2024: Decarbonization on the Agenda

By Andrew Himes 
Director of Collective Impact, Carbon Leadership Forum

One of the classic (funniest) cartoons of all time was Back Alley Oproar, produced in 1948 by Warner Brothers. Sylvester sings (and does other crazy stuff) in an alleyway, destroying Elmer Fudd’s sleep. Tragic consequences ensue with Fudd’s extreme and ill-considered resistance to Sylvester’s operatic endeavors. The highlight of the cartoon (for me) comes at the 3:10 mark in the video, when Sylvester sings, “You never know where you’re going ‘til get there…”

Sylvester’s performance pushes me to reflect on the history of the CLF and embodied carbon. People have been making buildings out of low-carbon biogenic materials for thousands of years, of course. But it’s fair to date the inception of the modern US green building movement to the first meeting of the US Green Building Council and the first glimmer of the LEED standard for buildings in 1993. In those early days, people talked about “sustainable materials,” but had no rigorous way to describe what such a material was, and no data or tools available to help compare or select low-carbon materials.

A significant date in CLF’s history was February 14th, 2011 (Valentine’s Day) with twin announcements. Architecture 2030 issued the 2030 Challenge for Products, a plan to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from the manufacturing and transportation of building products. Kate Simonen, founding executive director of the new CLF and a professor of architecture and engineering at the University of Washington, announced that the CLF would have a home at the University’s College of Built Environments, and would work to help the building industry meet the 2030 Challenge for Products.

“Without good data, clear standards, and industry collaboration, we will not be able to accurately predict and reduce the carbon impact of building materials and products,” said Kate Simonen in 2011. “The 2030 Challenge for Products provides critical leadership to motivate the development of low-carbon industries and rigorous environmental performance standards. Ambitious targets for carbon reduction cannot be met by increasing energy efficiency alone.”

In 2012, the CLF developed and published version 1.0 of a North American Product Category Rule (PCR) for concrete, the most widely used building material in the world. PCRs are sets of rules and requirements that guide measuring and reporting a specific product’s life cycle impact when conducting an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). In 2013, ready-mix concrete supplier Central Concrete, a CLF sponsor, published the first Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for concrete. Central Concrete was also the first U.S. company, in any industry, to produce EPDs at the individual product level. Over the next few years, CLF focused on developing a fundamental understanding of the data, analysis, tools, and policies needed to reduce embodied carbon.

By 2017-2018, CLF decided it was time to shift gears dramatically. When we attended Greenbuild in 2017 in Boston it was difficult to find a conference session, panel, or speaker who referenced the importance of embodied carbon. We were learning a lot but making little evident headway in the building industry, even as the climate crisis was accelerating rapidly. It was time for CLF to scale up, and over the next few years, the CLF also began to accelerate rapidly. In 2017, CLF produced the landmark Embodied Carbon Benchmark Study. In 2018, CLF hosted Carbon Smart Building Day, the first large-scale industry conference to focus on total carbon. In 2019, the CLF incubated the EC3 tool, a free and easy-to-use tool that allows benchmarking, assessment, and reductions in embodied carbon.

Fast forward to the end of 2023, and we can see intense conversation, collaboration, and action across the industry to address embodied carbon. Not nearly enough yet. Not nearly fast enough yet. Progress that is not easily measurable yet. But progress just the same. And in one of the most hopeful signs, the ECHO Project (Embodied Carbon Harmonization and Optimization) may be the broadest-scale and most far-reaching collaboration in the history of the building industry.

“You never know where you’re going ‘til get there…”

True, that. Hindsight is easier than foresight. But we’ll begin 2024 with a heightened sense of the potential for dramatic progress on embodied carbon. See you along the journey.

Andrew Himes is Director of Collective Impact at the Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington, working on collective impact initiatives to reduce embodied carbon emissions in built environments, including building materials, design, construction, and retrofits. He hosts the NGO/Government Roundtable on Embodied Carbon, explores opportunities for collective action to reduce embodied carbon, manages strategic communications for the CLF, and supports CLF’s Online Community and network of Regional Hubs. In 2018, he was coordinator of Día de la construcción inteligente con carbono, a conference affiliated with the Global Climate Action Summit focused on transforming the global building industry to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Andrew Himes

At the end of 2023, we can see intense conversation, collaboration, and action across the industry to address embodied carbon. 

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