We are in a climate emergency and there is a desperate need for the built environment sector to respond. As well to it and take meaningful action in our embodied carbon footprint!

Following the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Global Warming report in 2018, the World Green Building Council (GBC) has released a lengthy report of its own warning that there is a very urgent need to demand action from industries that produce carbon-intensive materials.

The report, Bringing embodied carbon upfront: Coordinated action for the building and construction sector to tackle embodied carbon, goes further than the already established World GBC challenge to eliminate all global carbon emissions from the construction and building sector by 2050, with all new buildings expected to have a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030.

embodied carbon

In addition to tackling the need to achieve net-zero operation carbon as quickly as possible, it literally brings embodied carbon to the surface, drawing urgent attention to the need to decarbonize faster across the whole life of buildings, not just the operational phase.

The Impact of Embodied Carbon

While buildings of various types are held responsible for close to 39% of global carbon emissions, these operational carbon emissions don’t take into account the carbon emissions that are released during the manufacture and transportation of materials, or the carbon associated with construction and the eventual end-of-life phases of built structures.

This is what embodied carbon is all about, and even though it has been overlooked by most people historically, it is estimated that globally it contributes to about 11% of carbon emissions.

The World GBC report is endorsed by dozens of high profile organizations. Consequently all warning that upfront carbon alone could end up being 50% of the whole carbon footprint. That’s of new construction between now and 2050. So to most that’s a very frightening thought. It’s because carbon is reduced and embodied carbon is going to continue to grow.

The report warns that as population growth globally heads towards 10 billion people, building stock is likely to double. This will result in the consumption of vast quantities of raw materials. As well as other natural resources. Thereby and in turn increase the building sector’s impact on climate and emissions. There are also realistic projections indicating that 70% of the world’s population is gonna be in cities. However, they will be Living in cities by the 2050 net-zero carbon emissions deadline. So even though this might be a new challenge for many, it is encouraging. Especially because innovative leaders and researchers have data and tools to calculate embodied carbon.

Mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) engineer, Michael Tobias of New York Engineers talked to us. He is A LEED Accredited Professional (AP) and Certified Energy Manager (CEM), he is passionate about sustainability and energy efficiency, and his designs generally exceed local code requirements.

It certainly is going to take a radical transition, but our lives and the very existence of the planet depends on it.

Challenges & Solutions

The World GBC report sets foundational principles that are in keeping with their visions, definitions, and goals. These aim to:

1. Prevent upfront carbon emissions and in this way start to decarbonize the whole lifecycle of buildings by taking alternative strategies into account.

2. Reduce and optimize design choices to reduce upfront carbon.

3. Plan now to avoid future embodied carbon emissions. 

4. As a last resort, offset residual embodied carbon emissions through verified schemes. 

Acknowledging the need for a radical transition, it calls for business, government, and civil society to take leadership roles and:

a) Collaborate across the entire value chain.

b) Communicate and raise awareness.

c) Educate through knowledge, training, sharing, and transparency.

d) Innovate with new technologies and new business models.

e) Accelerate the process required to reach goals.

f) Regulate to ensure that reductions in embodied carbon align and comply with decarbonization pathways. 

Because of the intrinsic need for coordinated action Blythe building and construction sector to tackle embodied carbon, the report includes a summary of all stakeholder specific goals. These relate to non-government organizations, networks, and researchers, policymakers (governments and cities), investors, developers, designers, and manufacturers of materials. 

So, for example, the 2020 goals for governments and cities are to start developing strategies to achieve net-zero embodied carbon. By 2025, governments are expected to have implemented these targets for new public buildings and large renovations. 

Designers, include architects and professionals who specialize in engineering solutions in Chicago, New York, Washington, Atlanta. As well as all the other cities in the U.S. and rest of the world. Therefore they must commit to relevant road maps. As well as integrate low-embodied carbon design. Especially at their conceptual design stages. By 2025 they need to share lifecycle assessment data publicly and propose “best practice” embodied carbon reduction targets.

Over the next 20 years, to 2050, designers and design companies are expected to propose requirements. Thereby all to ensure that all their projects will be 100% net-zero embodied carbon. In essence, this means all buildings, residential, commercial, and industrial folks. All will be carbon neutral. That’s because they produce as much renewable energy on-site that they use. 

While the report provides guidelines for decarbonization, it’s going to take a huge commitment from all stakeholders to succeed. 

Will YOU accept the challenge. Together we stand more of a chance.