The recent IPCC report removes all doubt: the building and construction sector must decarbonise by 2050 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. As nations all over the globe tackle operational emissions from buildings, we must challenge ourselves to address our sector’s total emissions impact if we are to deliver a truly net zero carbon building stock. COP24 must mark the beginning of a major global campaign to take on this challenge – one on which Europe must lead the world.
New global research supported by the Finnish government and WorldGBC’s partners Saint-Gobain and Stora Enso reports that there are now over 100 standards worldwide that address ‘embodied carbon’ in buildings and construction. The research defines embodied carbon as ‘the total impact of all the greenhouse gases emitted by the construction and materials of our built environment’ (noting that at present there is no globally accepted formal definition).
Indeed this topic is not new to the buildings and climate debate. The German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) has included a full life cycle assessment of emissions in its building certification scheme for well over a decade. A 2050 roadmap for the property sector set out by the Norwegian Green Building Council has seen many of Norway’s biggest real estate owners commit to taking action on embodied emissions. Indeed, Norway’s finance sector is currently exploring including embodied emissions in green loans to the property sector to ensure their investments are ‘Paris proof’.
However, while the issue is not new, action on embodied carbon barely gets a mention in the mainstream climate and buildings debate. While operational emissions are targeted by an increasing range of policies, embodied emissions are on the rise. The Finnish research notes that global embodied carbon emissions from new buildings alone will exceed 100 gigatons by 2060 if unchecked, rising to over 230 gigatons if all renovation activity and infrastructure construction are included.
This is one reason why Finland’s government is currently consulting on planned regulations to implement life cycle CO2 threshold limits for different building types by 2025. But in many countries, ambitious policy and private sector action to drive down embodied emissions are absent – and construction material suppliers often cite a lack of demand for low carbon solutions as a barrier in their efforts to decarbonise. It’s time to tackle this with policies like Finland’s that can galvanise actors across the sector the way policies on energy efficiency have.
Given the work already underway in leading markets like Germany, Finland and Norway, the immediate challenge is not so much how to start addressing embodied carbon. Rather, it is to elevate leading work in this field to a much more visible level so it can spark and guide more mainstream debate. Leaders are already adopting whole building life cycle assessments, designing for deconstruction, and extending the use of existing buildings with top-ups. Governments, cities and actors across the construction and real estate sector now need a clear roadmap of actions they can take so we can work together to deliver a net zero carbon built environment by 2050.
The World Green Building Council’s (WorldGBC) ‘Advancing Net Zero’ project is answering this call. We have launched new work on embodied emissions this year, and next year will publish a landmark report setting out a sector-wide vision for addressing embodied carbon as part of our drive towards net zero carbon buildings. We will be building on the leading work of our Green Building Councils and key partners in industry and government, and engaging with leaders from across the sector to create a joint vision and call to action.
The Advancing Net Zero project’s goal of ensuring all buildings are net zero emissions by 2050 has been rapidly adopted by many world-leading cities and businesses joining our Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment. From London, Paris and Stockholm here in Europe, to Cape Town, New York and Tokyo, net zero is beginning to be embraced as the new global benchmark for the building sector. To date, organisations joining our Commitment have pledged to eliminate a total of 221 million tonnes of carbon emissions equivalent from their buildings by 2050: the equivalent of 47.3 million cars off the road for a year.
To drive the shift towards truly net zero emission buildings by 2050, we have formally recognised that our Advancing Net Zero project must tackle embodied emissions and circular thinking in the building sector. Already, net zero building standards released by Green Building Councils from Canada, France, Germany and Sweden address life cycle emissions, and various other countries such as the UK are launching cross-industry groups to set similar standards.
Ahead of COP24, the European Commission set out a vision to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Whilst it talks of zero emissions buildings, and an efficient industry that embraces the circular economy, the Commission’s net zero buildings dialogue will need to address these issues in a more joined up way if Europe is to drive demand for a decarbonised building stock. In Europe, the construction sector uses around 50 percent of all materials, and so the mainstream debate around energy efficiency and renewables in buildings must now expand to address embodied emissions and circular economy thinking. Demand-side and supply-side thinking must come together if we want the market to shift on this issue.
One of the most promising European policy developments in this direction is the Commission’s ‘Level(s)’ framework of life cycle performance indicators, which aims to move the buildings debate beyond energy towards wider life cycle environmental impacts. Some 130 building projects across 21 EU member states are applying Level(s) as part of a testing phase for this new policy. Level(s) has enormous potential to help establish a common approach to action on life cycle impacts across the diverse actors in the construction value chain, and so far has seen wide engagement from cities to manufacturers and developers.
Forward-looking governments like Finland are already aligning their embodied carbon and wider sustainable building policies with Level(s). A joint event by GBC Finland and Stora Enso in 2017 that gathered government, major cities, property developers, designers and material manufacturers has led to a range of Level(s) testing projects that are helping informing current policy design. GBCs in many other countries across Europe are leading similar coalitions, but Level(s) needs greater political support at EU level if it is to spark mainstream industry action.
As we reach another COP it becomes clearer by the day that we must act faster than ever before to halt catastrophic climate change. We are calling on embodied carbon leaders to join us in challenging the global building and construction community to move faster to address our total emissions impact, and to work with us to set out a vision for how we do this.
James Drinkwater is Director, Europe Regional Network at the World Green Building Council.
- At COP24 in Katowice WorldGBC is hosting a panel on embodied carbon at the 6 December Global Alliance for Building and Construction conference on NDCs. This will convene diverse policy-makers and industry experts including the European Commission, China Building Research Academy and government of Senegal.
- On 18 December WorldGBC is co-hosting a large conference with the European Commission on Level(s) and bringing buildings into the circular economy, which will call for a shift towards life cycle thinking.
- WorldGBC’s Europe network will be inviting European stakeholders to a workshop in Brussels in the first half of 2019 as part of building consensus on how we tackle the life cycle emissions challenge and create a more sustainable built environment.