Beyond Energy Efficiency: Why Embodied Carbon In Materials Matters


Approximately 30% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are linked to the building industry. Because of our work as building professionals, the atmosphere is filling up with CO2 and other greenhouse gasses. Yet the building industry has the potential to switch from being a problem to being a part of the solution. To make this switch, we must turn our energy and attention to both reducing the amount of CO2 we release into the atmosphere throughout the operational lifecycle of buildings and to designing and building to remove CO2 from the atmosphere with plant-based building materials that store that carbon in their cells and facilitate its storage in the soil.

Our industry has made great strides in addressing operational energy consumption (the amount of energy used to run the building). However, calculations around the carbon footprint of work often don’t account for embodied carbon: the carbon emissions produced as a result of the harvest/extraction, refinement and production/manufacturing of a material. The embodied carbon value of a material reflects the amount of emissions released for that phase of a material’s lifecycle.

Here are seven reasons why embodied carbon matters:

The goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, set by the World Green Building Council in response to targets outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, can only be achieved by addressing embodied carbon, especially as operating emissions are dramatically reduced.

Embodied carbon has been released — and the climate damage done — before the building is even occupied; it cannot be recovered or offset. Given the “zero carbon by 2050” goal, the early-phase timing of these emissions is of critical importance.

There will be lower carbon emissions from operating energy consumption as the grid “decarbonizes” through increased renewable-sourced electricity production and as mechanical equipment becomes more efficient.

A building using high embodied carbon insulation to reduce operating carbon emissions may release more cumulative carbon emissions than a building with lower insulation levels and higher operating emissions within the 2050 timeframe. More insulation isn’t always “better” from a climate perspective.

By using carbon-storing materials, buildings have the potential to actively reverse carbon emissions — as opposed to passively “doing less harm” — and to do so immediately, not after many years of renewable energy production.

Using carbon storing materials can have an amplifying effect on carbon reduction and storage by supporting sustainable silvicultural and agricultural systems.

Use of biologically-sourced materials such as wood, cellulose and agricultural fibers offers the greatest storage potential. This also supports working landscapes and localized, scale-appropriate economies in our region, providing myriad additional benefits beyond climate impact.

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