Reducing Embodied Carbons Key to Achieving Net-Zero Status

Minimizing effect of building materials can help managers reach goals.   June 21, 2023

By Dave Lubach, Executive Editor

As building owners and facility managers seek to achieve carbon neutrality in their institutional and commercial facilities, embodied carbon is one aspect of the process fast gaining momentum as an area to address. 

The Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit focused on energy efficiency innovation, describes embodied carbon as “carbon emissions released during the lifecycle of building materials, including extraction, manufacturing, transport, construction and disposal.”  

Concrete, steel and insulation are just some examples of building materials that contribute to carbon emissions, which are responsible for 11 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to RMI.   

By addressing the kinds of materials used to construct buildings early in the process, building owners and managers can take significant steps toward achieving net-zero goals. In this article, we talked with Webly Bowles, the associate director of codes and policy for the New Buildings Institute about strategies that managers can use to lessen the impact of embodied carbon resources in their buildings.  

FacilitiesNet: How can facility managers learn more about the amount of embodied carbon resources in the products they use?  

Bowles: Environmental product declarations (EPDs) provide the most accurate information about embodied carbon in building products. EPDs can be found by asking manufacturers or checking a public database like EC3. However, not all manufacturers create EPDs for products. Resources like the construction material pyramid provide some general guidance on the carbon associated with different products. It's important to note that the information the construction material pyramid provides is generalized. For instance, while aluminum is often depicted as a higher carbon product at the top of the pyramid, understanding the context is crucial when considering how the product is accounted for in a whole-building life cycle assessment (WB LCA). For example, using a small amount of aluminum in a wood building may result in a smaller percentage of carbon compared to an aluminum-clad, wood-framed building. 

Several WB LCA tools are available on the market. Some simple calculators, like EC3's construction calculator (separate from the EPD database), are well suited for early carbon analysis. 

FacilitiesNet: How much of an impact does embodied carbon have on net-zero efforts compared to other sources? 

Bowles: When looking at the lifecycle carbon of buildings, the emissions associated with building products and materials can be up to 50 percent of the total carbon. Studies have shown that the embodied carbon of higher efficient buildings can range from 20 percent to 50 percent or more of a building's lifetime emissions, depending on factors such as the building type, materials used, and energy efficiency. The frequency of interior fits can change the balance between embodied and operational carbon emissions. In certain cases, especially for buildings with high energy efficiency and low operational carbon emissions, the embodied carbon can even surpass operational carbon, constituting the majority of the carbon footprint. This situation is particularly evident in low-rise buildings, where the impact of embodied carbon is relatively more significant compared to high-rise buildings due to lower operational energy requirements. Therefore, achieving a balance between embodied and operational carbon is of utmost importance in sustainable building practices. 

FacilitiesNet: What are the challenges that facility managers face in trying to limit the impact of embodied carbon in products they procure? 

Bowles: Facility managers encounter two significant challenges when making decisions about products with lower embodied carbon: data availability and familiarity with the concept. To address these challenges, there are key actions that can be taken. First, like other emerging topics, facility managers should familiarize themselves with embodied carbon and develop a procurement plan. Just as with energy efficiency or building decarbonization, having a well-thought-out plan for HVAC replacement is essential. This proactive approach saves time by avoiding the need to conduct urgent research during an emergency, which may lead to selecting a less energy-efficient system. When considering replacing flooring materials, it is important to have a plan in place. This plan should consider using lower carbon products and those that are more durable and require less maintenance or replacement. The plan could even be to call or consult with a trusted expert. In some instances, opting for a higher carbon product with a longer lifespan may be the appropriate choice. By addressing these challenges and implementing strategic plans for procurement and replacement, facility managers can make informed decisions prioritizing lower embodied carbon, energy efficiency, and overall sustainability. 

FacilitiesNet: How do the building codes affect the impact of embodied carbon? 

Bowles: Building codes establish the fundamental requirements for new construction and major renovation projects. When building codes incorporate provisions related to embodied carbon, they effectively establish a baseline for the carbon impact of building products. Code requirements send a clear signal to manufacturers about the increasing demand for lower carbon alternatives, encouraging them to develop and make available products with reduced embodied carbon. When codes set a baseline for embodied carbon, jurisdictions can incentivize projects or products that surpass the code's requirements. Codes create opportunities for recognition and rewards for those who demonstrate embodied carbon reduction. Incentives can include grants, tax credits, or other benefits that motivate owners to go beyond the minimum code requirements and strive for greater sustainability. Integrating embodied carbon requirements into building codes not only establishes a starting point for carbon reduction but also facilitates the adoption of low-carbon practices throughout the construction industry. This approach drives innovation, fosters collaboration, and ultimately contributes to the collective efforts to mitigate climate change and achieve a more sustainable built environment. 

FacilitiesNet: What are some ways that facility managers can learn more about the environmental impact of the contents of the products they use? 

Bowles: Facility managers can ask suppliers for information about embodied carbon — EPDs, health disclosure information. Don't underestimate the power of one person asking — the industry has provided the information because many individuals have asked for it. Attending workshops and webinars can be highly beneficial for facility managers to expand their knowledge of sustainable product certifications and gain insights into best practices. These learning opportunities enable facility managers to stay informed about the latest developments, engage in discussions with experts, and enhance their understanding of embodied carbon and sustainable procurement. Sharing lessons learned with peers and industry colleagues is also crucial for promoting knowledge exchange and advancing sustainable practices collectively. By taking these proactive steps, facility managers can actively promote sustainability, drive the demand for transparent information, and foster a culture of environmental responsibility within the building industry. 

FacilitiesNet: How can facility managers raise awareness within their organizations about product selection? 

Bowles: Facility managers should take measured steps, establishing clear goals while developing a plan. Make one change to the procured products. A good starting point is to ask suppliers for more sustainable products and confirm the environmental claims. Incorporate webinar attendance into professional development goals or even job descriptions. By encouraging continuous learning and staying updated with the latest advancements, facility managers can enhance their expertise and drive sustainable initiatives within their organizations. Additionally, creating a systematic approach for product replacement is highly recommended. By proactively preparing for future replacements, facility managers can effectively manage the transition to more sustainable alternatives when the need arises. This proactive approach reduces the risk of hasty decision-making and allows for careful consideration of sustainable options. By implementing these strategies, facility managers can gradually advance their sustainability efforts, ensure the procurement of more sustainable products, and drive positive change within their organizations. 

Dave Lubach is executive editor of the facility market.  


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