July was the hottest month on record, according to NASA, and we are in the middle of what’s shaping up to be the hottest year since the humans began keeping records. We are literally on a burning platform and despite the best of intentions the most we can hope for is a net zero emissions target set more than 30 years into the future.

But even seasoned time travellers like Marty McFly and Doc Brown would think 2050 is too far into the future to reliably predict the outcome of our actions today.

We have zero time to waste on net zero emissions — especially when the technology exists in the here and now. Net zero buildings become net zero cities, which become net zero countries. Saving the planet one skyscraper at a time.

To be clear, “net zero energy” refers to buildings that have become so efficient that it is possible with renewable energy generated onsite or purchased to completely offset its total consumption. The term “net zero carbon” refers to buildings that produce net zero carbon emissions on an annual basis. The two can be used interchangeably so long as the power needs are met by renewable sources. Both are achievable right now.

Big data the key

Cities are a massive drain on energy resources, with buildings accounting for nearly 40% of the world’s total energy consumption. The World Energy Council believes being energy efficient in buildings could result in energy savings of between 20% and 40%.

The absence of meaningful device level energy data is the biggest single barrier to energy efficiency and access to it will be the biggest driver of success. Technology that allows real-time monitoring of energy data is available now and set to make it far easier for businesses to achieve net zero carbon emissions.

The World Green Building Council recently announced a new project “Advancing Net Zero” which aims to make all buildings net zero by 2050. It is introducing a certification rating system which will be applied across the 74 separate Green Building Councils and 27,000 member companies within the WorldGBC.

Leading the charge to net zero

If the threat of climate change is a serious a threat to humanity, why are we collectively setting emissions targets which are decades in the distance? We can’t afford to wait that long, not when we have the power to make a change at our fingertips. We don’t have to wait for someone else to tell us what to do. It’s as simple as flicking a switch.

Once businesses and households have access to real-time data they will be empowered to take affirmative action for a clean energy future. Technology that allows real time monitoring of electricity consumption for every device in your business and home will allow people to see electricity for the first time. Once you can see it, you are less likely to waste it.

There’s no question that renewables are a big part of the solution, but being efficient with energy is something everybody, everywhere can do right now.

Tim Bray is the CEO of energy efficiency company Ecocentric Energy.