The built environment generates 40% of annual global CO2 emissions. Embodied carbon, the greenhouse gas emissions generated from the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials, accounts for 13% of these global annual emissions.
While historically the focus has been on reducing operational carbon, reducing embodied carbon in the built environment is important to mitigating the climate crisis. Making progress toward decarbonizing the built environment will require the combined efforts of public and private sectors.
Recognizing this, the federal government recently created programs prioritizing consideration of lower embodied carbon materials in federal procurement and federally funded construction projects. The Federal Buy Clean Initiative and Buy Clean pilot program are two programs aimed at accelerating the innovation and adoption of more environmentally preferable construction materials.
These programs mark encouraging progress on the federal level to mitigate climate change. As policymakers increasingly begin to acknowledge and address climate change, industries across all sectors must also take meaningful steps to mitigate their climate impact.
RECENT FEDERAL INITIATIVES
The Federal Government is the largest purchaser in the world, with annual purchasing power of over $630 billion. With the aim of harnessing some of this purchasing power to procure low-carbon, made in America construction materials, the federal Buy Clean Task Force and initiative was launched last year.
The Buy Clean Task Force was charged with:
- Identifying construction materials and products with the highest embodied carbon concerns and prioritizing lower embodied carbon consideration in Federal procurement and federally funded projects.
- Increasing the transparency of embodied emissions through supplier reporting of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).
- Launching pilot programs to boost Federal procurement of cleaner construction materials and learn more about their performance in real-world applications.
According to the GSA, “For the first time, the entire federal government will prioritize the use of American-made, lower-carbon construction materials in federal procurement and federally funded projects.”
A Federal-State Buy Clean was also established with 13 states committing to prioritizing procurement of lower-carbon infrastructure materials in state-funded projects, and to “collaborate with the Federal government and one another to send a harmonized demand signal to the marketplace.”
Most recently the GSA launched a pilot program of new requirements for the procurement of substantially lower embodied carbon construction materials in GSA projects funded by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The IRA provides $3.375 billion for GSA to invest in federal buildings to help reduce carbon emissions and catalyze innovation. Of that amount, $2.15 billion is earmarked to procure low embodied carbon materials for construction and renovation projects.
In the announcement of the pilot program, the GSA highlighted that the pilot signals to manufacturers that GSA requires environmental product declarations (EPDs) for materials procured using IRA funding. EPDs use a third-party verified format to provide visibility into the environmental performance or impact of any product or material over its lifetime.
This six-month project applies GSA interim low embodied carbon requirements into procurement for 11 GSA construction and modernization projects. The pilot is expected to generate insights into regional market availability of low carbon products and materials that will be used to develop the GSA’s final set of material requirements for its IRA-funded projects.
The Buy Clean initiative and pilot program is a key first step to developing markets for lower embodied carbon construction materials, reducing the climate impact of federal buildings and achieving the Administration’s goal of a net zero emissions federal building portfolio by 2045 and net zero emissions procurement by 2050.
ROLE OF THE INDUSTRY
Public policy is one part of the collaborative effort needed to reduce embodied carbon in construction to mitigate the impacts of climate change and achieve climate targets. All stakeholders in the building and construction sector from materials manufacturers to contractors to architects and engineers have a role to play in decarbonizing buildings.
There is much work yet to be done in reducing embodied carbon in construction considering that as much as 50% of a new, energy-efficient building’s emissions come from embodied carbon. Tracking and reporting of these emissions are also lacking in the construction industry. A report by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and global sustainable development consultancy Arup estimates that less than 1% of building projects currently calculate and report their full carbon footprint.
The industry must account for embodied carbon in every link of the value chain to develop and implement strategies to reduce it.
Building material manufacturers must invest in research and develop to innovate and create products with lower embodied carbon and enhanced potential for circularity. For example, high performing, energy efficient building envelope solutions can help minimize the carbon footprint of buildings over the whole lifecycle.
Manufacturers must also work to provide transparent data on the environmental impact of the products they produce to help architects, designers, and contractors make more sustainable construction material selections.
Another critical link in the chain for reducing the carbon footprint of buildings is the design process. Architects and designers can help reduce embodied carbon in buildings by factoring these emissions into designs and specifying low carbon construction materials. Optimizing building design with low-carbon building materials helps conserve natural resources, improves building performance and promotes a more sustainable built environment.
Contractors also play an essential role in decarbonizing the built environment. Because they touch almost every phase of the construction project lifecycle, there are many opportunities for contractors the help lower embodied carbon in the projects they oversee. Some of these opportunities include sourcing lower embodied carbon materials and establishing low-carbon procurement requirements with trade contractors.
The federal government and private sector all play a key role in reducing embodied carbon in the built environment. Recent government procurement requirements are an encouraging first step in decarbonizing public buildings. The building and construction industry, at all points in the value chain, must also ramp up efforts to reduce embodied carbon in the built environment. These combined efforts can go a long way in mitigating the climate crisis.
About the Author:
Brent Trenga has truly run the construction industry gamut, serving in various roles including architect, developer and even project owner, allowing him to fully understand the sustainability ecosystem. As sustainability director for Kingspan North America, Trenga is committed to reducing the environmental impact of business operations, products, and services through continuous improvement and environmental transparency. For more, visit www.kingspan.com.
Modern Contractor Solutions, October 2023
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