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New Ramboll study, funded by Laudes Foundation – towards embodied carbon benchmarks for buildings in Europe

James Drinkwater, Head of Built Environment, Laudes Foundation, interviews Lars Ostenfeld Riemann, Executive Director, Ramboll Buildings at Ramboll.

Ramboll is a global consultancy delivering sustainable change across 35 countries.

With a civil-engineering legacy, Ramboll also comprises management consulting, architecture, and environmental services to deliver a holistic take on the green transition – in the buildings sector and in similar industries.

Laudes Foundation is an independent foundation joining the growing movement to accelerate the transition to a climate-positive and inclusive global economy.

Responding to the dual crises of climate breakdown and inequality, Laudes supports brave action that inspires and challenges industry to harness its power for good.

James Drinkwater (JD): How does this new study build on the work done so far on enabling us to reduce embodied carbon in our buildings, and how does it support the WorldGBC’s recently-launched EU Roadmap?

Lars Ostenfeld Riemann (LOR): For decades the focus has been on energy efficiency and reducing operational carbon. Only in the last few years embodied carbon and its significance in the bigger picture has been widely understood. With the help of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) it has become clear that in Europe, embodied carbon could constitute more than 80% of a new building’s total lifetime emissions. This is especially true for countries where new buildings are designed to meet the NZEB standard (Nearly Zero Energy Buildings). So, it makes a lot of sense to focus on what is now the biggest source of emissions in relation to new buildings namely the production of materials – especially given globally we are building the equivalent of four Paris cities each month. 

WorldGBC was the first global organisation to put embodied carbon on the mainstream agenda. In its 2019 paper, “Bringing Embodied Carbon Up Front”, co-authored by Ramboll, we highlighted the challenge and brought the construction value chain together to agree on future reduction targets. WorldGBC’s new EU Roadmap, which also references Ramboll’s work, advocates for industry-wide measurement and action on whole-life carbon. And so our recent study, funded by Laudes Foundation, provides a complementary and necessary level of insight – vital in order to develop detailed plans for reaching 2030 and 2050 reduction targets. The first step of any such plan is to define where we are today – the baseline – and where we need to end up in the future. We need to provide transparency to what exactly we measure and how we measure it. 

JD: What are the report’s main recommendations?

LOR: The report is a call to action for policy makers, certifications bodies, investors, and designers to establish an embodied carbon performance framework. The concept for such a framework is developed in the study and proposes pathways to guide the building sector to achieve whole life carbon emission reductions aligned with the Paris Agreement.

But the report also highlights several challenges, including the lack of robust data to define benchmarks and budgets. There is a lack of comparable data on embodied carbon of buildings and specifically on building types, materials and components that allow a detailed analysis. This data needs to be collected in a sector-wide effort and made available for benchmark calculations.

Additionally, a carbon budget must be provided for all buildings, including embodied carbon. This budget describes the remaining amounts of greenhouse gas that can be emitted while keeping global warming within the scientifically and politically agreed limits. A carbon budget is comparable to a cost budget, defining the resources available for an activity. Comparing the carbon budget with the emissions caused by materials and buildings allows the sector to manage the reduction effectively.

JD: How does this report relate to the real estate sector’s net zero commitments?

LOR: The sector’s updated net zero commitment includes targets on both operational and embodied carbon emissions. The sector cannot achieve net zero emissions without dramatically reducing embodied carbon emissions.

WorldGBC’s EU Roadmap defines it like this: “Until more information is gathered and a consensus on a baseline reached, [we call] for at least a 40% reduction in embodied emissions for all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations by 2030.”

JD: What’s next for this work?

LOR: Policy makers must act. There is no doubt that regulation is a key driver for reaching reduction targets. The European Commission has acknowledged the need to reduce embodied carbon emissions and is preparing to incorporate reporting requirements in future directives including the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) and the EU Taxonomy. A roadmap for reducing whole-life carbon emissions of buildings is currently in development. Some EU Member States like Denmark and France are further ahead and have already implemented limit values in their building codes. 

Ramboll has been appointed by the European Commission to do some of the groundwork for future policy initiatives, a work that builds on the insights gained in this study.

However, to contribute to the global efforts to tackle climate change and anticipate regulations, the commitment and reduction efforts have to start now. They should be led by an industry-wide agreement on benchmarks for embodied carbon. Science Based Targets could be key to enable and incentivise investors and developers. The SBT initiative is working on operational and embodied targets for the property sector that are aligned with a 1.5oC scenario, which will come out next year, providing more granularity to the actions required to be considered a responsible market actor. When that happens there will be a strong expectation in the market to comply — increasing demand for low carbon approaches and materials. Investors are realising that their poor performing investments might end up as stranded assets. But that is a projection that can be reserved, with the right action. 

In any case, I anticipate a great deal of positive moment in this field in the coming year.

You can download the EU Policy Whole Life Carbon Roadmap here.