease dependence on foreign technology, and change the global perspective of its being a second-rate manufacturing hub. Part of the program involves meeting global environmental standards for new construction. Obtaining LEED certification has been an important component of this.

In addition, China also has an alternative ranking mechanism for meeting environmental standards. For residential buildings, China is more likely to use their own, domestic “3 Star” rating system. This system uses a similar yet separate set of criteria in its ranking mechanism. Interestingly, if China were to apply the LEED system to all of its new construction, it would be even further on top of the list.

India rises to second place

In 2022, India rose from third to second place in its number of LEED-certified projects. Although far behind China in total number, India completed 323 projects in 2022, with more than 10 million square meters of construction. Interestingly, although the total number of projects was only about 30% of China’s, the space that India’s new construction occupies is more than 60% of China’s total. In other words, India is completing a smaller number of projects, but covering a greater area with them. 

India’s range of green construction covers an interesting variety of building types. Included in India’s certified projectsdsx are the “Suzlon One Earth” office complex in Pune, which uses 100% renewable power, encompasses 10 acres and serves as a model for similar projects with its “office in the garden” theme.

The Hyderabad airport is the first airport in Asia to receive LEED certification. The airport boasts net carbon neutrality, uses solar power for its operations, and includes an in-house composting plant.

India also counts a variety of different styles of office buildings in many parts of the country, with the NCR (national capital region) having the greatest number.

Canada fares well nationally and locally

Canada comes in third in the global LEED rankings for 2022. It has a total number of projects at 248 and 5.3 million square meters of construction.

The distribution of certified buildings is nationwide in populated areas. However, Canada has whole cities that have taken on green initiatives recently, such as Toronto. As far back as 1989, the city pledged to become a leader in the reduction of greenhouse gasses.

In 2005, the Toronto Atmospheric Fund gave the city a generous endowment to encourage green building. Along with new construction, the government has also been incentivizing the upgrading of existing structures to meet LEED standards. 

In addition to buildings, the city is also overhauling other aspects of its infrastructure to make it more environmentally friendly. This includes smart streetlighting, city-wide composting and recycling efforts, and more. It actually calls itself an “eco-tourism city” because of the number of initiatives that it has launched.

Are there competing programs in certain parts of the world?

The LEED system is by far the most widespread and universally-used system of its kind in the world. No other international system can compare to it on a similar scale. However, there are sometimes local or national standards that combine with LEED to further encourage the standardization of green growth. 

In the UK, there is a system known as BREEAM, which stands for Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology. BREEAM is actually an older system than LEED, having started its certification process as early as 1990. Although similar to LEED in its overall goals, BREEAM uses a weighted scoring mechanism, rather than a points-based one. Experts “appraise” BREEAM-certified projects  at the beginning and the end of a given construction cycle to assess how well the execution matched the initial plans.

It may be because of the difference in rating mechanisms that the UK doesn’t rank higher on the LEED-certified project list. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the UK itself is falling behind in terms of meeting environmental standards. In order to assess the country’s ranking more accurately, it would be necessary to employ different metrics, such as carbon emissions and other environmental factors.

As mentioned earlier, some countries are using dual rating systems. China is one of them. This is also a consideration in larger country rankings.

Have there been shifts in the country rankings since the beginning of the program?

There are several countries that are growing in terms of LEED certifications. This year, the Philippines made it onto the top 10 list for the first time. Spain, Mexico, and the UAE have all been faring well in the last year.

Curiously absent from the top countries is most of Western Europe, including France, Germany, and Austria. Germany does have over 500 certified buildings, but given the size of the population vis-a-vis Canada, for example, the country’s numbers could be much higher.  

What is the future of LEED?

With all this in mind, the next logical question is, what is the future of LEED?

The USGBC hopes that LEED will serve as a starting point for larger environmental initiatives. The LEED strategy says that the program should “encourage and equip project teams to embrace strategies for decarbonization, health, equity, and resilience.” 

It is not clear whether LEED  will remain the world’s leading ranking mechanism for environmentally sound construction. It could happen that  others will start to replace it in the future. What is important is that it has led the way in establishing standards in general. It is up to each country to determine for itself how to measure environmental impact.

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