Net zero buildings? Don’t forget the embodied carbon!


Author: Luca Castiglione

To combat climate change, the UK government has committed to achieving “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050. At present, the real estate industry tends to view the emission reduction challenge through the lens of operational carbon, i.e. carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases associated with the in-use operation of the building (heating, ventilation, lighting systems, etc).

While addressing the operational energy needs of an asset is a positive step forward, the carbon embodied in the core and shell of a building is oftentimes under-considered. For a true “net zero carbon building,” an asset should be considered from a “whole life carbon” perspective, that includes both embodied and operational carbon.

“Embodied carbon” refers to the CO₂ emissions associated with the manufacturing and transportation of building materials, and general practices deployed during the construction phase. This also incorporates all emissions associated with the maintenance and eventual demolition of the building (including the transportation and recycling of waste). Crucially, embodied carbon represents the single-largest proportion of carbon emissions that occur during the lifecycle of any given asset.

It is estimated that these emissions can approximate 50-75% of whole life carbon in a newly constructed building¹

Although the measurement and reduction of embodied carbon in construction is currently voluntary, the issue is starting to gain traction in the regulatory arena. Earlier this year, North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker proposed a novel bill (The Carbon Emissions Buildings Bill) to the UK Parliament that would make it mandatory to calculate and reduce the embodied carbon footprint of new buildings in the UK. This bill was later shelved, but this serves as a clear signal that the British government is ramping up its efforts to achieve “net-zero carbon”. In future, signed legislation is expected to mandate the industry to have clear requirements to measure, report, and reduce against aligned targets of embodied carbon.

As a participant in the built environment, Avignon has a vital role to play in addressing embodied carbon as a critical and urgent focus. We believe that it is responsible to channel our resources into the refurbishment of existing assets, and to avoid participating in projects involving the construction of new greenfield commercial developments where possible. Furthermore, we will undertake whole life carbon assessments on all future development projects, in order to assess their true environmental impact and move one step closer to true carbon neutrality.

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