The embodied carbon challenge


As the opportunities of addressing embodied carbon become more well-known, PBC Today speaks to Gareth Brown, Programme Area Manager at WRAP about the Embodied Carbon Database and the challenges faced by industry

In an effort to address the embodied carbon (EC) challenge, resource efficiency experts WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) and the UK-GBC (UK Green Building Council) launched the first publically available Embodied Carbon Database for buildings in April this year, during UK-GBC’s ‘embodied carbon week’.

The database has been created in the context of the partnership between industry and government to transform the construction industry – Construction 20251. The ambition is to reduce emissions associated with the industry by 50% by 2025, and the database should be instrumental in helping organisations by providing an essential source of data where people from the entire supply chain can benchmark building designs, and as a result, identify where carbon reductions can be made.

The Green Construction Board has set some very specific targets for measuring and reducing EC, laid out within its Low Carbon Route Map for The Built Environment 2, as adopted by government in its vision for the industry. The Route Map model shows that in 2010 operational carbon represented around 80% of emissions of the built environment, with EC representing 18%. However, the model shows a prediction that by 2050, EC is expected to be at 40%. Of course, we are addressing operational carbon quite well at the moment with Part L, solid wall insulation and the like, but addressing EC can make a huge impact on carbon emissions.

In the Embodied Carbon White Paper from Guy Battle, Director of Sustainable Business Partnership, he states that:

“Embodied carbon now makes up one of the largest proportions of carbon emissions of a building through its lifetime. For commercial offices over 40% of lifetime emissions are accounted for even before the building is occupied, and for some sectors such as industrial warehousing it is over 70% of lifetime emissions.”

The Embodied Carbon Task Force which arose following the UKGBC Embodied Carbon Week with over 1000 attendees, is working to “build cross industry consensus on how embodied carbon should be measured and reported, and for Embodied Carbon to be included as an Allowable Solution within the definition of Zero Carbon Building regulations, for both Residential and Commercial Property such that the objectives of Construction 2025 and the Green Construction Board may be met”.

Specifically the aim of the document is to deliver the following:

  • Agreement and proposals for  minimum standards for measurement and reporting;
  • Proposed methodology for Embodied carbon as an Allowable Solution;
  • Identify gaps in knowledge and further work required;
  • Develop a road map for delivery of Construction 2025 with respect to embodied and capital carbon.

Many people have suggested that EC should be included within the ‘zero carbon’ definition for 2019, but it seems increasingly unlikely to happen. I asked Gareth Brown if this was a feasible idea. Not surprisingly, as we all heard in the Queen’s speech, it certainly isn’t on the table for 2016, but he did agree with Guy Battle in that “industry are keen to move forward in at least considering it as an Allowable Solution to 2019 and potentially to cement it into the definition as well.”

In the interview with Gary Newman of the ASPB in mthe April edition of PBC Today, he outlined that the arguments surrounding an agreed methodology were not an excuse not to develop standards from which to include embodied carbon data. Brown added that the people involved in carbon profiling, making measurements and arriving at assessments, have all collaborated to inform the White Paper from Battle, proving that there is agreement and enthusiasm on how to take these things forward.

Brown highlighted that: “There are currently plenty of life cycle assessment (LCA) databases that provide detail and data. People are engaged in environmental product declaration and using the framework of the CEN TC 350. There are a number of developers in the commercial environment such as British Land, Derwent London and Land Securities that have contributed to the White Paper and have been undertaking assessments on some of their projects to get a better understanding of where they are”.

The construction industry certainly faces challenges in incorporating EC into designs and building forms, and there is often a debate between the product sectors around the benefits of different construction products. Brown added that: “it’s really about optimising the use of different products depending on the type of building that is being built and the outcomes that people are looking for. If you look in the broader context of resource efficiency it’s not about one thing being more important than the other, it’s about optimising those choices to get the outcomes you’re looking for. So, recycled content is important, as is low carbon and end of cycle recyclability. All of these things have a part to play, so it shouldn’t be about one aspect that overrides another”.

There are encouraging signs related to the European Directive CEN TC 350 (now a British Standard BS EN15978) setting out a methodology for EC and whole life carbon analysis, in that many are starting on the journey. It is fairly early days but Brown appears optimistic: “There’s certainly good understanding in the product sector, and as we move forward, the understanding in the architecture community, the designers and the consultants, the contractors, and all the people that make up quite a complicated sector in construction will also increase. There are some that are leading in these areas where it’s very well understood, but it does take time. From a collaborative perspective, when it comes to data, BIM has a big part to play in this too.

“There are contractors out there at the moment mandating BIM on every project, whether it’s a client requirement or not. BAM for example are doing this and are committed to deliver projects fully in that environment. Once you’ve started on this journey, then doing these sorts of things becomes a lot easier.”

Many believe that only through legislation will industry really take on board the benefits of including embodied carbon in projects, and Brown admits it might be an option adding that “It will get more traction from those that are more forward thinking, involved, and understand the opportunity with what is happening already. They will do it because they see the commercial opportunity and the imperative to do this”. Brown believes that how EC is incentivised is an important aspect and the database could certainly be used to inform the benchmark ranges if legislation came into being, by expanding our knowledge of EC for different building typologies.

So how is the database performing so far? “It’s a couple of months since the launch and we are pleased with how it’s progressed”, Brown explained There was a lot of interest before the launch, with quite a number of projects uploaded as data for the ‘embodied carbon week’ of events. We have people registering every day for access, and now have more than 230 assessments uploaded, and almost 450 queries have been run (queries are when a user has searched the database in some way to view the data, selecting the filters to determine which projects are displayed to them).

“Some people are using it to see if they can get some meaningful benchmarks from it to set project expectations and quite a number of consultants are using the database to get access and information. The critical thing is that the more data that is entered, the more meaningful the benchmarks for the different archetypes will become, and the more useful it is for everyone”.

EC is certainly gaining momentum within industry and some are clearly leading the way as mentioned earlier, but perhaps the benefits are not as widely known as they should be and better education within industry is required. Every year that passes only represents more emissions that could have been prevented, and the earlier the methodologies are recognised, the sooner we can reap the rewards. The EC database should go some way to achieve better, more robust knowledge and convince any ‘nay-sayers’ that action should, and can be taken now. ■

To get involved in the Embodied Carbon Database visit the site here.



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Gareth Brown

Programme Area Manager


Tel: 0808 100 2040



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