By Christie Gamble
In the past 3 months, my inbox has flooded with Google alerts on embodied carbon — the carbon dioxide (CO₂) emitted through the manufacturing of building materials and the construction of a building. In other words, it’s the CO₂ emitted by a building before the lights are ever turned on.
Why has embodied carbon suddenly become such a big topic?
It all started with a Global Status Report in 2017 by UN Environment that projected the world’s building stock to double by 2060. The same report said that embodied carbon is expected to account for nearly 50% of the carbon emissions associated with those buildings. These findings sparked immediate action from the design and building communities to find new innovations and developing strategies that help to reduce embodied carbon in the built environment.
Below is a list of 4 new initiatives that were unveiled in response to this issue, with details explanations as to why they matter to concrete producers:
- The SE2050 Challenge launched
- The EC3 was released
- Thornton Tomasetti shared results from its Embodied Carbon Measurement study
- Architecture2030 accelerated the net zero embodied carbon challenge
1. The SE2050 Challenge
The Structural Engineers 2050 Challenge was launched in September and endorsed by the Structural Engineering Institute (SEI) on December 16, 2019.
It states, “all structural engineers shall understand, reduce, and ultimately eliminate embodied carbon in their projects by 2050.” Signatories of the SE2050 Challenge include large structural engineering firms that operate coast to coast including HOK, Walter P Moore, Arup, and Thornton Tomasetti. The challenge has been unanimously endorsed by the SEI Board of Governors.
Why it matters: The National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) and its producer members have been actively promoting the use of performance-based specifications with structural engineers. Performance-based specifications empower concrete producers to leverage their expertise to provide the best quality concrete, with the best-suited materials and mix designs that have the lowest environmental impacts.
The SE2050 Challenge represents a mutual objective with the concrete industry to move toward performance-based concrete specification practices and effectively eliminate unnecessary barriers to improve the quality and sustainability of concrete.
2. The Launch of the EC3
The Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) launched on November 19, 2019. It’s a free, open-access tool that allows designers and builders to review embodied carbon data prior to making design decisions. In the first 30 days alone, 2,500 users created an EC3 account.
Why it matters: Concrete producers who have taken efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of their concrete will now be well positioned during the material selection process. The tool sources information from published EPDs. As long as producers publish a product-specific EPD, it will show up in the tool. For producers that haven’t published product-specific EPDs, I recommend checking out Climate Earth’s EPD Generator designed for the ready mix industry.
3. Results from the Embodied Carbon Measurement Study
Thornton Tomasetti’s comprehensive 7-year study of more than 600 structures has some very important findings. Most importantly for concrete producers, it states that “concrete structures show less embodied carbon levels than steel buildings.” Thornton Tomasetti will launch its embodied carbon measurement tool, Beacon, later this year to help structural engineers optimize embodied carbon.
Why it matters: Thornton Tomasetti’s findings support the NRMCA’s Prescriptive to Performance initiative and represent data-backed reasons to encourage local structural engineers to eliminate unnecessary prescriptive specifications that may limit concrete producers’ abilities to use innovations like CarbonCure and Supplementary Cementitious Materials to reduce embodied carbon.
The study also adds to the growing resources that support concrete as the best sustainable design material (including the IISD study that indicates that concrete structures may be more sustainable than wood structures).
4. The Accelerated Net Zero Embodied Carbon Challenge
Architecture2030 accelerated the net zero embodied carbon challenge to Zero CO₂ emissions by 2040. The CarbonPositive’19 SUMMIT took place in Chicago in September 2019, where leadership of top 50 AEC firms enthusiastically rallied around accelerating building emissions reductions targets. The mission calls for a 40% reduction to embodied carbon as soon as possible for all new buildings, infrastructure and major renovations.
Why it matters: Architecture2030 has been widely adopted by architects and has been highly influential to policymakers. Projects designed by firms who support the Zero CO₂ emissions by 2040 challenge will be actively seeking embodied carbon solutions. Concrete producers that can demonstrate an effort to reduce embodied carbon are likely to realize a competitive advantage.
There’s no doubt that the embodied carbon train is gaining momentum. The concrete industry can best leverage this momentum to engage in dialogue with engineers about specification practices that enable sustainable innovation.
The goal to reduce embodied carbon represents a huge opportunity for concrete producers that take deliberate action to reduce the carbon footprint of their concrete.
Partnering with CarbonCure is one avenue through which a concrete producer may reduce embodied carbon and therefore appeal to the growing number of designers and builders who are actively seeking embodied carbon solutions. Talk to us to learn more about how our technology can help you grow your business.
Christie Gamble is the Senior Director of Sustainability at CarbonCure Technologies.