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The anatomy of a carbon-neutral building

What does it take to make a carbon-neutral building? A lot of energy-efficient technologies, renewable energy, and other environmentally friendly solutions. Based on our experience with warehouses and logistics centers, we break them down for you here.

Pulling the decarbonization levers

The number of organizations setting net-zero targets in line with the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi) is rising – and that’s great news! But many won’t achieve their goals unless their efforts to decarbonize include their supply chains.

We’re doing our best to help with that, but there’s still a long road ahead. One part of the supply chain that often gets overlooked is the warehouse sustainability, which we’re trying to change. That includes leveraging the latest technologies to make our buildings more sustainable. In the future, we believe carbon-neutral buildings will become the new standard in logistics. We can even envision a world where environmentally friendly warehouses and fulfillment centers become local power distribution hubs.

But what does it take to operate a carbon-neutral building? Based on our experience, we’ve identified a number of standard and advanced levers to increase efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in warehouses. We’d like to share these “efficiency and decarbonization levers” here, as they will become increasingly important as we drive supply chains toward net zero.

Standard efficiency and decarbonization levers

Renewable Energy

  Renewable energy from the grid
2  Solar panels (PV)
3  Solar ready roof
4  Battery storage ready

Efficient Lighting

  LED lighting with smart controls
6  Vertical skylights


Electrical vehicle charging (commercial)
8  Electrical vehicle charging (cars)
9  Effi cient transformers

Heating & Cooling

  Effi cient HVAC / optimization
11  Natural ventilation
12  Solar shades
13  Effi cient dock seals / air tightness
14  Rapid rise doors

Building Automation & Metering

  Building automation
16  Main meter energy monitoring
17  Sub meters advanced energy monitoring


18  Biodiversity
19  Rain water harvesting
20  Low use water appliances

What is a carbon-neutral building?

You may be surprised to learn that it’s difficult to answer this question. That’s because many terms are used to describe carbon-neutral buildings, but no global standards exist. For example, the European Union defines a zero-emission building as a “building with a very high energy performance, with the very low amount of energy still required fully covered by energy from renewable sources and without on-site carbon emissions from fossil fuels.” The World Green Building Council defines a “net zero energy building” as one where on-site renewable resources supply 100% of the energy demand. If you purchase off-site renewable energy, they call it “net zero operational carbon.”

However, most experts agree that net carbon emissions must be zero for a building to be considered carbon neutral* – and that making a building highly energy efficient is the first step.

As you’ll see below, there are many aspects to consider and many technologies available to help you achieve your sustainability goals.

Standard decarbonization levers

Warehouses usually make up a smaller portion of a company’s GHG emissions, but making warehouses more sustainable is a viable and very tangible tool for reducing a supply chain’s carbon footprint. Some now-standard technologies, such as LED lights with smart controls, sustainable heating systems, and rooftop solar panels, can be used to retrofit existing facilities in some cases. More advanced technologies, like enhanced on-site building automation, wind turbines, and batteries to store renewable energy depend a lot on the local conditions. Other levers that require structural changes to the building, such as vertical skylights, only work in new constructions.

Here's a list of steps you can take that are now standard in many parts of the world.

Renewable energy

Local renewable energy is arguably the most essential part of any carbon-neutral building blueprint. It immediately lowers external electricity demand, can lower heating emissions, and sets the stage for other sustainable technologies.

Efficient lighting

More efficient lighting has been available for some time now, with LED and natural light options pretty much standard in new constructions. However, an intelligent approach ensures that lighting is both functional and sustainable.

Electric vehicles

The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is crucial for sustainability. We must integrate them into the design of carbon-neutral buildings, especially warehouses and other logistics facilities where many EVs are in use. Designers need to focus on establishing a robust charging infrastructure with charging stations for a variety of vehicles.

Heating and cooling

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems consume significant energy and produce GHG emissions. There are many ways to optimize these systems and integrate smart sensors and controls to reduce energy use, emissions, and costs.

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Building automation and metering

Automation is key to reducing energy bills and GHG emissions. Smart meters can identify energy wastage and help optimize energy usage, leading to resource-efficient and eco-friendly building operations.


Sustainable landscaping and site design can enhance a building's overall environmental health and reduce its carbon footprint by promoting biodiversity, minimizing water consumption, sequestering carbon, and more. It is increasingly becoming a must-have in carbon-neutral buildings.

Advanced decarbonization levers

Now let’s look at more advanced approaches to reducing energy consumption and minimizing GHG emissions on the path to a carbon-neutral building. Advanced technologies like these depend a lot on the local conditions and need to be checked thoroughly for feasibility before implementation.

Renewable energy

  • Install on-site wind turbines.
  • Install on-site batteries to store energy and use it at night or for backup power.

Efficient lighting and electrical

  • Utilize lighting infrastructure to transfer data or monitor and guide device movements.
  • Replace conventional cables to reduce power loss.

Heating and cooling

  • Generate heat with more sustainable alternatives, such as biomass boilers, solar thermal heating, or in the future hydrogen.
  • Install advanced heat distribution systems, such as dedicated workspace heating instead of entire building areas.
  • Install wall-mounted solar panels on sun-facing facades.
  • Leverage waste heat for cooling with an absorption chiller or use adiabatic cooling, which cools by evaporating water.
  • Upgrade the roof with a membrane or paint to reflect the sun and reduce thermal gain.
  • Upgrade insulation to reduce loss.
  • Use enhanced glazing to reflect the sun and reduce thermal gain, or install glass facades that harness heat in the winter and block it in the summer.

Building automation and metering

  • Install an advanced building management system for a more sophisticated user interface and control of all HVAC systems.
  • Integrate AI tools to leverage machine learning and data analytics, such as weather forecasting, to optimize key components of building operations.


  • Create a green roof to reduce solar heat gain and cool via evaporation in the summer and reduce heat loss in the winter, as well as store water and provide a habitat for insects.
  • Recycle used tap water (grey water harvesting) to supply restrooms and outside taps and lower water usage.

Creating a carbon-neutral building is about making sustainable business standard practice

As you can see, there are many ways to make buildings more sustainable and ultimately carbon neutral. And we haven’t even covered recycled and sustainable building materials, furniture, indoor plants, or living walls. New ideas and innovations are popping up every day!

Combining it all to design a carbon-neutral building is complex but undoubtedly achievable. Many of the technologies and approaches outlined above are now standard practice in new constructions – and it won’t be long before the latest advancements become the norm as well. 

As we move toward a greener future, it's clear that creating sustainable supply chains requires a holistic and innovative approach. And that carbon-neutral warehouses and other logistics buildings must be part of it.

This article focuses on the currently available technologies and approaches for increasing efficiency and reducing GHG emissions in buildings. However, 100% carbon neutrality will likely still require purchasing carbon credits to offset residual emissions. Efforts should also be made to use sustainable and reusable building materials in the construction phase to reduce the facility’s carbon footprint further.

*At DHL, and when discussing carbon-neutral design, the term carbon-neutral building refers to a DHL internal rating standard for building emissions. It includes the building’s operational carbon emissions according to Scope 1 & 2, with 75% or more carbon reduction and a maximum of 25% offsets with verified carbon credits allowed (compared to a brown baseline). Emissions reduction is achieved by using renewable energies, like solar PV, and the deployment of energy-efficient technologies.

Want to know more about our approach?

As the world’s leading logistics company with operations in over 220 countries and territories, we have a considerable number of physical assets worldwide. Learn more about what we’re doing to make them greener.

Published: April 2024

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