Carbon reduction in construction: a net benefit, not just to the environment, but to the bottom line

Today marks the start of Climate Week NYC. On this day, or any day in this age, there should be no debate on the merits of reducing the level of carbon circulating in the atmosphere. What is debatable is the best way to take action on carbon reduction.

The carbon footprint of the built environment is simply massive—in the extraction, fabrication, transportation and erection of construction materials, but also in how we operate and maintain a structure after it’s built. Reduction of the latter, or operational carbon, is better understood and has been promoted through leadership tools like LEED® followed by regulatory legislation across the country.

Seventeen states, which make up 47 percent of the U.S. economy, have signed the U.S. Climate Alliance Agreement with the aim to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025. Two hundred and seventy-four cities have signed the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda and eight states follow the Paris Agreement. New York City made news earlier this year when it passed a resolution requiring extraordinary energy performance gains to the city’s largest commercial buildings by 2030.

It’s clear that municipal and state governments are aiming for long-term, affordable decisions that reduce carbon emissions. However, while operational carbon is important, we are only addressing part of the carbon reduction challenge.

The urgency of embodied carbon

According to Architecture 2030, between 2015 and 2050, 2 trillion square feet of buildings will be built or undergo a significant renovation. Over the 30-year lifecycle of a new building built in 2020, roughly half of its carbon would come from embodied carbon and the other half from operational carbon. Carbon from building operations will be emitted bit by bit every year over the life of a building, but all embodied carbon will have been emitted the day construction is complete and we hand over the keys. To be clear, we need to address both operational and embodied carbon. With that said, addressing embodied carbon is more urgent.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 report states that for global warming to be limited to 1.5 °C, "Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching 'net zero' around 2050." This means that there is a greater urgency to address embodied carbon because, over the next ten years, about 80 to 90 percent of the carbon emitted from new construction will be embodied carbon.

Embodied carbon and operational carbon are both types of carbon dioxide released into the air. The main difference is when it is released.

To be blunt, it may not matter how efficiently we operate our buildings over time if we don’t immediately address the carbon embodied in what and how we build. The good news is, we can take action now to reduce embodied carbon by working with our design partners and the supply chain to select and deliver efficient, low-carbon solutions.

Introducing the EC3 tool: our solution to the embodied carbon problem

In 2018, Skanska co-created the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) tool with technology developer C-Change Labs. Seed funding was provided by Skanska and Microsoft for a proof of concept, and the tool’s incubation was then handed over to the Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF). I am proud of Stacy Smedley, director of sustainability with Skanska’s Seattle office, who initiated and continues to lead our efforts.

The EC3 tool is an open-source database of construction material information based on environmental product declaration (EPD) data. It is searchable by material performance requirements as well as design specifications, project location, and global warming potential. There are over 16,000 EPDs currently in the database representing a range of materials, including concrete, steel and gypsum.

With the EC3 tool, you can determine which material suppliers will offer your project the lowest-carbon option.

Today, we announced our collaboration with over 30 sustainability leaders to help create the revolutionary EC3 tool. When the EC3 tool is made free and publicly available on November 19 at Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, this increased availability of data will improve awareness about the impacts of embodied carbon and help drive carbon reductions by enabling more informed material choices. It is also expected to incentivize manufacturers to produce low-carbon products. In the meantime, we are leveraging it with our teams and clients to illustrate the benefits of “decarbonizing” our supply chain—which can also cut costs.  

Also released today is the World Green Building Council’s (WGBC) “call to action” report that focuses on embodied carbon emissions and the systematic changes that are needed to achieve full decarbonization across the global buildings sector. The main objectives of this report? To communicate the deadlines and actions that must be met in order to reach the goal of net zero embodied carbon by 2050. I’m proud to say that Skanska and the EC3 tool are both mentioned in the solutions section of the report.

All embodied carbon has been released by the time construction is complete. Operational carbon is emitted over time through the operation of the building: think heating, cooling, lighting and electricity use for equipment. In the short run, we can make a bigger impact by reducing embodied carbon.

Creating bold innovations to help us reach our 2050 goals

Our vision, along with the vision of the WGBC as outlined in their report, is that by 2050, new buildings, infrastructure and renovations will have net zero embodied carbon, and all buildings—including existing buildings—will be net zero operational carbon. This vision isn’t impossible to meet, but we need to act now. I believe the EC3 tool is a meaningful start on this critical journey.

Skanska is building for a better society by co-creating a tool that will empower our industry to reduce its carbon footprint and help bend the arc of history toward a sustainable future.

To pre-register for access to the EC3 tool on November 19, click here. For more information on embodied carbon, click here.

Last updated: 9/20/2019