New report sets out a framework for benchmarking and limiting buildings’ embodied carbon – an essential tool to meet Europe’s climate goals

- The built environment generates 37% of annual global carbon emissions, of which 10% is embodied carbon. - A new 1000 m2 European building emits around 600 t CO2e embodied carbon throughout its lifecycle; the equivalent of 100 EU citizens in one year. - Almost two-third of the embodied carbon in new buildings are emitted before the building is put in use; this means that every new building today is stealing from the carbon budget of tomorrow. - New study from Ramboll and academic partners recommends a performance framework, relating to carbon budgets, to target and benchmark embodied carbon in order to help sector become Paris aligned.

A new study, TOWARDS EMBODIED CARBON BENCHMARKS FOR BUILDINGS IN EUROPE, by engineering, architecture and consultancy Ramboll, in collaboration with leading European researchers from AAU Built and KU Leuven, puts forward a standard framework for assessing and monitoring embodied emissions at the building level, and a recommended benchmarking process related to European member states’ carbon budgets. 

The series of reports provides critical guidance for policymakers, investors and developers, advocating for greater cooperation across the value chain. It is desperately needed to gather life cycle assessment data and set targets that are aligned with the 2015 Paris Agreement to support the built environment’s transition to a lower-carbon future.

Current efforts fall short

The detailed reports formulate solutions to measure embodied carbon, define carbon budgets and targets and reduce embodied carbon. They include recommendations for a baseline of current embodied carbon levels in new buildings, as well as considerations of the available carbon budget for these emissions, to form the basis of a performance system in the shape of benchmarks for the reduction of embodied carbon.

The key recommendations in the study on how to establish the elements needed for accurate benchmarking of embodied carbon are:

  • Policymakers need to define and promote standardised and centralised data collection methods for emissions life cycle analysis (LCA), and establish benchmarks for the built environment aligned with remaining science-based carbon budgets
  • Certification bodies must require LCAs for all new buildings, share available data, and promote benchmarks aligned with remaining carbon budgets
  • Investors should require LCAs for all new buildings financed, and align their portfolios with the benchmarks if they wish to be Paris aligned and anticipate regulatory risks
  • Designers must design with these benchmarks in mind, advocating low-carbon solutions.

All parts of the new-build and renovation chain must cooperate in the establishment of such benchmarking systems based on Paris-aligned and cost-efficient pathways to guide the building sector and reduce embodied carbon.

The research project was led by Ramboll, together with building life cycle assessment experts from BUILD at Aalborg University and KU Leuven, and funded by Laudes Foundation.

Lars Riemann, Group Director for Buildings Ramboll, said:

“A newly built 1000 m2 building emits around 600 t CO2e embodied carbon throughout its lifecycle. That is way too high. It means the buildings and construction sector is not Paris agreement-aligned. In order to meet our Paris requirements, we should be working towards buildings that are around 300 t CO2e embodied carbon – not tomorrow, but today – and then increase our effort to bringing them as close to zero as possible. In order for the sector to meet these targets we need a performance framework relating to carbon budgets, and to benchmark embodied carbon in the built environment.”

James Drinkwater, Head of Built Environment at Laudes Foundation, said:

“It’s clear that we can’t implement the Paris Agreement if we are ignoring embodied carbon in construction. As the EU updates the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, this study shows how policy-makers can start to set carbon budgets, spark industry innovation to meet these targets, and significantly reduce emission this decade.”

Harpa Birgisdottir, Research Group Leader for BUILD at Aalborg University, said:

“Building without consideration of embodied carbon eats into the global carbon budget. Current voluntary efforts, including certification schemes, and existing European legislation fall short of setting the granular targets, based on robust data, necessary to reduce embodied carbon in line with the Paris Agreement, and are currently unrelated to the carbon budgets each country has set out.”

The work focused on the European Union (EU), which is pioneering built environment greenhouse gas-emission reduction policies via instruments such as the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, the Taxonomy for Sustainable Activities, and the EU Climate Transition Benchmark Regulation. These instruments and initiatives are beginning to develop an increasing awareness of the need for the real estate sector to consider, measure and consequently look to reduce embodied carbon, as part of a ‘whole lifecycle’ approach.

The series of reports,which gathered data from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland and Denmark – as countries with the most comprehensive and accessible lifecycle datasets – provide insights and advances on the following:

  1. What data is available on embodied carbon in the EU?
  2. Where are we now? What is the current status of embodied carbon in new buildings?
  3. Where do we need to be? What level of embodied carbon is aligned with the available carbon budget?
  4. How can we close the gap? How can embodied carbon benchmarks be set for the reduction?

With the following overall findings:

Embodied carbon matters

Embodied carbon has long been a hidden part in the climate impact of a building, as many climate policies and reduction initiatives focus on the operational emissions related to the use of the building. Gathering data from multiple sources as well as case studies in five European countries, the report shows that embodied carbon in a new building amounts to 600 kgCO2e/m2 on average (with a great variety depending on the building type, structure and material used), that 70% of this embodied carbon is emitted upfront (before the building is used), and that embodied carbon emissions in new buildings is continuing to increase.

Data on embodied carbon is currently lacking

Effective measures to reduce the embodied carbon of buildings require robust data on the current levels of such emissions from different life cycle stages, building types, building elements and materials. The report shows that large samples of such data are critically missing, and existing datasets faces a series of challenges in order to be useful for robust embodied carbon benchmarks.

Carbon budget considerations are missing from the discussion on embodied carbon

Reducing embodied carbon to levels aligned with the Paris Agreement requires an emissions pathway based on the available budget for these emissions (calculated from the total remaining carbon budget, on a per-country basis). The study shows that this kind of consideration is not yet sufficiently developed in existing reduction initiatives. Critically, it proposes a new methodology to define and implement Paris-aligned budgets and therefore pathways related to embodied carbon in buildings. The approach has been developed in close collaboration with the Carbon Risk Real Estate Monitor (CRREM), the leading science-based standard for operational carbon target setting.

The industry needs to respond with urgency

Carbon benchmarks for buildings are increasingly used, but they do not examine embodied carbon with the regularity and granularity needed to meet emissions targets. The study puts forward a framework to efficiently achieve the reductions necessary, and bridge the gap between the current emission levels and Paris-aligned ones. The framework also points out the need for stronger collaboration between policymakers, investors, industry and NGOs.

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