Shifting Toward Climate Positive Outcomes with the New SITES Carbon Pilot Credit

by Danielle Pieranunzi

U.S. Land Port of Entry at Columbus, NM / image: Robert Reck

The first part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, described by UN Secretary-General António Guterres as “code red for humanity,” was released on August 9, 2021. For those of us invested in sustainability and climate mitigation, the results were sobering but unsurprising: We’re on track to exceed 1.5 degrees C of warming in the next two decades, and every fraction of a degree of warming leads to more dangerous and costly impacts for the planet. Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C by the end of the century is still within reach, but requires holistic, transformational change. It requires universal adoption of sustainability guidelines, including broad support for sustainable landscapes, which provide the unique opportunity to not only reduce carbon emissions but to protect and even create carbon sinks. To support these goals, GBCI recently released a SITES Pilot Credit focused on assessing and improving site carbon performance.

The intent of the new SITES Pilot Credit is to understand and improve a site’s carbon performance by assessing and increasing carbon sequestration capacity and reducing embodied and operational carbon emissions. / The Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Pittsburgh, PA

The carbon footprint of the built environment is responsible for 75% of global annual GHG emissions, which is often understood in terms of building construction, energy use, and transportation. In order to effectively address the climate crisis, we must expand this understanding to landscapes and seek to implement as many strategies as possible to facilitate a regenerative built environment.

This includes taking advantage of opportunities to sequester carbon through the conservation and restoration of built landscapes. Studies show that with concerted global action on land use over the next decade—what the United Nations is calling the “decade for ecosystem restoration”—nature-based solutions can provide up to 37% of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to keep global temperature increases under two degrees Celsius. Nature can be a significant and necessary part of the climate solution in addition to fossil fuel mitigation.

Arizona State University, Orange Mall Green Infrastructure / image: Marion Brenner, Affil. ASLA

SITES was created to elevate the value of nature and outdoor spaces in development projects, communities, and cities by bringing essential ecosystem services to the forefront of decision-making and implementation. The SITES Rating System addresses soil, vegetation, water, materials as well as the people and community who will be impacted by the site. It guides projects in reducing carbon emissions, limiting fossil fuel consumption, and protecting and restoring carbon sinks through various site-based strategies such as:

  • protecting healthy ecological systems from development;
  • restoring soil and plant health;
  • reducing water use and promoting native vegetation;
  • restoring aquatic ecosystems like carbon-storing wetlands;
  • promoting the use of renewable energy and low emitting, clean equipment
  • encouraging fuel-efficient and multi-modal transportation
  • managing stormwater using green (vs gray) infrastructure;
  • reducing resource consumption and selecting low embodied carbon materials.

These strategies work together to strengthen a landscape’s ability to sequester and store carbon and reduce carbon emissions over the life of the project. SITES provides a framework to ensure sustainability, resilience, and human health are addressed in every phase of a project’s development. The result is a more regenerative and life-enhancing landscape that protects and supports the community, rather than creating a landscape on life support that requires excessive watering, fertilizer, and fossil fuel-based maintenance.

Dell Medical District—University of Texas at Austin / image: Albert Vecerka

To further enhance our collective awareness and understanding of carbon (both emissions and sequestration), a new SITES pilot credit, ‘Assess and Improve Site Carbon Performance,’ was released in August. SITES pilot credits are a group of credits not in the current version of the rating system which are designed to test new innovative strategies and/or facilitate the introduction of new credits to SITES. Pilot credits can be used in the SITES innovation credit category and the existing suite can be found on the SITES Resources webpage. This new pilot credit was designed to encourage and reward projects that quantify carbon emissions and carbon sequestration capacity of their designs, and then make improvements to their impact on carbon based on this new understanding. Designed to be flexible, this credit provides projects with multiple entries for participation from conducting a carbon assessment to achieving performance improvements from a baseline.

Noted in the pilot credit are tools like i-Tree from the U.S. Forest Service and the Pathfinder app to help projects understand, quantify and adjust site designs to improve carbon performance and implement a climate positive design. Pamela Conrad, ASLA, founder of Climate Positive Design and the Pathfinder app, worked closely on the development of this credit alongside SITES and LEED staff and volunteers.

“We need a movement,” Conrad stresses. “We need to change our business as usual…If we make minor improvements holistically, not only could we take more CO2 out of the atmosphere by 2030, we could drawdown a gigaton or more of CO2 beyond offsetting project emissions.” These solutions also have a multitude of co-benefits like controlling flooding, reducing urban heat island effects, improving air and water quality, enhancing mental health, and providing wildlife habitat. These strengthen a community’s resilience to the impacts of climate change, particularly the most vulnerable population who will be the most affected.

Green Wise Headquarters Roof Garden, Tokyo / image: Green Wise

In the words of NASA climate scientist Dr. Kate Marvel, “As a climate scientist, I’d like you to know: I don’t have hope. I have something better: certainty. We know exactly what’s causing climate change. We can absolutely 1) avoid the worst and 2) build a better world in the process.” Through collective action and leadership, we believe we can make a difference if we act aggressively now. While there is much to do, SITES and this new carbon credit provide tools, guidance, and accountability to make positive change.

Kudos to the many volunteers who contributed to the development of this pilot credit, including Pamela Conrad, ASLA (CMG Landscape Architecture), David Nowak (U.S. Forest Service), Theresa Backhus, ASLA (Institute for Market Transformation), Karema Seliem (USGBC), Keith Bowers, FASLA (Biohabitats), and Aiman Duckworth (Biohabitats).

For more information, feedback or assistance with SITES, please contact us at

Danielle Pieranunzi, LEED AP, SITES AP, is the SITES Program Manager at the Green Business Certification, Inc. (GBCI). SITES is a comprehensive tool that elevates the value of landscapes (and the ecosystem services they provide) in development projects. At GBCI, she focuses on various aspects of the SITES program from market development, technical solutions to certification services. Prior to GBCI, Danielle spent ten years on the Sustainable SITES Initiative program at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center where she worked with partner organizations, over 50 technical experts and numerous projects to develop and test the guidelines and metrics for high performance landscapes.

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