2050 is too late to start thinking about embodied carbon

Can of Ham
© Apostolis Giontzis / Shutterstock

A conference on sustainable construction in the Can of Ham is in denial about upfront carbon emissions

I love how they give strange names to buildings in London. It started with Norman Foster's Swiss Re building, which became known as the Gherkin because of its distinctive shape. I love to hate the Walkie Talkie, and the Cheesegrater is really appropriate. These days, the developers try to get ahead of the game by naming the building themselves, as was done with the Shard and the Scalpel.

Can of Ham© Kevin J. Frost / Shutterstock
But the best, most evocative name yet is the Can of Ham, properly called 70 St Mary Axe. It is all-glass front and back, with some ribbing that looks like it was left over from the walkie-talkie on the sides and wrapping around the top. Will Hurst of the Architects Journal was recently in the building for, of all things, a conference called London Building for the Future: Creating a Sustainable Britain.

He calls the event an exercise in greenwashing and hypocrisy, with the Chair of the Committee on Climate Change saying that architects who signed up for architectsDeclare might as well keep designing airports, because ‘somebody is going to build that airport’. Hurst thought I might enjoy the discussion about embodied carbon, or what I prefer to call Upfront Carbon Emissions.

Challenged by architect and net-zero expert Simon Sturgis on embodied carbon – the upfront emissions associated with construction, which make up 30-50 per cent of a building’s total emissions over its lifetime – the panel struggled to convince given the small matters of that emergency and that 10-year window.

Architectural model of building© Architectural model of building/ Maple Leaf Foods

‘We’ll get to net-zero operational carbon first and then we’ll definitely focus on embodied carbon as well, realistically that will come in a bit later,’ said Abigail Dean, the head of sustainability at Nuveen Real Estate, developer of the heavily-glazed Can of Ham.

The head of sustainability said that she was looking for net-zero operational carbon around 2030 and "then the embodied piece will come in as well, before 2050." Hurst concludes by "wondering just how far the commercial property sector, or even the slightly more woke architectural industry, is willing to adopt the principles of the circular economy, much less disrupt ‘business as usual’."

October the First is Too LateOctober the First is Too Late/CC BY 2.0

Of course, 2050 is a bit too late to start worrying about upfront carbon emissions, because they are, well, upfront. To pick up on the title of a science fiction book I read as a kid, "October the First is too late." Hurst titles his post You know we’re in trouble when even the green experts are greenwashing. That says it all.

2050 is too late to start thinking about embodied carbon
A conference on sustainable construction in the Can of Ham is in denial about upfront carbon emissions

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