Embodied Carbon: An Urgent Call for Decarbonization
In August, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its sixth assessment report with a clear message that climate change is intensifying. The report noted the “unequivocal” effect humans have on the climate and the need to accelerate and advance how we prepare for the future. With the impacts of climate change before us, the way we design and build the spaces where we live, work, learn, heal and play matters more than ever. That’s why it’s crucial to seize “low-hanging fruit” opportunities and address embodied carbon emissions found in building and construction materials.
From energy efficiency to embodied carbon: An evolution in net-zero building
Until recently, the building and construction industry’s response to reducing building-related emissions has focused on energy efficiency by reducing operational emissions. Operational emissions are the energy used to heat, cool and light buildings. But this approach overlooks an equally, if not more important, part of the equation: embodied carbon emissions found in the material and construction processes across a building’s entire life cycle.
Embodied carbon represents a quarter of the CO2 emitted during the life of a building and 11 percent of all global CO2 emissions. Moreover, according to a recent report by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), supported by professional services firm Arup, less than 1 percent of building projects currently assess or measure their lifecycle carbon impacts. Since buildings are a significant contributor to emissions, it is critical that efforts increase to monitor and evaluate the materials we use to build these structures.
The majority of a building’s total embodied carbon is released upfront in the product stage at the beginning of a building’s life. Unlike operational carbon, it is nearly impossible to decrease embodied carbon with updates in energy efficiency after the building is constructed. But, we can begin to consider and plan for the materials’ entire life cycle to be used in construction early on as part of the design process.
An emerging policy imperative
In the U.S., some states have begun introducing procurement policies to combat the increasing levels of carbon due to construction. For example, New York City legislators enacted Local Law 97: As part of the Climate Mobilization Act, this ambitious climate legislation sets carbon emissions caps for energy use in New York’s large buildings.
California is also seeking to address the embodied carbon emissions from construction materials with the introduction of the Buy Clean California Act, which requires that maximum Global Warming Potential (GWP) rates be established and published for certain building materials for public works projects.
While legislative initiatives are important, action and leadership are needed from builders and designers at both an individual and company level, such as considering measures to reduce embodied carbon in new projects as well as addressing areas for improvement when renovating and replacing materials in existing buildings.
Industry solutions for a global problem
Fortunately, members of the global building industry are already collaborating to create awareness of the importance of evaluating and choosing materials with a low carbon footprint. There are now several tools and resources that guide design and building teams through measuring and evaluating embodied carbon across product life cycles and the importance of procuring and developing materials with a lower carbon footprint.
Life cycle assessments (LCAs) are the most impactful tool when aiming to reduce embodied carbon. By conducting an LCA, a company can begin to understand the impact of its products across the entire life cycle, allowing it to optimize products by making improvements in raw materials, energy and water use, and recycling streams.
Once an LCA has been conducted, environmental product declarations (EPDs) can be used to assist with education and comparing the environmental impacts of different material products. EPDs aid in transparent communication of sustainable materials and how they will perform over their life cycle, which can help drive innovation.
In addition to these two widely used tools, many industry groups are beginning to develop enhanced tools to better assist materials manufacturers, builders, and designers in evaluating the carbon impact of their material and products.
For instance, the Carbon Leadership Forum (CFL), in conjunction with over 50 industry partners, has developed the industry's first database of third-party verified EPDs: the Embodied Carbon Calculator for Construction (EC3). EC3 is a free tool that allows architects, engineers, owners, construction companies, building materials suppliers, and policymakers to easily compare and evaluate embodied carbon emissions from construction materials, empowering them to reduce embodied carbon in buildings.
The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) has made considerable strides in developing resources that assist with decarbonization within the building industry. For example, its Living Building Challenge Declare Program provides a “nutrition-label” for building products, revealing the source, materials content and sustainable end-of-life solutions. These labels allow transparency in the building process and help designers and builders make informed choices.
Getting to the finish line
Encouraging cross-industry collaboration and increasing individual commitments by companies to address embodied carbon early in the decision-making process can make a meaningful difference for our climate’s future. For example, at my company, Armstrong World Industries, we continue to develop and embrace new materials, new technologies, and new ways of manufacturing that keep a net-zero carbon future top-of-mind. And we’ve embraced this approach for over 10 years as part of our overall mission to create healthy spaces. In the decade that we have conducted life cycle assessments, we have gained real insight into our products and their impact on the environment, incorporating this step into our Design for the Environment Process.
To address wellness — for people and the planet — we cannot lose sight of the larger environmental impact buildings have on the world we live in. The journey toward a net-zero carbon future for us and our entire industry starts at the design board. We are committed to helping usher in broader impacts throughout the building and construction industry and supply chain.
This article series is sponsored by Armstrong World Industries and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image courtesy of Armstrong World Industries