Embodied Carbon Week
This week sees the launch of the first ever campaign to raise awareness of and tackle the embodied carbon in our built environment. Embodied carbon is the carbon dioxide (CO2) or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the extraction, manufacture, transportation, assembly, replacement and deconstruction of building materials and products.
Until now embodied carbon has taken a bit of a back seat to the energy and carbon associated with running our buildings but as more is learnt about these impacts, the financial and environmental case for action is becoming clearer. Carbon is really just another way of looking at our use of materials and resources and that means we can link it back to cost in most cases.
If we reduce the amount of materials we use, we reduce costs. If we design buildings to be more robust and flexible over their life, we can reduce maintenance costs as well as carbon. If we opt for products and materials which rely less on energy intensive production or choose those which come from more renewable sources, we guard ourselves against the ever rising costs of fossil fuels. Looking at impacts like this over the life of a building and as a long term business resilience issue, the business case becomes more compelling. And it seems there couldn’t be a more poignant time for this to take place.
Last week, the fourth report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released, grabbing headlines as it highlighted the very likely impacts that climate change will have on every aspect of our daily lives. It reinforces the very real need to think about how we can adapt to these inevitable changes in our climate but also, as Lord Deben, head of the committee on climate change, pointed out, it’s more important than ever to focus on reducing our emissions and sticking to our carbon targets to curb future damaging climate changes.
Sharp price increase in commodities put a spotlight on reducing future material consumption
Embodied carbon is rapidly becoming an important focus for property developers (demonstrated by the four leading developers supporting embodied carbon week) and I think will increasingly be a part of all the projects we deliver. Key issues like resource efficiency, resource scarcity and commodity price rises are all part of the embodied carbon agenda and these are all issues which will affect our ability to operate in the construction industry in the future. It’s also very likely that we’ll see more legislation or taxation around carbon emissions come into effect soon.
This is still a very complex issue though. So where do we start?
We need to get to grips with consistent and robust measurement of embodied carbon. Standards such as BS EN 15978 are being used but we need to make measurement more commonplace to create good benchmarks and more easily identify where the most cost effective and valuable reductions can be made. Suppliers are becoming more transparent and more data is becoming available on the embodied impacts of their products.
To do this, we need far more collaboration between clients (end users), designers, contractors and suppliers. Embodied carbon has to become a more common focus on our projects and we need to engage early to be able to make reductions. Working early in the design process to design out waste, to accommodate different materials (like higher percentages of cement replacement in concrete), to build in flexibility and design for deconstruction are all solutions which we can implement today and will reduce both cost and embodied carbon over the life of a building.
Moving to a circular model of construction will reduce whole life carbon
The next step will be to focus on the things we aren’t doing as much. For us, this means focusing on circular economy principles and how we can work with our supply chain and our clients to develop models for buildings with little to no impact and where we can retain value of precious materials and resources indefinitely. For an overview of circular economy, see this great video from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Find out more about embodied carbon week and the events and organisations taking part here.
Jesse Putzel, is a Senior Sustainability Manager at BAM.
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