We Need Embodied Carbon Labels on Everything

From computers to cars and buildings to burgers, we should know the carbon footprint.

Declare label with pickup truck


Embodied carbon is a term that is much discussed in the building world these days. Embodied carbon emissions are the carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases emitted in the manufacture of the materials and the assembly of a product. One of my students defined it differently: "Embodied carbon is like our environmental downpayment, and operational carbon is like the ongoing environmental mortgage payment, speaking strictly metaphorically."

Embodied carbon is the standard term in the building industry, but I have always thought it is a confusing term—the carbon is not embodied in the product but is in the atmosphere before anyone ever occupies a building or takes possession of the product. I believe a better term is "upfront carbon emissions."

Iphone Lifecycle emissions


I have noted before that it's time to measure and regulate embodied carbon in everything. But it is also time to publish it. Some companies are totally upfront about their upfront and total emissions. Apple, for example, is transparent about this and shows how for my iPhone, fully 86% of its full lifecycle emissions are from the making and shipping and only 13% come from the operating. People do not appear to have any trouble wrapping their brains around this concept when it comes to phones.

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for conventional and electric vehicles (by country) in grammes CO2-equivalent per kilometre,
Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for conventional and electric vehicles in grammes CO2-equivalent per kilometre,.

Carbon Brief

However, when one applies the same argument to cars, people refuse to even consider the existence of embodied carbon. So if I complain that a Tesla has about 12 tons of embodied carbon or a Ford F-150 Lighting has about 40 tons, the response in comments is: "Dumbest article I've read in a long time." When I suggest that cars and trucks should be lighter to reduce the embodied carbon, I get, "Yes, one can make the argument that vehicles should be lighter and smaller in the U.S. but they aren't." But that is partly because they don't know what the implications are.

People don't understand it, but just like with buildings, as the carbon footprint of operating a car goes to zero, then the footprint of making it becomes the main source of carbon emissions. In a previous post, I noted an "ironclad rule of carbon–As we electrify everything and decarbonize the electricity supply, emissions from embodied carbon will increasingly dominate and approach 100% of emissions."

It's a big honking pile of carbon that is going into the atmosphere right now, when we have a carbon budget that we have to stay under if we are going to hold the average rise in temperature to under 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius). We have to stop making so much stuff, and we have to think of our cars like we do our phones: the lighter, the better. But again, people have to have a way to understand this and compare the full life-cycle emissions of what they are buying.

Let's Put Carbon Labels on Everything

Declare Label


That's why there's talk in the building industry about embodied carbon labeling, and why the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), the people behind the Living Building Challenge, added embodied carbon to their Declare label.

"As industry-leading organizations, Declare manufacturers are being asked to invest in the future of material health: embodied carbon. From the sourcing of raw materials, manufacturing, and transport, to the waste created through the entire product life cycle, quantifying the contributions of the supply chain and manufacturing of building products to the climate change problem creates data that can be turned into action." 

This applies to everything, from computers to cars and from buildings to burgers. The embodied carbon matters, and being transparent about it gives the companies making things an incentive to reduce it. Other companies in other industries are doing it: Unilever is putting a carbon label on its food; Just Salad puts it on its menu; and Apple puts it on all their products.

The ILFI's Declare label is a good model. It's got the life expectancy, the embodied carbon, the end-of-life options. James Connelly, the vice president of strategic growth at ILFI, noted its importance:

 “As an industry, we’re used to thinking about material health in terms of its impact on human health; now we are leading the products industry with the recognition that embodied carbon, with its impact on climate change and global pollution, also has serious ramifications for human health. Our partners are moving the needle on transparency around not only materials but also the energy that goes into manufacturing that have long-term consequences on this planet.”

This is true for every industry. Let's put carbon labels on everything so that people begin to understand what we are talking about and know what they are buying. And maybe then I could start reading the comments again.