What is Embodied carbon in buildings?

Embodied carbon is the carbon footprint resulting from the manufacturing, transportation, and installation of building materials used in construction. This encompasses the emissions generated by extracting raw materials, manufacturing, and transportation to the construction site. Embodied carbon is a crucial component in assessing the lifecycle carbon footprint of a building, as it can account for a significant proportion of the total carbon footprint. By understanding and quantifying embodied carbon, architects, developers, and engineers can make more informed decisions about materials selection, construction methods, and the overall sustainability of buildings.

In simple terms, it is the carbon footprint of a building or infrastructure project before it becomes operational.

It is usually expressed at the product level in kgCO2e (kilograms of CO2e), and at the building level in 1,000 kgCO2e (Tonnes of CO2e).

This is particularly important for reaching 2030 climate targets because these emissions will be “frontloaded” in the next 10 years, unlike annual operating emissions or end-of-life emissions, which will occur later and/or gradually over time. According to the World Green Building Council, upfront carbon will be responsible for “half of the entire carbon footprint of new construction between now and 2050, threatening to consume a large part of our remaining carbon budget.

How to calculate embodied carbon:

Source: EC3

Why do we need to calculate embodied carbon?

Buildings are a top contributor to global climate change. We need to reduce embodied carbon now before new buildings are built, in order to reach climate targets that allow us to avoid catastrophic climate change. Once upfront carbon emissions are released into the atmosphere, we can’t take them back (at least not directly nor immediately). In contrast, operational carbon generated from the daily operations of a building can be decreased over time thanks to ongoing energy efficiency, electrification, and grid decarbonization efforts.

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