Whole-life Carbon: Challenges and solutions for highly efficient and climate-neutral buildings

This summary report introduces basic concepts and key issues related to the integration of whole-life carbon considerations in building policies.

What is whole-life carbon about? 

The European Union aims to be climate-neutral by 2050, requiring a fundamental transformation of the construction and building sectors. This decade is critical as direct building CO2 emissions need to more than halve by 2030 to get on track for a net-zero carbon building stock by 2050. Emissions must be drastically cut throughout the whole lifecycle of buildings, encompassing all operational and embodied emissions. In the Renovation Wave strategy, the European Commission announced its intention to address “lifecycle thinking and circularity”; it is important that the intention is followed up by decisive action and integrated into regulatory proposals. 


Despite an array of national initiatives, voluntary schemes and regulations, the current EU policy framework is not designed to address circularity and embodied carbon in buildings. Reductions of embodied carbon emissions can be achieved by developing and implementing policies that tackle the lifecycle emissions of buildings, including those resulting from the production, installation, maintenance and disposal of building materials. This is a significant departure from existing policies, as most of the focus on reducing carbon emissions from the built environment has been on managing and reducing the energy consumption in the buildings’ use phase, not addressing the significant mitigation potential of embodied emissions. 

The ongoing review of key policy and legislative files, such as the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) and the Construction Products Regulation (CPR), provides a significant opportunity for the EU to begin consistently integrating whole-life carbon (WLC) in the policy framework. Actions at the building level must also be well-coordinated and aligned with policy actions upstream on raw materials and construction products, as well as with end-of-life policies addressing waste and increasing circularity. 

Choosing the right strategy and taking action early on is paramount as carbon emitted during the construction (and renovation) phase is both immediate and irrecoverable, whereas operational carbon is long term. Embodied carbon is emitted in a short burst during the construction phase and unlike operational carbon cannot be mitigated during the working life of the building. Policy and market actions should therefore target emissions savings in the building lifecycle early on as these are very quickly using up the remaining carbon budget left to limit global warming to 1.5°C. This is often referred to as the time value of carbon. It provides a compelling reason for policymakers to address both embodied and operational carbon. 

When EU countries decide on decarbonisation pathways, the building sector must be treated as a priority.  Choosing a “buildings first” approach focusing on both operational and embodied carbon reductions, ahead of grid decarbonisation, will ensure that the co-benefits of building renovation (improved indoor environmental quality, health, productivity, jobs) are realised, but also costly investments in energy infrastructure are avoided.  

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