Climate, Carbon and the Built Environment
The Impact of Buildings on Carbon Emissions
Globally, the building and construction sectors account for nearly 40% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in constructing and operating buildings (including the impacts of upstream power generation).1 Current building codes address operating energy but do not typically address the impacts of embodied carbon in building materials and products. However, more than half of all GHG emissions are related to materials management (including material extraction and manufacturing) when aggregated across industrial sectors.2 As building operations become more efﬁcient, these embodied impacts related to producing building materials become increasingly signiﬁcant.
- UNEP and IEA, “Global Status Report 2017: Towards a Zero-Emission, Efﬁcient, and Resilient Buildings and Construction Sector,” 2017.
- OECD, “Global Material Resources Outlook to 2060: Economic Drivers
Carbon Emissions in Buildings:
‘Upfront’ Embodied Carbon and Operational Carbon
The Growing Significance of Embodied Carbon
Between now and 2060 the world’s population will be doubling the amount of building floor-space, equivalent to building an entire New York City every month for 40 years. Much of the carbon footprint of these new buildings will take the form of embodied carbon — the emissions associated with building material manufacturing and construction.1
Unlike operational carbon emissions, which can be reduced over time with building energy efficiency renovations and the use of renewable energy, embodied carbon emissions have irreversibly entered the atmosphere as soon as a building is built.
- Architecture2030. https://architecture2030.org/buildings_problem_why/
- Architecture2030. https://architecture2030.org/new-buildings-embodied/
We invite you to join our coalition of architects, engineers, contractors, materials suppliers, building owners, policymakers and associations committed to radically decarbonizing buildings and building materials.
- Become a Member of the Carbon Leadership Forum. Your membership includes a subscription to our Informative Newsletter and membership in our collaborative Online Community.
- Join or start a Regional Hub of the Carbon Leadership Forum.
- Join or start a Focus Group.
- Help fund our Research and Initiatives through your Sponsorship.
- Are you an NGO? Learn more about our NGO Roundtable.
The Carbon Leadership Forum accelerates the transformation of the building sector to bring embodied carbon to zero through cutting-edge research, cross-sector collaboration, and the incubation of new practices and policies. If you’re new to the topic, we suggest starting with the following key links to learn more.
Additional information can be found here:
Materials matter: Bill Gates explains the importance of embodied carbon
This is a great short video on the importance of reducing the emissions from the manufacturing sector that highlights the need for the building sector to take action. Send the link to your network. It’s a quick and easy introduction to a topic that can seem opaque.
Report from Building Green on the urgency of embodied carbon
Once you have the basics, we recommend this report from Building Green that dives into some of the details of embodied carbon and actions you can take to reduce them in your projects. They even offer a course that provides continuing education credits (from the American Institute of Architects and from the Green Building Certification Institute for its LEED Credential Maintenance Program)..
Embodied Carbon Benchmark Study
This Carbon Leadership Forum project includes embodied carbon data for over 1,000 buildings and resulted in an interactive tool to help evaluate the order of magnitude of embodied carbon impacts of common building types. We’re finding that for a new building more than half of the carbon emissions between now and 2050 can be attributed to the ‘upfront’ emissions embodied in materials and construction.
Life Cycle Assessment Practice Guide
Life Cycle Assessment is the method used to evaluate embodied carbon. The Embodied Carbon Benchmark Study identified a need in the industry for standardized and accessible guidance on how to conduct an LCA of a building. The LCA Practice Guide was developed to address this need. This guide is in two parts: Part 1 is a general overview of Life Cycle Assessment, or ‘LCA’ useful for anyone interested in understanding the method, Part 2 gives recommendations for building industry professionals looking to evaluate the embodied carbon of a building.
Research to inform Practice and Policy
The Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington conducts studies and curates data to understand the impacts of embodied carbon, as well as to identify opportunities to cut emissions. We share what we’re learning with practitioners and policymakers to inform practices and policies that support a thriving and sustainable building sector. Visit our Projects library to access key publications.