let’s talk about embodied carbon

The Inflation Reduction Act was signed into law by President Biden in August 2022. In addition to addressing record inflation, the legislation contains historic provisions for fighting climate change. The landmark spending bill is considered by many to be the largest investment by the federal government to confront climate change. Supporters of the bill claim that it will result in a forty percent reduction of climate pollution by 2030. Measures addressing climate change in the new bill include $5 billion in funding to drive low-carbon procurement in the built environment.

Investments affecting the construction industry include labeling low-embodied carbon construction materials, installing low-embodied carbon materials and products in federally owned buildings, low-carbon transportation grants that incentivize the use of low-carbon materials, improving climate resilience for affordable housing by utilizing low-carbon technologies and, financing the use of low-carbon materials by the FEMA Building Material Program and incentivizing low-carbon and net-zero energy projects. These initiatives will shift conventional construction practices in an increasingly sustainable direction. After all, the building sector produces about thirty percent of global greenhouse gases.

As the conversation around climate change gets louder by the day, more and more people may be asking the question…what’s the deal with embodied carbon?
From the list of provisions in the new bill, it is clear to see that embodied carbon is a focal point for addressing climate change. Understanding the causes of global warming is important for folks as it will inform their decisions and habits. And for many of us, the term embodied carbon may sound like technical science jargon. It is; however, it still labels an important consideration for increased sustainability, especially in the construction industry.

Embodied carbon refers to the gases released during the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials. This is different from operational carbon which refers to gases released because of energy consumption while a building is being used. We’ve become somewhat accustomed to energy efficient products which help curb operational carbon. To calculate the embodied carbon in any building material, researchers use a life cycle assessment to track the gas released during all phases of production.

Climate change is caused by the release of gases, primarily carbon, into the earth’s atmosphere. The effect has caused increased global temperatures. Embodied carbon represents carbon emissions that were already released, meaning the harm has already been done. The market for new building materials causes further carbon emissions when compared to construction material reuse. Simply put, why cause more carbon to be emitted with new materials when there are available reused materials whose embodied carbon has already been released?

When planning recovery efforts for reusable materials, BRING factors in the associated embodied carbon. Some materials like lumber, carpet and steel have much more embodied carbon and accordingly are targets for recovery and reuse. From the provisions outlined in the Inflation Recovery Act, it seems reasonable to anticipate more low-embodied carbon materials in our marketplaces and incentives to use them. In the meantime, material reuse will remain our best option for curbing carbon emissions linked to the construction industry.