Structural engineers around the world are stepping up and accepting the SE2050 Challenge. Already, many large engineering firms have endorsed the initiative: Arup, Walter P. Moore, and Thornton Tomasetti to name a few.
These firms are talking about embodied carbon early in their planning phases and considering embodied carbon data as part of their decision making processes for both design and material selection—especially concrete, one of the largest contributors of embodied carbon emissions.
SE2050 signifies a changing attitude among structural engineers to remove barriers to innovation—like prescriptive specification—and an effort to develop stronger collaboration with the concrete industry.
Why SE 2050 Was Formed
According to scientists, human-created emissions of carbon dioxide (CO₂) need to fall by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach ‘net zero’ by 2050 to avoid reaching a point of no return with climate change. ‘Net zero’ means that any man-made greenhouse gas emissions must be avoided or removed from the atmosphere, reducing the Earth's net climate balance.
So far, the majority of the emission reduction pledges made under the Paris Agreement are way behind track. As such, the Paris Agreement commitments are no longer enough to keep global warming below 1.5°C — the previously agreed upon ‘point of no return’.
The SE2050 initiative was formed to address the impact of the built environment on climate change.
What is the SE 2050 Initiative?
SE2050 stands for the Structural Engineers 2050 Commitment Initiative. It encompasses both the SE 2050 Challenge issued by the Carbon Leadership Forum and the SE 2050 Commitment Program developed by the Sustainability Committee of the Structural Engineering Institute (SEI) of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
The initiative was designed to spur structural engineers and their firms to take ownership of their role in reducing embodied carbon emissions in the built environment.
The initiative’s ultimate goal is that, “All structural engineers shall understand, reduce, and ultimately eliminate embodied carbon in their projects by 2050.” To meet this goal, the initiative will strive to:
- Educate the structural engineering profession on the best practices of sustainable structural design and construction that will lead to net zero embodied carbon by 2050.
- Engage in an embodied carbon tracking program within the structural engineering profession enabling the establishment of appropriate embodied carbon reduction targets until net zero is realized.
- Report on the current embodied carbon impacts and trends of various structural systems for different regions throughout the country.
A Structural Engineer’s Role in Emission Reduction
According to the latest report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control), the construction industry only has until 2050 to reach carbon neutrality.
Structural materials account for at least 50 percent of the carbon emitted in the production, delivery, and installation of materials for new construction. As such, structural engineers have an enormous influence on whether or not the industry meets this important goal.
To help guide structural engineers’ decisions and help them understand the “embodied carbon order of magnitude” of their project or framing scheme, the SE2050 Initiative built an Embodied Carbon Estimator tool (ECOM) that allows users to determine approximate estimates of what various materials contribute to a project’s embodied carbon.
Why Does it Matter to Concrete Producers?
More than ever before, structural engineers are adopting performance-based specifications over prescriptive-based specifications. This is important to concrete producers since prescriptive concrete specs often require a minimum cement content or improperly use a maximum water/cement ratio—making it impossible to reduce carbon emissions.
Performance specs, on the other hand, remove barriers to innovation and make it easier for concrete producers to create innovative mix designs that both reduce carbon emissions and enable producers to create more profitable concrete mixes.
For many years, concrete producers—particularly those with strong quality control teams—have been asking that structural engineers move to performance specs since they enable producers to deliver differentiated, better quality, more cost-effective concrete.
The creation of SE2050 is a clear sign that the engineering industry is finally making the switch, removing barriers to innovation, and collaborating with producers on performance specifications.
Increasingly, engineers are also specifying reduced-carbon materials such as mineralized concrete in building projects. The bottom line for concrete producers is that customers are going to be demanding reduced carbon concrete. By innovating now, producers will be able to capitalize on what will be a very lucrative market.
Carbon Mineralization in Concrete
Carbon mineralization technology injects post-industrial waste CO₂ into concrete during the mixing process. Once injected, the CO₂ is chemically converted to a mineral and permanently embedded in the concrete, thereby completely removing it from the atmosphere.
This type of CO₂ mineralization improves concrete’s compressive strength, enabling concrete producers to use less cement—further reducing the concrete’s carbon footprint. Along with the use of supplementary materials like fly ash or slag, CO₂ mineralization is one of the only commercially available technologies that can reduce the carbon footprint of concrete. It will, therefore, be a key enabler of structural engineers to meet the SE 2050 targets.
CO₂ mineralization can reduce the carbon footprint of ready mix concrete by saving approximately 25 pounds of CO₂ per cubic yard (17 kilograms per cubic metre) in both mineralized and avoided CO₂. To put that into context with a real-world example, Irving Materials Inc. supplied 8,000 cubic yards of mineralized concrete to the new Infosys Headquarters, saving 240,000 pounds (109,000 kilograms) of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere which is the same as 142 acres of forest sequestering CO₂ in one year.
The unique technology used for this process is developed by CarbonCure. It contributes to carbon reduction efforts while benefiting the producer by increasing efficiency, boosting profitability, and creating a competitive advantage in the green building sector.
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