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Reducing embodied carbon together

At a time of crucial climate focus, how is the construction industry taking united leadership action to reduce embodied carbon emissions? Niklas Nillroth, Vice President of Sustainability & Public Affairs at Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) discusses the path to a more sustainable future.

From the outside, the construction industry might not seem like an environmental advocate but huge progress has been made in this area in recent years. In 2012, Volvo CE joined WWF’s Climate Savers program – pledging to promote environmental awareness, develop efficient new technology and encourage sustainable development. The biggest target for the company was to reduce CO2 emissions by 7 million tonnes between 2015 and 2020 – a target that has already been surpassed. The agreement also included the Construction Climate Challenge (CCC) – a program that aims to further reduce the construction industry’s impact on the environment. Volvo CE made contact with the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) through the CCC and in 2016 the company joined WorldGBC’s Corporate Advisory Board.


Embodied carbon

The initial focus of this collaboration was to reduce operational carbon – the carbon which buildings emit after the construction phase. Our cities and built environments are a major contributor to global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – accounting for >70% of emissions globally – but this is not just from the day-to-day use of these buildings and infrastructure. Carbon is embodied during the entire construction lifecycle. This includes the production of materials, the materials themselves, transport, construction all the way through to the full-scale operation and demolition of every piece of the built environment. Throughout this construction lifecycle, carbon is being pumped into our atmosphere and this is what Volvo CE aims to draw attention to – embodied carbon.

A bright spark

Addressing the issue of embodied carbon is no easy task. It requires a complete understanding and cooperation of the whole value chain – which is one of the key focuses of the CCC. It also requires a big shift in attitude and a willingness to venture into the unknown.

At the end of 2018, Volvo CE unveiled one of its biggest environmental advancements to date, the Electric Site. Together with their fellow Swedish customer Skanska, Volvo CE tested the viability of using only fully electric and autonomous machinery to run a quarry over 10 weeks. The results were astounding. The tests showed a 98% reduction in carbon emissions, a 70% reduction in energy cost and a 40% reduction in operator cost. This research project demonstrated that making these changes – to your business or value chain – is feasible and even cost-effective.

Following on from the success of the Electric Site project Volvo CE unveiled the first electric Volvo compact excavator, the ECR25 Electric, at Bauma 2019. This was part of the company’s announcement that – in an industry-first move – they will start the launch of an electric range of Volvo branded compact wheel loaders and compact excavators by 2020. And now the first machine has been delivered to the French contractor Spac, part of the Colas Group. Spac will be using the 2.5-tonne excavator to dig trenches at the Saint-Nom-la Bretèche golf course, just outside of Paris, France.


Building a framework

The move towards electromobility is part of a company-wide initiative to reduce embodied carbon, but Volvo CE is also involved in fostering collaboration and sharing knowledge throughout the construction value chain. The CCC is a prime example of this – bringing leading figures from construction, academia and government bodies together to discuss how to manage carbon emissions in the construction industry.

Even more recently Volvo CE has contributed to the development of the WorldGBC’s report, Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront – a coordinated action for the building and construction section to tackle embodied carbon. Set to be published later this month the report will focus on a highly connected value chain that radically reduces both embodied and operational carbon, improves wider lifecycle environmental impacts, and contributes as effectively as possible to the UN Sustainability Development Goals. It sets timeframes for projects and demonstrates the level of ambition needed to accomplish these goals.

Sharing knowledge and bringing the reality of embodied carbon into the forefront is vital. Volvo CE continues to develop technology that helps alleviate the impacts of embodied carbon but there is still a long way to go and this is a journey the industry has to take together.

Niklas Nillroth is Vice President of Sustainability & Public Affairs at Volvo Construction Equipment. 

Volvo Construction Equipment is a member of WorldGBC’s Corporate Advisory Board. To find out more, click here.