Smart Buildings

Moving Past Net Zero Buildings to Whole Life Carbon through Embodied Energy

“Climate change is undoubtedly the greatest challenge of our times. We need to take urgent action to almost halve global emissions by 2030 and eliminate them completely by the middle of the century,” says Julie Hirigoyen, Chief Executive at UKGBC. “It is in this context that the term ‘net zero carbon’ has started to enter the mainstream. Businesses, government and civil society are all grappling with what net zero carbon will mean for them and how it can be achieved in practice.” Net Zero feels like an ultimate goal for a buildings industry hoping to reduce their collective impact on the environment. Currently responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions, decarbonizing of the buildings sector has long been seen as one of the most effective ways to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. In 2018, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) launched its Advancing Net Zero Campaign, to encourage the development of more sustainable […]

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“Climate change is undoubtedly the greatest challenge of our times. We need to take urgent action to almost halve global emissions by 2030 and eliminate them completely by the middle of the century,” says Julie Hirigoyen, Chief Executive at UKGBC. “It is in this context that the term ‘net zero carbon’ has started to enter the mainstream. Businesses, government and civil society are all grappling with what net zero carbon will mean for them and how it can be achieved in practice.”

Net Zero feels like an ultimate goal for a buildings industry hoping to reduce their collective impact on the environment. Currently responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions, decarbonizing of the buildings sector has long been seen as one of the most effective ways to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. In 2018, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) launched its Advancing Net Zero Campaign, to encourage the development of more sustainable buildings with a framework for net zero development and an online catalogue of net zero projects to inspire the sector.

“In 2018, in line with the ambitions of the Paris Agreement and to accelerate the built environment sector towards a 1.5ºC pathway, WGBC launched the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment. Our aim was to inspire and promote advanced climate leadership focused on achieving net zero operational carbon at individual building level and at mass scale from businesses and government. Yet operational carbon emissions are only part of the story,” states a recent WGBC report that goes some way to highlighting a significant failure of the net zero movement.

Net zero, for all its ambition in bringing down the carbon footprint of building construction and operation, does not account for the embodied energy of materials and the structures being demolished to make space for new building developments. Embodied carbon represents the energy used in raw material extraction, transport, manufacture, assembly, installation, and deconstruction of buildings. The concept has been largely overlooked but contributes around 11% of all global carbon emissions. While carbon emissions released before the building or infrastructure begins to be used, sometimes called upfront carbon, will be responsible for half of the entire carbon footprint of new construction between now and 2050.

“Carbon emissions are released not only during operational life but also during the manufacturing, transportation, construction and end of life phases of all built assets – buildings and infrastructure. As operational carbon is reduced, embodied carbon will continue to grow in importance as a proportion of total emissions. While we must continue to focus on addressing operational carbon we must now rapidly increase efforts to tackle embodied carbon emissions at a global scale, too,” explains a new WGBC report titled: Bringing embodied carbon upfront — Coordinated action for the building and construction sector to tackle embodied carbon.

The reality today is that very few buildings or infrastructure assets can claim to be fully net zero because of their embodied carbon cost. In fact, due to the complexities of long construction supply chains, it is challenging to even understand the true origins of many building materials in order to calculate their carbon cost within a building project. With the global floor areas of buildings set to double by 2060, it is essential that the sector starts to work together to address the problem of embodied carbon now.

“The emergence of embodied carbon as a key consideration in sectoral decarbonization strategies has been, and is being, facilitated by market leaders across the globe. These actors are increasing awareness of the associated challenges, identifying solutions such as carbon measurement tools, databases and benchmarks, and developing new business models that embrace lifecycle approaches and the circular economy,” the WGBC report states.

The case for embodied carbon has, so far, been primarily driven by think tanks and collaborative forums from Europe and the Americas, such as the Energy Transition Commission and the Carbon Leadership Forum. Progressive national and municipal governments, such as France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, California have also stepped up with initiatives that start to tackle the embodied carbon issue. Through reporting mechanisms, benchmarking, and roadmaps, these regional groups are beginning to create a market for new low carbon products and approaches, but much more must be done.

The WGBC itself has set out guidance in this new report to highlight the processes required to address the issue of embodied carbon. The organization suggests projects build efficiently, using low carbon technologies and optimizing the use of low carbon materials. However, the report also makes clear that the best path to lowering embodied carbon to raise the overall sustainability of buildings, is to maximize the use of existing assets and to explore opportunities to avoid construction altogether. Adapting existing buildings is usually more sustainable than building green buildings.

“Our desire for bigger and better, safer and more fashionable, in order to increase the value of our finite land resources, especially in crowded cities, has encouraged a shorter building lifecycle,” we wrote in a Memoori article highlighting the un-sustainability of our demolish-rebuild culture. “There is more money to be made from creating a building, demolishing it at 60-years-old, and rebuilding with modern methods and styles than constructing buildings to last hundreds of years. The property industry is now being placed under significant pressure to re-think their practices in this age of sustainability.”

Accountability for sustainable practice goes beyond meeting current regulation. With science making clear that climate catastrophe is an imminent reality and the buildings industry on the frontline of the worst climate offenders, we must face these issues honestly, pragmatically, and collectively. We must change the culture of loopholes and blame shifting to address the true sustainability of “whole life carbon” in our buildings, and take positive action when we see the opportunity. Competition must take a backseat while we create a new playing field that is fair to the economy and the environment.

“Led by business, government and civil society action, the process of enabling bold change within our sector will be supported and shaped by addressing prominent market barriers through our theory of change, which fully enables: collaboration, communication, education, innovation, acceleration, and regulation,” the new WGBC report suggests.

“These actions are interrelated – together they represent an iterative process that must begin immediately. By placing emphasis on a collaborative and supportive relationship between supply and demand side actors, each action will create benefits across the entire value chain, forming positive feedback loops that stimulate market demand and uptake of net zero embodied carbon,” the report continues.

Our collective race towards net zero has barely reached the first corner before this holy grail for building began to be redefined. These are no shortcuts to sustainability, however, property developers cannot hide behind supply chain complexity nor new construction for the sake of monetary value or economic development. If the buildings industry is serious about tackling its own impact on climate change, then a new level of honesty is required within the community. We must stop shifting blame and avoiding responsibility but instead face “whole life carbon” issues head-on, and we must start to do that immediately.

“Reaching net zero embodied carbon by 2050 requires immediate action, with far deeper cross-sector collaboration. We have identified key groups throughout the value chain that must act now in order to catalyze this radical transition as part of a whole life approach to decarbonization – an approach that focuses on upfront carbon and whole life thinking,” states the WGBC report.

“Our calls to action address government, business, and civil society, recognizing that within these broad stakeholder categories different groups have control over different levers for change and that some actions must reach scale to enable others. This [report] calls for actions that should begin immediately and that all stakeholders must take responsibility for, both individually and collectively as organisations and as a sector.”

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