As the Senior Director of Sustainability at CarbonCure Technologies and a Board Member of the Carbon Leadership Forum, I have found myself at the forefront of a rapidly growing movement to reduce embodied carbon in the built environment. How did I — a Canadian prairie girl and construction industry outsider — become a champion of the embodied carbon movement?
In the summer of 2013, I joined an ambitious technology innovator full of passionate individuals determined to reduce the carbon footprint of the concrete industry. Without any prior understanding of concrete or embodied carbon, but with an ardent desire to pursue a career that would drive positive social impact, I enthusiastically joined the cause.
CarbonCure had been founded in 2007 by our CEO Rob Niven. Rob had studied carbon sequestration in concrete while completing a Master of Engineering at McGill University. During his studies, Rob attended a United Nations summit on climate, where he saw first-hand the urgent global need to reduce carbon emissions. Rob understood that concrete has the ability to chemically mineralize carbon and he sought to develop a solution to permanently embed waste CO2 in every day concrete production.
Today, CarbonCure is proud to partner with nearly 200 concrete plants across North America and parts of Asia to reduce concrete’s carbon footprint by repurposing post-industrial CO2. As of March 2020, over 5 million cubic yards of concrete and millions of concrete masonry units have been delivered to construction sites using the CarbonCure Technology, and over 130 million pounds of embodied carbon have been saved.
In my capacity leading CarbonCure’s sustainability efforts, my primary objective is to foster communication among the various influencers of concrete construction — the architects, developers, engineers, contractors, procurement officers, policymakers, and (most importantly) the concrete producers — in order to align embodied carbon reduction goals with concrete supply. (Last year, I also got to add “TV star” to my resume when I shared CarbonCure’s mission on a popular feature segment by CNN Money.)
I have visited design & construction offices in nearly 50 cities across North America over the past 6 years, and I have seen an incredible evolution in the understanding of embodied carbon over that time frame. In my early days, many architects and engineers were surprised to learn about the impact of carbon from building materials. It was admittedly a challenge attempting to provide a solution to a problem that many people didn’t realize existed.
Did you know that nearly 40% of a building’s life cycle impact comes from embodied carbon, i.e. the carbon emitted from manufacturing of materials through construction of the building? Did you know that concrete is the most abundant man-made material on the planet, and as a result, cement production is responsible for 7% of the world’s global CO2 emissions?
Thanks to the incredible work of organizations such as the Carbon Leadership Forum, Architecture2030, the World Green Building Council and its affiliate organizations to name a few, I’ve witnessed a sudden sharp turn taken by the design and construction industry to understand and address the embodied carbon issue.
I attended the inaugural Carbon Smart Building Day in San Francisco last September. Imagine! An entire conference devoted to reducing embodied carbon in the built environment?! I was perhaps even more excited to attend the Boston Society of Architect’s Embodied Carbon in Buildings Conference in May. To me, this sold-out event was a clear indication that embodied carbon had become a topic of national discussion.
I’m equally encouraged to see the movement grow across various stakeholders. In addition to the Architecture 2030 Challenge, we will soon see the launch of the Structural Engineers 2050 Challenge to achieve net zero embodied carbon by 2050. Contractors are also taking a leadership stance, with the primary example being Skanska’s development of the soon-to-be-launched open source EC3 tool to assess the carbon impact of materials in early design decisions.
Policy aimed at reducing embodied carbon in government building and infrastructure procurement is starting to take shape. Very recently, the US Conference of Mayors (USCM) passed an unprecedented resolution “urging all cities to consider using carbon dioxide mineralized concrete for future city building and infrastructure projects utilizing concrete.” Following leadership demonstrated by the cities of Honolulu and Austin, the USCM is encouraging its member municipalities to adopt a carbon-utilization solution for embodied carbon in concrete. Incredible!
So where do we go from here? For starters, we need to scale the movement by encouraging grassroots action among specifier firms, contractors, and policy makers. We need every design and construction team behind every project asking, what is my embodied carbon impact, and what strategies do I have available to reduce that impact? The team behind Skanska’s EC3 tool has asserted that simply having carbon information available in the material selection process may result in a 30% reduction to embodied carbon, without impacting the project’s costs.
Finally, we need to bring everyone to the table for these conversations, and this includes, perhaps most importantly, the building material manufacturers.
I’m proud to be considered a partner to many of the country’s leading concrete producers. Concrete is the most abundant man-made material on the planet for a reason. It is the backbone of modern society, and it has enabled us to create the thriving built environment that keeps us safe. The concrete industry — and all building material industries for that matter — are vital partners in this mission and need to be given a platform to collaborate directly with the design and construction firms who are leading the movement to reduce embodied carbon.
We know we need to take action on embodied carbon now. Considering the accelerated growth of the movement in the 6 years since I became involved, I’m feeling very optimistic about our collective ability to make this happen.