Embodied carbon: Addressing now the hidden carbon cost of our buildings

As originally published on Euractiv.com

An efficient Energy Performance of Buildings Directive must look out for the reduction of ‘whole life carbon emissions’ in order to achieve Europe’s climate goals.

With the recognition that Europe’s buildings sector emits a massive 36% of Europe’s total carbon emissions, comes a welcome drive to bring this down through hyper efficient houses and integrated renewable energy systems.

However, there is a danger lurking focusing only on emissions from the use of the building alone.

Indeed, we risk undermining our achievements and failing to reach our carbon reduction goals set out in the Paris Agreement if we bury our heads in the sand about the  other side of the problem: carbon emissions linked to the materials used during the construction phase, and to the eventual demolition.

Not many people are aware that this “hidden”, embodied carbon accounts for as much as 50% of an energy efficient building’s carbon footprint, with most of it coming from the manufacture of construction materials.

Of equal importance is the fact that most of these emissions are released today, whereas potential benefits at the end or beyond end of life will occur in 50-60 years from now.

Yet, at EU level there are currently no building regulations that aim to limit these emissions – it’s an opportunity to contribute to the fight against climate warming that’s ripe for the taking.

new report brings the urgency of acting on the hidden emissions that lurk in our new-builds into focus: we must start talking about it now by including recommendations to reduce so-called ‘whole life carbon emissions’ in the current revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD). If we miss this moment, we risk kicking the full problem of emissions from buildings into the long grass.

Luckily, a handful of EU countries are blazing the trail. For instance, Denmark, France and the Netherlands have introduced requirements that limit embodied carbon in addition to energy use policies.

Other countries such as Sweden and Finland already require disclosure of embodied carbon and are in the process of defining limit values.

Germany has recently tied whole life carbon limit values to receiving public subsidies for new buildings, while Spain, Ireland, and Czechia are developing the data infrastructure necessary for benchmarking and informing future  building regulation.

But it’s at the EU level that serious action must be taken to save the Paris climate goals using the policy tools we already have.

Policymakers at both EU and national level, in cooperation with the buildings sector, must lay the foundations for measuring and reducing the whole life carbon emissions from new buildings.

From using carbon-intense materials such as cement and steel as efficiently as possible, to extending the life-time of already existing buildings, and generally, prioritising renovations over new constructions, we need to widen our focus beyond energy efficiency to the full span of a building’s life.

These imply far-reaching transformative action across all EU countries and all parts of the sector’s supply chain.

By getting the whole sector onboard, including designers, manufacturers, and local experts, we can envisage a future where our new buildings are not only ‘nearly zero energy’ but also made of reused or recycled materials using low carbon processes that have a much lower impact on our planet.

This same approach can be rolled out to building renovation too, helping the EU to achieve its Renovation Wave targets to cut energy consumption in a truly planet-friendly manner. It’s a challenging task, but with the EPBD trialogues under way, we have a unique chance to start tackling the whole life carbon footprint of buildings now.

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