Embodied Carbon Legislation Introduced in British Parliament

Duncan Baker's bill is a good start but it needs to be regulated everywhere.

Duncan Baker reading his bill in Parliament
Duncan Baker reading his bill in Parliament.

Parliament TV

When you have a carbon budget that you have to stay under to avoid global heating of more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), every pound of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere matters. That's why we bang on about embodied carbon—also known as upfront carbon or NOW! carbon—that is released during the making of everything from our cars to our computers to our buildings. It is usually ignored and is unregulated in most of the world, including the United Kingdom.

Duncan Baker wants to change all that. The conservative member of parliament from North Norfolk introduced a bill on February 2—"the whole-life carbon emissions of buildings to be reported; to set limits on embodied carbon emissions in the construction of buildings; and for connected purposes."

He starts his bill (published in the Hansard, the record of Parliament) by explaining operating carbon, the emissions that come from the lighting, power, water, heating, and cooling of buildings, and then praises the "bold steps" the government has taken as part of its "net-zero strategy."

"By 2025 all new homes will be installing low-carbon alternatives to gas boilers, for instance, and by 2035 this country will have decarbonised the electricity network completely. As such, by 2035 we can expect that the emissions related to those services will have fallen to an almost negligible amount. Fantastic!"

Baker is a conservative, so he would have to say nice things about their zero-carbon fantasy plan with hydrogen boilers and wood-fired electricity, which is already being challenged by other conservative members, but that is another post. He then explains the embodied carbon that is currently one-third of emissions from the construction industry, and actually makes sense of the use of the word "embodied."

"Those 50 million tonnes of carbon emissions are due to the construction, upkeep, refurbishment and demolition of new and existing buildings and infrastructure. Collectively, that is known as embodied carbon, so-called because the materials that we build are the physical embodiment of such greenhouse gas emissions. Most embodied carbon emissions are in the construction of the building itself. For a typical new build constructed today, embodied carbon accounts for half the total emissions that the building will be responsible for over its entire lifetime. In some buildings, that same amount is released before the building is even occupied."

Actually, for a decent new build with reasonable efficiency, it is likely the embodied carbon is much higher than half. Baker then explains how these embodied emissions are completely unregulated, and with a nice turn of a phrase explains what happens every day when architects put in another jog or cantilever or complication.

"Now, I am not a builder or a developer, but if I was and I desired to build a building that was gratuitously tall or complicated and I said to my architect, “Put as much concrete as you like into the floor slabs”—subject to planning permission, of course—that would be my choice, and there would be no accounting for the carbon impact of those decisions. We are in the middle of a climate emergency, and yet the embodied carbon of our buildings and infrastructure is completely unregulated—there is no requirement by law to do anything about that 50 million tonnes of carbon."

He uses a term we first heard from Canadian embodied carbon pioneer Chris Magwood: "We are decarbonising our electricity grid and ending our reliance on fossil fuels, but we are leaving ourselves open to a big concrete and steel elephant in the room."

Almost everyone, everywhere, is studiously ignoring that elephant in the room, because it is such a daunting problem. But as Baker notes, we have to start somewhere. He ends with a flourish:

"This country’s history is intertwined with the evolution of construction—Robert Stephenson, the Shard, the Gherkin, the channel tunnel, the Forth bridge, even the Palace of Westminster we stand in today—but it is time for construction to evolve again. We can build more sustainably, we can build out of beautiful natural materials, we can retrofit and we can pay attention to all those issues. It is time to stop putting embodied carbon off as a possible future area to explore. It is time now to regulate embodied carbon."

While some might argue with his choice of Britain's greatest construction projects, we can't disagree with his conclusion: We can't put off dealing with the issue of embodied carbon any longer.

In the parliamentary system, these kinds of private member's bills read into an empty house don't usually go anywhere—the construction industry is powerful and probably votes conservative and the British government has other things on its mind these days—but Baker deserves great credit for putting it out there.

Watch the speech on Parliament TV here and from his website, the background from Baker.