Being Transparent: The Growing Importance of Embodied Carbon

By Helen Sanders

The architectural community is becoming more focused on reducing the carbon emissions caused during extraction, manufacturing and transportation of products used in buildings (embodied or upfront carbon). This is receiving as much attention as reducing carbon emissions from buildings during their operational life.

According to Architecture 2030, embodied carbon will be responsible for nearly half of the total new building construction emissions between now and 2050. Today, embodied carbon emissions from the building sector are responsible for 11% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions[1].

Taking Action

While strategies can be implemented in a building over time to reduce operational carbon, its embodied carbon is spent— emitted into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change—before the building is even occupied. Given that the equivalent of an entire New York City is predicted to be added to the planet every 34 days for the next 40 years[1, 2], this points to a clear priority of reducing embodied carbon.

The market is beginning to react. Recently, the Buy Clean California Act (also known as Assembly Bill 262) was enacted. It requires high energy intensive building products—glass, structural steel, carbon steel rebar and mineral wool board insulation—to be used in California’s publicly funded projects to meet a minimum global warming potential (GWP). GWP is expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents and is a measure of embodied carbon.

The U.S. Green Building’s Council’s LEED v4 certification system includes a credit for environmental impact transparency through the use of products that have third-party verified environmental product declarations (EPDs).

New Tools

Skanska, a global construction company and signatory of the Paris Climate Accord, has been leading the way in driving construction material sourcing based on embodied carbon in the U.S. The company recently launched a tool (the EC3 calculator) in collaboration with the Carbon Leadership Forum and Microsoft, which provides the industry easy access to material carbon emissions data, allowing for comparisons.

This growing momentum is driving fenestration and glass fabricators to create EPDs and for industry associations to consider industry-wide aggregated EPDs to represent their members’ products. If you don’t have an EPD, and aren’t actively reducing the embodied carbon of your products, you may get left behind.

References
[1] UN Environment Status Report 2017
[2] Architecture 2030

Helen Sanders is in strategic business development for Technoform North America Inc. in Twinsburg, Ohio. Read her blog each month at usglassmag.com/insights.

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