Embodied Carbon Reduction in Construction

The construction industry plays a significant role in global greenhouse gas emissions, with buildings responsible for 39% of these emissions. A substantial portion of these emissions, 11%, is attributed to embodied carbon, which encompasses the carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and transporting construction materials and the construction process itself. In this blog post, we will examine the concept of embodied carbon in construction, its importance, how to assess it, and strategies to reduce it.

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Need to Understand Embodied Carbon

Unlike operational carbon, which can be reduced over a building’s lifespan, embodied carbon cannot be diminished once a construction project is complete. As building operations become more energy-efficient, embodied carbon represents a larger proportion of a building’s lifetime emissions. Addressing embodied carbon is crucial for the construction industry’s efforts to mitigate climate change and meet ambitious emission reduction goals.

The Impact of Embodied Carbon on Climate Goals

If nothing is done to address embodied carbon, it will be challenging to achieve the emission targets required to limit global warming to within 2°C. Therefore, incorporating strategies to reduce embodied carbon is essential for the construction industry’s climate mitigation strategy.

How to Assess Embodied Carbon?

To effectively reduce embodied carbon, it’s essential to identify the carbon “hotspots” – systems or materials that contribute the most to a building’s embodied greenhouse gas emissions. The Whole-Building Life-Cycle Assessment (WBLCA) is the primary method for assessing embodied carbon. However, there are other tools and resources available for initial insights.

Resources for Assessing Embodied Carbon

For a basic understanding of materials’ carbon footprints, free resources like the Bath Inventory of Carbon and Energy (ICE) and the Quartz database can be helpful. Additionally, Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) provide information on specific product carbon footprints. These resources can aid in making informed material choices.

How to Reduce Embodied Carbon?

Reducing embodied carbon begins with thoughtful planning before construction even starts. Consider whether new construction is necessary or if salvaged building materials can be reused. Design buildings with long lifespans in mind to avoid the need for multiple new constructions.

Optimizing Structural Systems

Structural systems are a major source of embodied carbon, constituting 80% of a building’s impact. Optimizing materials like concrete, steel, and wood can make a substantial difference.

Concrete and Cement

Concrete production is carbon-intensive due to the manufacturing process of binder portland cement. To reduce its embodied carbon, consider using supplemental cementitious materials (SCMs) and specifying higher-quality aggregates. Collaborating with ready-mix suppliers to meet structural and environmental requirements can also help.

Steel

Steel has a high embodied carbon footprint, but adopting cleaner technologies like electric arc furnaces (EAF) has led to a reduction in its carbon emissions. Reducing the quantity of steel in construction can be achieved through composite design and thoughtful choice of lateral systems.

Structural Wood

Using wood products, such as cross-laminated timber (CLT), in place of concrete or steel can significantly reduce embodied carbon. Wood products sequester carbon, making them a sustainable choice for structural elements.

In conclusion, addressing embodied carbon in construction is vital for achieving climate goals. By understanding, assessing, and implementing strategies to reduce embodied carbon, the construction industry can play a pivotal role in mitigating climate change while creating sustainable and environmentally friendly buildings.

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