Non-profit organisation’s report describes actions that would gear the buildings and construction sector towards a net zero future, through elimination of embodied carbon emissions
As part of the 10th annual World Green Building Week, the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) has issued “a bold new vision” for how buildings and infrastructure around the world can reach 40% less embodied carbon emissions by 2030, and achieve 100% net zero emissions buildings by 2050.
Together, building and construction are responsible for 39% of all carbon emissions in the world, with operational emissions (from energy used to heat, cool and light buildings) accounting for 28%. The remaining 11% comes from embodied carbon emissions, or ‘upfront’ carbon that is associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole building lifecycle. WorldGBC’s vision to fully decarbonise the sector requires eliminating both operational and embodied carbon emissions.
The ‘Bringing embodied carbon upfront’ report proposes this ambitious goal alongside solutions to accelerate immediate action by the entire building and construction value chain. The vision is endorsed by representatives from developers and construction companies, financial institutions, city networks and government, as well as industry representatives from concrete, steel and timber and many more including: HeidelbergCement, Skanska, Stora Enso, Google and the Finnish Government.
The report sets out to demystify the challenge of addressing embodied carbon emissions, through breaking down complex terminology and creating a common language to set a consensus-built definition for net zero embodied carbon.
Embodied carbon emissions have been overlooked in the past but as shown by milestone research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), achieving drastic cuts in all carbon emissions over the next decade is critical to keeping global temperature rise to 1.5ºC. Addressing upfront carbon is therefore crucial to fighting the climate crisis, as new construction is expected to double the worlds building stock by 2060 causing an increase in the carbon emissions occurring right now. Therefore, the new report is calling for coordinated action from across the sector to dramatically change the way buildings are designed, built, used and deconstructed.
WorldGBC presents a clear pathway of actions that designers, investors, manufacturers, government, NGOs and researchers across the whole value chain can take to accelerate decarbonisation, address current market barriers and, develop low carbon alternative solutions for market. However, the report warns that change will not happen unless there is a radical shift in how industry works together to enable a market transformation.
The transition … requires immediate action to achieve greater awareness, innovation, improved processes to calculate, track and report embodied carbon, voluntary reduction targets from industry and roll out of new legislation at city, national and regional level
The transition towards mainstream net zero carbon standards requires immediate action to achieve greater awareness, innovation, improved processes to calculate, track and report embodied carbon, voluntary reduction targets from industry and roll out of new legislation at city, national and regional level. Approaches such as maximising the use of existing assets, promoting renovation instead of demolition and seeking new circular business models that reduce reliance on carbon intensive raw materials are also needed. To kick-start cross-sector collaboration, WorldGBC is calling for new national and sectoral roadmaps to be developed, such as those produced in Finland, Norway and Sweden, with strong support from industry and policymakers.
Demonstrating the feasibility of achieving zero carbon goals, the report is supported by case studies of existing best practice across the whole breadth of the building industry.
Businesses involved in design and delivery have already committed to ambitious individual or national decarbonisation strategies. For example, Skanska, a major development and construction group is making strides in enabling projects to be evaluated for full lifecycle impacts.
Materials suppliers are also taking a leading role. HeidelbergCement has committed to developing carbon neutral products by 2050, and Dalmia Bharat Cement, one of India’s leading cement manufacturers, is committed to becoming a carbon negative group by 2040.
Cities have also been instrumental in pushing for new innovations and approaches. Oslo, Norway, has a commitment to fossil free construction sites. Vancouver, Canada, has mandated that embodied carbon be reduced in new buildings by 40% by 2030, as part of its climate emergency response, demonstrating the type of regulatory frameworks that can drive market change.
Cristina Gamboa, CEO, World Green Building Council says:
“Our new report is a solution focused response to the urgent need to significantly reduce upfront emissions in buildings and construction and demand action across carbon intensive industries and materials. With the support of our global network and the endorsements we have received for the report, we are confident that we can stimulate market demand and facilitate radical whole value chain collaboration that will be truly transformative and benefit both people and planet.
“We will accelerate action to achieve our goal of slashing embodied carbon by 40% by 2030 and securing net zero embodied carbon by 2050, in addition to our net zero operational carbon goals.”
Mark Watts, Executive Director, C40 says:
“The majority of the world’s population live in cities, projected to rise to 70% by 2050. As cities continue to grow, and temperatures continue to rise dangerously, it has never been more important for the buildings and construction sector to be leading the way on climate action. Because the sector is responsible for such a large chunk of global emissions, it means there is huge potential for reduction. It is excellent news that the pathways laid out by the World Green Building Council contain an interim target for 2030 – as we know how important this date is for getting the world on track to limit global temperatures to 1.5C. Now the sector needs to mobilise immediately to put these changes into action for global benefit. Collaboration between sectors and organisations will be key to achieving this transformation – and at C40 we are looking forward to supporting cities to make it a reality.”
Anders Danielsson, President & CEO, Skanska says:
“This report sets out bold ambitions for embodied carbon reduction in the built environment which we welcome at Skanska. We recognise our responsibility and see an increased sense of urgency in our work to reduce carbon, which started many years ago. As we move forward, greater transparency on carbon emissions is needed throughout the whole value chain. Tools like the EC3 which we have developed with partners can help with this. But this is not enough, we need our customers to put higher demands on sustainable procurement. It is only then the industry will shift its approach, and we can move towards net zero carbon emissions. This report provides a concise roadmap of what that could entail.
Søren Holm Johansen, Group Executive Director, Ramboll says:
“For years the focus in the building sector has been on reducing the operational energy demand in buildings, but that’s not enough if we are to deliver on the ambitious goals from the Paris Agreement. Almost one third of CO2 emissions from buildings stem from the embodied carbon in materials and the construction process. Designers must create awareness and help buildings owners minimise the carbon footprint across the lifetime of their buildings.
Krista Mikkonen, Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, Finland says:
“Tackling whole life carbon and achieving circularity in the construction sector is the key to a carbon neutral world. The time for action is now! The Finnish Ministry of the Environment already launched its Low Carbon Construction Roadmap in 2017, paving the way for ambitious legislation. Our national goal is to reach carbon neutrality by 2035 and carbon negativity shortly thereafter.”
Mahendra Singhi, Managing Director and CEO, Dalmia Cement (Bharat) Limited says:
“The time has come to make informed decisions on sustainable consumption. Choosing a sustainable consumption pattern is akin to buying a health insurance for ourselves and the planet because it leads to a sustainable future for all. I see both purpose and wisdom in manufacturing and buying low carbon footprint products by every single entity/person on this planet to overthrow the business-as-usual and adopt the business-as-unusual.”
Pierre-André de Chalendar, Chairman and CEO, Saint-Gobain says:
“The contribution of buildings to global greenhouse gas emissions is huge. Developing and implementing roadmaps to decarbonise the built environment is crucial. This will be achieved first of all through highly energy efficient buildings, both for new and existing, and a complete rethinking of the design of buildings. This must be based on low carbon solutions across the whole lifecycle, including reduction of the impact of building materials when produced. I believe that this report will help to raise the awareness of all players to engage collectively for a low carbon built environment.”
Stephen Smith, Executive Director, Multiplex says:
“The specific, ambitious and evidence-backed actions being called for from all stakeholders across the value chain will ultimately generate much needed sustainable outcomes for the sector. Embodied carbon is an often overlooked but critical component in the building lifecycle, and must urgently be addressed. Multiplex is very proud to be leading the way in creating positive impact, and will continue to explore and hopefully enable sustainability solutions with our business partners and peers.”
Lynn Simon, Head of Real Estate & Workplace Services (REWS) Sustainability, Google says:
“The World Green Building Council’s call to action on embodied carbon comes at an incredibly important moment for our planet. Operational efficiencies and clean energy are critical considerations for the building sector, and this document elevates embodied carbon as another important factor to be measured and optimized.
“By establishing a vocabulary and considering current and future states for this relatively new area of study, the call to action offers a better starting point for projects today to rethink their impact and take action on embodied carbon, and inspires the projects of tomorrow to push beyond carbon savings to create regenerative buildings.”
 Building and construction activities together account for 36% of global final energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions when upstream power generation is included.