The role of Embodied Carbon in the quest for carbon neutral

For years, developers and contractors have been aware of a building's operational carbon emissions when developing new sites. Responsible for most of the total emissions over an asset’s lifetime, they have been a priority for carbon reduction targets to date. However, to become carbon neutral and deliver net zero buildings, the same level of focus and investment is needed to tackle embodied carbon emissions.

Embodied carbon refers to the emissions during the construction of a building's elements rather than when it is in use. And with the pressure on to decarbonise the built environment and deliver carbon neutral buildings ahead of the government’s 2050 deadline, it’s becoming increasingly important for contractors and developers to tackle it appropriately. As an additional incentive, some local authorities have now started to ask about the embodied carbon footprint of new developments so understanding it and how to reduce it will be vital for projects moving forward.  

Embodied carbon vs operational carbon

Embodied carbon is the amount of carbon emitted during the construction of a building. The extraction of raw materials, the manufacturing and refinement of materials, transportation and disposal of old supplies can all produce embodied carbon emissions. A good way to think of embodied carbon is that which is embedded in the development and built into the fabric of the building.

Operational carbon, the amount of carbon emitted during the operational (in-use) phase of a building is easier to measure and has been a reduction priority for a while now. This includes any emissions that are released during the building’s use such as heating and cooling and managing and maintenance of a product or structure.

Embodied carbon has moved a lot higher up the agenda for industry and government as it is now thought to make up a large percentage of all emissions from the construction sector. The whole carbon life cycle of a building is made up of embodied and operational carbon with embodied being thought to take up 20 – 50% of the overall total.

Contractors and developers are increasingly building more energy efficient buildings that rely on locally generated low or zero carbon heat and power sources to tackle operational carbon emissions, which are also limited through Building Regulations. In contrast to this, embodied carbon emissions are not currently regulated and so its percentage in the building’s lifecycle carbon becomes more significant especially as those emissions released now instead of the duration of the buildings lifecycle.

Why tackle embodied carbon

Reducing a project’s embodied carbon should be a priority for developers and contractors for lots of reasons. It can reduce costs by using fewer resources, alleviate longer risks around resource availability and could be a requirement to obtain planning permission.

One of the main methods to reduce embodied carbon is by using more resilient materials that will last longer and are often produced via a more efficient construction process. Making these changes, will reduce capital expenditure as well as maintenance, repair and replacement costs.

Cost benefits aside, demonstrating your commitment to reducing embodied emissions is fast becoming a key consideration in obtaining planning permission. Several local authorities including Westminster City Council, Brighton, Oxford, Hammersmith and Fulham, Camden and City of London have started to enquire about the embodied carbon footprints of developments and having an embodied carbon evaluation may soon make all the difference in the planning process. BREEAM, LEED and Green Star are all building rating systems that recognise embodied carbon measurement and mitigation as part of minimising the impact of a building’s life cycle.


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Ideas to reduce your embodied carbon

When taking all of this into account, it makes sense to put embodied carbon and its reduction at the top of your agenda. There are some changes that you can start to implement now to show your commitment to tackling embodied carbon emissions and decarbonising the built environment for a carbon neutral future. 

Reusing buildings

Renovation projects usually save between 50 – 75% of embodied carbon emissions compared to constructing a new building. If the foundations and structure are already preserved, most of the embodied carbon will already be there and this drastically reduces new emissions.

Low-carbon concrete mixes

Concrete can be the biggest source of embodied carbon for a new site, but lower-carbon concrete can be easily developed. By working with structural engineers, you can use fly ash, slag, calcined clays or lower-strength concrete if that’s possible.

Use less carbon-intensive materials

Aluminium, plastic and foam insulation all have high carbon footprints so try to use alternatives or use them sparingly if you can. A wood structure is a good alternative to one of steel and concrete for example. And straw and hemp are annually renewable options for insulation.

Reuse materials

Second-hand materials such as brick, metal, wood and even broken concrete can make a big difference to embodied carbon emissions. These salvaged materials have a lower carbon footprint as the carbon used to make them has already been spent. Steel that is brand new has embodied carbon footprint five times greater than recycled content steel.

Fewer finishings

Another way to use less embodied carbon is to use structural materials for the finishing touches. Polished concrete slabs make a good alternative to carpet or vinyl and unfinished ceilings can cut emissions dramatically.

Tackling your embodied carbon

Low carbon solutions sit at the heart of our approach. We can help you measure your emissions and support you to put a strategy in place to actively reduce them. Our architects, engineers and consultants design whole life, carbon neutral projects that reduce embodied and operational carbon in line with our client’s targets. Find out more about our low carbon design approach here.

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Andrew Tasker

Principal Consultant 01235 821 888 EMAIL
Abingdon | UK

Kester Purslow

Senior Director – Architecture +44 (0) 1636 605 700 EMAIL
Newark | UK

Conall Boland

Senior consultant - Sustainability +353 (0) 14882900 EMAIL
View profile »
Dublin - West Pier | Ireland

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