The Embodied Carbon Opportunity for Concrete Producers

The green building landscape continues to evolve as government and industry interest in reducing carbon emissions grows. But what does this mean for concrete producers, and what role can your business have in reducing embodied carbon?

In a recent webinar, CarbonCure’s Market Development Managers Jessica Wilson, Allison Palmer and Brandon Williams teamed up to share their expertise on sustainable concrete and embodied carbon.

Watch the on-demand webinar, Embodied Carbon: What Producers Need to

A Growing Movement

We know that climate change is affecting our communities and our industry. Frequent and more intense weather events, rising sea levels and mass migration are impacting our communities now and are only expected to worsen over the coming decades.OH

There is a growing movement to reduce carbon emissions from buildings and construction, and with good reason. Buildings alone account for nearly 40% of the world's annual greenhouse gas emissions. The world's building stock is expected to double by the year 2060, which is the equivalent of building an entire New York City every month for the next 40 years.

“Time is simply not on our side and the market is paying close attention to the built environment and producers as a major source of carbon emissions.”

Jessica Wilson LEED Green Associate, TRUE Advisor, Market Development Manager, CarbonCure Technologies

Carbon reduction policies are being enacted in addition to carbon disclosures as part of corporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives. Consumers are demanding transparency and investors are moving away from high risk investments as the demand for resilient infrastructure and green buildings grows rapidly.

With embodied carbon expected to account for half of all carbon emissions from construction between now and 2050, the urgency in reducing embodied carbon as well as operational carbon is no surprise. But what is the difference between these two types of carbon emissions? Simply put:

  • Embodied carbon is the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance and disposal of construction materials.
  • Operational carbon is the greenhouse gas emissions emitted from the energy sources used to operate a building, such as hot water heating or running the HVAC.

Global leaders and organizations, such as Architecture 2030, the Carbon Leadership Forum and the World Green Building Council, are calling on the industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and commit to net zero embodied carbon.

As well, green building certification systems are also now looking at embodied carbon in their programs. One of the most widely used green building rating systems, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), awards points towards certification for the use of low embodied carbon materials. Other rating systems, such as the Living Building Challenge and Green Globes, also consider embodied carbon as part of their certifications.

The need and urgency to reduce embodied carbon is clear. And with the global green building materials market expected to grow over 9% in the next five years, it also presents an exciting opportunity for concrete producers.

Slide courtesy of the Embodied Carbon webinar.

Embodied Carbon Tools To Help Your Business

With life cycle assessments and environmental product declarations becoming industry standards, these are important tools for producers to consider in their business.

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) provide a framework for measuring the environmental impact of a product or service over its lifetime, from raw material extraction (cradle) to the final disposal and recycling of waste (grave).

Environmental product declarations (EPDs) are independently verified documents based on international standards that report the environmental impact of a product. 

“In the same way that nutritional labels report the measured nutritional facts for food products, EPDs report the measured life cycle, environmental impact of a product so designers and builders can make more informed decisions.”

Brandon Williams, Market Development Manager, CarbonCure Technologies

All EPDs include at least the first three stages of an LCA — extraction, transportation and manufacturing — and group indicators into six categories:

  1. Primary Energy Demand
  2. Global Warming Potential (GWP)
  3. Acidification Potential
  4. Eutrophication Potential
  5. Ozone Depletion Potential
  6. Smog Potential

Using EPDs as a tool during the design phase makes it easier to select materials with lower global warming potential and so to reduce embodied carbon in projects. Designers can use tools such as EC3, a free tool which brings together publicly accessible EPDs into one interactive database, to easily compare the environmental impact of materials.

The Athena Sustainable Materials Institute, Climate Earth, and the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) are the three main providers of concrete EPDs, which cost on average between $5,000 to $15,000 USD and are valid for three to five years.

So why should concrete producers consider developing EPDs for their products?

  1. Industry and governments are driving change. For example, California and Colorado recently passed legislation requiring low-carbon and sustainable procurement. In many cases, EPDs will be used to validate these efforts.
  2. Implementing EPDs demonstrates your environmental commitment to customers while also elevating your brand as a pillar of the community.
  3. EPDs report on six core mandatory impact indicators, giving you a variety of ways to reduce environmental impact.
  4. Implementing solutions that reduce GWP can give you a competitive advantage. For some projects, GWP can be the deciding factor, not price.

How Concrete Producers Can Help Reduce Concrete's Carbon Impact

1. Communicate your commitment to embodied carbon reduction throughout the supply chain early and often. 

Many companies are looking to reduce carbon emissions in their projects. Find the right people to talk to in your supply chain and communicate clearly to find alignment.

2. Promote and use performance-based specifications. 

Prescriptive specifications such as minimum cement/cementitious requirement and maximum water/cement ratio are outdated practices, said Allison. These prescriptive specs not only result in unnecessary limitations to sustainability improvements, higher costs and higher carbon emissions, they can also result in lower quality concrete.

Both the NRMCA and the Structural Engineering Institute recommend using performance-based specs instead.

3. Use supplementary cementitious materials, low-carbon cement and recycled aggregates. 

“CarbonCure is fantastic, but it's not a magic bullet,” said Allison. “We really welcome the opportunity to collaborate with as many carbon-reducing strategies and layer them on top of one another.”

4. Submit CarbonCure wherever possible. 

Designers, owners and architects may not know what carbon-reducing options are available so make sure to share with them how you can help them reduce carbon emissions on their projects.

CarbonCure and You

With cement production creating 7% of the world's CO2 emissions, CarbonCure’s technology has an important role to play in reducing embodied carbon in the built environment. Our technology has allowed producers to reduce cement content by an average of 4% without impacting any fresh or hardened properties. CarbonCure gives you the high-quality concrete you need with a reduced carbon footprint.

To learn more, watch the on-demand webinar: Embodied Carbon: What Concrete Producers Need to Know.

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