2022 in Review: The Year in Upfront Carbon

We have to change the way we think about building, and we have to use less stuff.

The future: low rise multifamily with bikes
The future: low rise multifamily with bikes.

Nikada / Getty Images

Ever since Jimmy Carter was president, the focus has been on energy efficiency—to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. While the problem has changed to one of reducing carbon emissions, the world still has an energy efficiency mindset. That's not necessarily a bad thing, given that reducing energy consumption does reduce carbon emissions. But to deal with the climate crisis and stop burning fossil fuels, efficiency isn't enough.

Efficiency measures reduce carbon emissions from operating a building or a vehicle but ignore the carbon emissions from making the building or vehicle, what we call the upfront carbon emissions, more commonly known as embodied carbon. Dealing with them requires different strategies.

Here at Treehugger, we have been loudly promoting upfront carbon strategies and plans, not anticipating what former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan noted when asked what his biggest problem was: "Events, my dear boy, events."

And wow, did we have events in 2022.

We’re Having a Jimmy Carter Moment With Energy Conservation Back on the Menu

Jimmy Carter during fireplace chat
Jimmy Carter during fireplace chat.

Dirck Halstead/Getty Image

Carter promoted energy conservation in the face of shortages of Middle East oil. Now Europe faces shortages of gas due to the war in Ukraine, which caused pain in the U.S. because fossil fuels follow the money. Carter once said, "If we all cooperate and make modest sacrifices, if we learn to live thriftily and remember the importance of helping our neighbors, then we can find ways to adjust, and to make our society more efficient and our own lives more enjoyable and productive." This is still true.

The International Energy Agency followed the Carter playbook for reducing demand for oil and gas: reduce speed limits, urge car sharing, and make transit cheaper. But they add 21st-century tips: more electric vehicles, micromobility, walking and cycling, and working from home. In another report, the IEA called for serious energy conservation.

Unfortunately, there is another approach besides conservation and efficiency for dealing with supply shortages—the "drill, baby drill!" strategy. Treehugger contributor Eduardo Garcia complained about how the White House has taken measures to boost fossil fuel production and undermine the fight against climate change by releasing stockpiles and encouraging drilling. He calls for conservation instead.

So it's clear that we still need to worry about energy efficiency, but we can't lose sight of the issue of upfront carbon emissions. Sometimes it feels like voices in the wilderness. So it was reassuring to read an important study by Jan Rosenow of the Regulatory Assistance Project and Nick Eyre of Oxford University's Centre for the Environment which concurred that targets and strategies have to change. They wrote: "The goalposts have shifted dramatically in recent years. The scale of the climate crisis means that full decarbonization of the economy rather than partial reduction of emissions is now the target."

Mass Timber Goes Cradle-to-Cradle in Virginia's Apex Plaza

benefits of mass timber
Benefits of Mass Timber.

William McDonough + Partners

The significance of upfront carbon hit home when I looked at a building in Charlottesville, Virginia, designed by William McDonough + Partners, pioneers in green building. It's mostly mass timber with wood from a cradle-to-cradle certified supplier, it's designed for disassembly or different uses, and it's all-electric and powered by solar and renewables. I should be thrilled.

Yet when you look at the drawing comparing mass timber to concrete, the mass timber options still had more than half the concrete of the all-concrete version because of the big honking parking garage underneath. The architect told me they had no choice, but we still have a building with the upfront carbon emissions from 14,878 metric tons of concrete making space for cars, not people.

An Embodied Carbon Iceberg Lies Under Our Homes and Buildings

Titanic sinking

Print Collector/ Getty Images, after drawing by Willy Stoewer,

The McDonough + Partners building troubled me so much that I wondered why we don't talk more about the iceberg of concrete under our lovely wood buildings, noting that "as always, it is the cars that are killing us." But do our building codes and zoning bylaws reflect the problem? Do architects even think about it? Do we teach it to our students?

University of Toronto visiting professor Kelly Alvarez Doran told Treehugger:

"[It's] proof that architectural education needs to look outwards to empower the next generation of students. The sustainability I was taught a decade ago has proven to be flawed and incomplete... solely focused on reducing energy consumption and employing whatever means and materials required to do so."

It got me thinking that we must change how we think and talk about buildings and carbon emissions because the world is changing fast, and the profession and the industry aren't.

The 'Ironclad Rule of Carbon' Means We Have to Change How We Think About Design

Ironclad Rule of Carbon
Ironclad Rule of Carbon.

Lloyd Alter

For years I have been pushing Passive House, the super-efficient building concept that gives us buildings that use almost no operating energy. Every building should be built this way, especially now that we have a heat pump revolution; a Passivhaus design can probably be heated and cooled by a teensy pump filled with R-290 refrigerant and release almost no greenhouse gases.

And what if you built this Passivhaus building in Seattle or Montreal, where the electricity is made with hydropower and has zero carbon emissions? Then you have a building that has zero operating carbon emissions, and 100% of its emissions come from the upfront carbon of building it.

The world is moving toward greater building efficiency and heatpumpification, and the grid is decarbonizing with solar, wind, and a bit of new nuclear power. Like that Passive House in Seattle, the upfront carbon emissions are becoming more important in proportion to operating emissions. It could even be considered a rule:

What Is the Ironclad Rule of Carbon?

As our buildings become more efficient and we decarbonize the electricity supply, emissions from embodied carbon will increasingly dominate and approach 100% of emissions.

As you can see in my poorly drawn graph, if you have a heat pump running on clean electricity in an efficient building, then what you build the building of matters more than anything else. So we need low-carbon materials like wood and stone, and we need to use less of them.

This is why I get upset with the "Electrify Everything!" gang, who say we can just put solar panels on the roof of our heatpumpified home with the electric car in the garage; they ignore upfront carbon. They downplay efficiency. They literally say we can have it all: "Same–sized homes. Same–sized cars. Same levels of comfort. Just electric."

We can't because of the ironclad rule of carbon. The amount of stuff that goes into our buildings and vehicles matters. That's why we need clean electricity, we need efficiency, but we also need sufficiency.

Efficiency Without Sufficiency Is Lost

SER Framework

SER Framework

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came to this conclusion as well in the Working Group III report on mitigation. It defines sufficiency as "avoiding the demand for materials, energy, land, water, and other natural resources while delivering a decent living standard for all within the planetary boundaries."

And the IPCC doesn't stop at buildings in cities, but also "[goes] beyond energy and climate policies to include land use and urban planning policies." It applies to everything we do. The IPCC report talks about the SER Framework, developed by Yamina Saheb—she is listed as a lead author—that combines sufficiency, efficiency, and renewables. We covered this earlier, with Saheb noting that focusing on energy efficiency isn't enough:

"The collective failure in significantly curbing emissions from buildings raises questions about whether the present approach to climate change mitigation policies is adequate and effective. Efficiency improvements, combined with the slow adoption of renewable energy and minor behavioral changes, are insufficient to deliver on the 1.5°C target."

Architect Mike Eliason looked at the IPCC Group III report for Treehugger and wrote: "After reviewing the report, it is clear we have many of the tools we need but aren’t implementing them at the speed and scale necessary to limit warming."

The Key to Green Building Is to Use Less Stuff

Use Less Stuff

Will Arnold

The inevitable conclusion, when you are considering the upfront carbon emissions of everything, is to use less of everything. You have to start by challenging the question of whether this project is really necessary, whether you can refurbish or repair it, how smart you can be to design it to be as simple and sufficient as possible, and then choosing carbon-efficient materials to do it. And we have to do it now. Everyone in the industry has to remember those three words: Use less stuff.

The Upfront Carbon of Everything From Tea to Jeans

A cup of black tea

Eira Roberts

The concepts of upfront carbon and sufficiency don't just apply to buildings but to everything in life, even a cup of tea. I asked my students at Toronto Metropolitan University to pick something and try to calculate its upfront carbon; it turned out to be very hard. But there was one conclusion that applies to everything from cinnamon buns to bikes to buildings: The less stuff we buy and the longer we keep it, the lower our carbon emissions will be. It's all about sufficiency.

Treehugger Introduces a Modern Pyramid of Energy Conservation

Treehugger's Energy Conservation Pyramid


We are big on pyramids this year, and insulation, electrification, and heatpumpification. Worrying about carbon and upfront emissions matters in renovations too. While the gold standard is EnerPHit, the Passive House standard for renovation, there are lots of things you can do that will significantly reduce your emissions if you cannot afford the complete project. We've tried to modernize the classic Pyramid of Energy Conservation, and many readers disagree about what to do first, but I stand by it: Get data to start and aim for EnerPHit.

Lots more to come in 2023!