Can embodied carbon in commercial construction be lessened?

A new study says that embodied carbon (EC) reductions must be made in order to meet global greenhouse gas emission targets. Building operations and building construction account for 28% and 11%, respectively, of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. 

“Embodied Carbon U.S. Industrial Real Estate,” produced by BranchPattern, a building consultancy dedicated to creating a better built environment, advocates for measuring and reducing EC in core and shell industrial buildings, one of the more vibrant commercial construction sectors.

Embodied carbon in commercial construction refers to the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with the production, transportation and installation of building materials and components throughout the construction process. It is an important concept in the context of addressing climate change and reducing the environmental impact of buildings.

Stakeholders within an industrial building project have varying responsibilities and financial interests in reducing EC in their buildings. The developer, for example, makes decisions about building materials and design. The tenant, on the other hand, might participate in improvements that include MEP systems and interior finishes.

Some key points about embodied carbon in commercial construction include:

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA): To understand the embodied carbon in a building, a Life Cycle Assessment is typically conducted. This assessment considers the environmental impact of a building from “cradle to gate,” encompassing the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing of building materials, transportation, construction, and sometimes even the end-of-life phase.

Carbon Intensive Materials: Certain building materials have a higher carbon footprint due to the energy-intensive processes involved in their production. For example, cement and steel are significant contributors to embodied carbon in buildings.

Operational vs. Embodied Carbon: It’s essential to distinguish between operational carbon and embodied carbon in buildings. Operational carbon refers to the emissions resulting from the building’s energy use for heating, cooling, lighting, etc., over its operational lifespan. Embodied carbon, on the other hand, is associated with the construction phase and early years of the building’s life. 

Importance of Addressing Embodied Carbon: While reducing operational carbon through energy-efficient designs and renewable energy sources is crucial, addressing embodied carbon is equally important. This is because buildings with a low operational carbon footprint may still have a high overall impact on the environment due to their significant embodied carbon. 

Sustainable Construction Practices: To mitigate embodied carbon, sustainable construction practices can be employed, such as using low-carbon or carbon-neutral building materials, optimizing material use, recycling and reusing materials, and reducing waste during construction.

Carbon Offsetting: In cases where it is challenging to eliminate all embodied carbon, carbon offsetting strategies can be employed. Carbon offsetting involves compensating for emissions by investing in projects that reduce or remove an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere, such as reforestation initiatives. 

Regulations and Certifications: As awareness of embodied carbon grows, some regions may introduce regulations or incentives to encourage low-carbon construction. Additionally, green building certifications, such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) or BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method), often consider embodied carbon in their assessment criteria. 

The Paris Climate Accords have set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030, compared to 1990 emissions. To achieve that goal, “we must now focus on embodied carbon,” the BranchPattern report states. By addressing embodied carbon in commercial construction, the building industry can make significant strides toward reducing its overall carbon footprint and contribute to global efforts to combat climate change. 

“Embodied carbon related emission reductions are possible, necessary, and promising,” the report concludes.