Embodied Carbon And The Race To Net Zero

Embodied carbon is fast becoming a hot topic. For years the construction industry has worked towards energy efficiency, regulating in-use building emissions such as heating and water.

The industry’s attention, however, is now shifting towards embodied carbon, the sector’s biggest source of carbon emissions: the sourcing, processing, transport and assembly of materials during the construction phase as well as in future refurbishments. Until now, embodied carbon has often not been accounted for.

While buildings today are much closer to being carbon neutral for what concerns the environmental cost of processes related to their operation, less reassuring is that most materials and technologies used to make buildings more energy efficient are extremely carbon heavy if compared to traditional ones.

The resulting effort is comparable to that of a person trying to prevent water from exiting a colander: moving one hand to seal an area is going to result in more water coming out from another side. The only solution is putting more hands on it.

Progress so far…

Greater awareness on the matter has polarized the industry. A new approach is needed in order to take the required steps towards net zero.

Most big developers have already started including embodied carbon in their carbon emissions calculations, performing whole life-cycle carbon assessments, so that embodied carbon can be addressed during the design phase. The potentially negative influence of energy efficient materials on the upfront carbon emissions can also be monitored and contrasted.

Equally, governmental efforts are being made to start making whole life assessments compulsory in order to get project approval. These policies will initially target big projects mainly in Greater London, with the aim to expand them to the rest of the industry eventually.

Valuable knowledge

In order to perform such complex and data heavy calculations, big firms rely on the help of qualified assessors. In addition to monitoring the calculation process, they certify that the projects’ emissions have been calculated and addressed.

However, such assessors and certification schemes are not, in the vast majority, accessible to small and medium enterprises who don’t have the adequate financial means to rely on these third parties, nor the sufficient human resources to perform calculations on their own.

Even though most constructors and designers have made a sustainability statement of some sort, most of them don’t have the means to go far when it comes to calculating and addressing whole life carbon emissions.

When examining the projects certified under leading schemes such as BREEAM, out of all the certified projects, a virtual 100% have been carried out and designed by large enterprises.

The 98% minority

Large enterprises certainly receive more pressure, both from the government and media, to work towards carbon neutrality. Equally, they have the means to rely on advanced software and trained professionals. However, SMEs make up more than 98% of the sector in terms of number of enterprises , and they are responsible for more than 50% of the whole industry’s turnover. As reported in a 2019 paper by Jayasundara, SMEs have been proven to be responsible for 70% of global environmental pollution. As such, their contribution to the industry’s emissions cannot be underestimated nor ignored.

The current reality…

• Calculation software for ‘embodied carbon’ is not available to all.

• A simple way to work out levels of embodied carbon for each project, however big or small, would be invaluable to the industry.

• As the time to reach pivotal goals for the preservation of Earth is not infinite, it is hard to believe that one of the most obvious obstacles towards net zero should be ignored while more precise policies and tools are perfected.

• As long as sustainable materials remain too expensive for smaller contractors, there needs to be an immediate way to tackle emissions through the use of reliable offsets.  

“If the industry chooses to wait for the fall of the wall separating innumerable firms from existing technologies and tools to tackle at least the low hanging fruit, time might run out before significant goals are reached. But if a temporary ladder is built to facilitate access from one side to the other, while demolition works proceed, a big leap forward is bound to take place.” – XXX