Embodied Carbon Called "The Blindspot of the Buildings Industry"

Materials palette

But some people are beginning to take the issue seriously. Anthony Pak writes a good article about it for Canadian Architect.

Everybody talks about carbon emissions, but almost nobody talks about Embodied Carbon, mostly because it used to be that, over the life of a building, the amount of CO2 emitted through operations of a building dwarfed the emissions from making the building. But as buildings get more efficient, the so-called embodied carbon becomes more important.

credit: John Ochsendorf/MIT

© John Ochsendorf/MIT Another reason nobody talks about embodied carbon is that they make it so complicated with life-cycle analyses, which can be used to justify the use of high-carbon materials. That's fine if you have a life-cycle to worry about, which we do not. We have a problem now. That's why I do not like the term "embodied carbon" and came up with "upfront carbon emissions" (UCE) because that's what they are.

As Geoff Beacon (who has been thinking about this for a while) says, the issue has not been getting the attention it deserved. But this is changing; Anthony Pak just wrote Embodied Carbon: The Blindspot of the Buildings Industry for Canadian Architect, which should get wider coverage and get taken more seriously. Pak explains:

Of course, it’s undeniable that reducing carbon emissions from operational energy use is extremely important and should be a key priority. But our industry’s single-minded focus on operational energy efficiency raises the question: What about the greenhouse gases emitted during the construction of all these new buildings? If we really are adding another New York City to the mix every month, why aren’t we thinking about the environmental impacts associated with the materials used to construct those buildings?

Well, actually, we are— or at least, we’re starting to.

Pak continues with a bit more emphasis on Life Cycle Analyses than I think he should, but gets it: "If you are designing green buildings with the idea that you are saving the planet, but you don’t consider embodied carbon, you are missing half of the equation." And forget about the LCAs, Pak gets the importance of doing this now:

The importance of embodied carbon becomes even more evident when you consider that, according to the IPCC, to limit global warming to 1.5°C, carbon emissions would need to peak next year in 2020 and then go to net zero globally by 2050. Given that embodied carbon will make up almost half of total new construction emissions between now and 2050, we cannot ignore embodied carbon if we want to have any chance of hitting our climate targets.

Pak notes that Embodied Carbon is being addressed, with LEED offering points for doing LCAs and reducing embodied carbon. (The Living Building Challenge measures it too.) Cities like Vancouver are incentivizing it as well, looking for 40 percent reductions by 2030. He also complains:

While it’s encouraging to see the buildings industry start to focus on embodied carbon, at the current pace, it will likely take 10-20 years before it becomes standard practice for design teams to focus on reducing embodied carbon. Unfortunately, we just don’t have that much time....To be clear, I am not saying that embodied carbon is more important than operational carbon. Both are critical. It’s just that, to date, our industry has focused heavily on operational carbon and has mostly ignored embodied carbon. This needs to change, and it needs to change fast.

I am thrilled that the issue is getting more exposure. Now if we really want to make it change and make it change fast:

  1. Stop calling it embodied carbon; it's not. It's in the atmosphere, not in the building.
  2. Stop confusing the issue with life cycle analyses. What matters is the carbon being put into the atmosphere now.

But ignoring that, this article should be shared widely. Pak is "the founder of Embodied Carbon Catalyst, a group that organizes bi-monthly events in Vancouver empowering industry professionals to champion the issue of embodied carbon on their projects and within their firms" and will be taken more seriously than some treehugger.