Why the World Needs Carbon Literacy

We are in a climate emergency and it is the upfront carbon emissions that matter.

Marks & Spencer, Oxford Street
Marks & Spencer, Oxford Street.

Hollie Adams/Getty Images

The Westminster Council recently approved the demolition of the flagship Marks & Spencer department store on Oxford Street in London, which will be replaced with a new building with a smaller store and office space above. Fred Pilbrow, the founding partner of the Pilbrow and Partners, the architects of the new building that will replace the store, says, "We looked carefully at the potential refurbishment of the three separate buildings on the site, unfortunately their configuration precluded delivering the quality of retail space required by M&S." He goes on to describe the environmental attributes of the new project in the Architects' Journal:

"M&S as our client take environmental responsibility extremely seriously and they have tasked us to deliver a leading edge project aspiring to the highest standards of sustainability and wellbeing. The offices on the upper floors of the building will target BREEAM Outstanding and WELL Platinum - one of a very select group of buildings that aim to meet both these criteria."

Four out of five councilors supported the application, with only one mentioning a subject that we talk a lot about here on Treehugger: the Upfront Carbon Emissions—a type of embodied carbon that is released when making the materials and constructing the building. According to the Architects' Journal:

Geoff Barraclough, the one councilor who voted against the scheme, told fellow committee members: "[There will be] 39,500 tonnes of carbon in the building of this new construction. Its great that there is some urban greening on it but, according to the applicant’s own report, those 39,500 tonnes of carbon would require 2.4 million trees to offset. You can’t get 2.4 million trees on top of the new building. Just to put that 39,500 tonnes of carbon in context, last week the council announced that we are going to spend £17 million to retrofit all of our building to save 1,700 tonnes of carbon every year. And so this is 23 years of what we have just saved as a council, going into one building."

The planning officials and other councilors ignored this and supported demolition, and the M&S store development head said they wanted to "establish a building which positively contributes to our net zero targets over the long term with strong sustainability credentials." The Chairman of Planning noted: "Our committee must make decisions in line with planning policy and this development meets those policies."

Understanding Upfront Carbon

So while the architects, planners, and owners talk sustainability, environmental responsibility, BREEAM, net-zero, and planning policy, Councilor Geoff Barraclough is the only one who understands that the construction of this building is going to fart out 39,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). Or as Will Hurst of the Architects' Journal notes, the equivalent of driving to the sun, burning 43,696,278 pounds of coal, or protecting 48,436 acres of North American forest.

Barraclough and Hurst understand upfront carbon, while everyone else there is either carbon illiterate or is studiously ignoring the truth about the importance and scale of upfront carbon emissions because everyone is having such a good time knocking buildings down and building bigger ones. As British architect Julia Barfield noted in a tweet:

"We all need to get Carbon literate and understand the carbon consequence of demolition. How can it possibly be justified? Further reason why embodied carbon needs to be regulated and made a meaningful part of the planning system."

Carbon Illiteracy Is Everywhere

Carbon illiteracy LinkedIn post screenshot from Allison A. Bailes

Allison Bailes/Linkedin

Physicist Allison Bailes of Energy Vanguard has a pretty sophisticated following of engineers and building professionals in his Linkedin crowd, but after reading my book "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle" he started thinking about embodied carbon and put this poll up. The majority got it backward and thought that embodied carbon was locked up in the product. I have always said that embodied carbon is a stupid and confusing term because it is not embodied, it is in the air—the poll kind of proves it.

So in the interest of carbon literacy, here is a little primer:

embodied carbon graphic

World Green Building Council

Embodied Carbon Terminology

Upfront carbon is the emissions that happen during the manufacture of building products and their installation in the construction process. They are now considered to be the front end of embodied carbon, which also includes use-stage embodied carbon that includes maintenance and repair, and end-of-life carbon. Add it to the operating carbon that it takes to run a building, and you get whole life carbon.

It's all confusing because for 50 years we have been talking about energy, and we have lots of that now: the problem today is carbon. When we worried about energy, we could just spray everything with plastic foam and call it LEED Platinum. We never cared about what happened before the building was occupied, we only cared about how much energy it took to run.

Upfront Carbon

Canada Green Building Council

However, when you talk about carbon instead of energy, the upfront carbon emissions are the most important of all, because they are happening now. And they are big: In a new efficient building like the one proposed for M&S, they can be bigger than the total of operating emissions over the life of the building.

budget figures
Carbon ceilings.


As noted previously, every ounce of CO2 emissions adds to global warming. We have a carbon budget ceiling that we have to stay under to limit global heating.  To have an 83% chance of keeping the temperature rise under 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) we have a ceiling of 300 billion metric tons of CO2, which is about seven and a half million new M&S stores. It sounds like a lot of stores, but every single one counts. It's why the upfront carbon emissions matter most—they are the ones that go against the carbon ceiling. I have a short attention span and am not really interested in the end-of-life emissions; I worry about the now.

Development stages

World Green Building Council

This is why just about every thoughtful organization in Britain and a few in North America say we should be renovating buildings instead of tearing them down. It is why the World Green Building Council calls for a radical reduction in upfront carbon emissions and why the Architects Climate Action Network calls for regulation of embodied carbon. The Architects' Journal is campaigning for RetroFirst. Now, even the British Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) has joined the party with its new report, "Reducing the whole life carbon impact of buildings," where it calls for:

  • A focus on reusing and repurposing buildings where possible, to avoid the need for construction of new buildings.
  • Whole life carbon (in particular, embodied carbon) to be considered in amendments to the building regulations for both new buildings and retrofitting of buildings.
  • VAT to be reduced for building refurbishments to be in line with newbuilds. Repurposing existing buildings is not always cost-effective, in part due to the VAT costs associated with refurbishment, which do not apply to demolition and new-build.

To circle back to Oxford Street and Marks & Spencer, as Jacob Loftus notes, we are in a climate emergency. We should not be building stuff that we don't really need, we should be retrofitting and renovating and reinventing first, we should be building out of natural materials, and we should be measuring out our carbon with coffee spoons.

And all our planners, architects, and politicians should be carbon literate.