The construction industry plays a crucial role in climate change mitigation, not only due to its contribution to global carbon emissions and energy use but also because it can be an important source of low-carbon innovations. The industry’s embodied carbon emissions are significant: they account for over 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions and are projected to grow by 20% by 2030. As we work towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors and decarbonizing our economies as quickly as possible, there is an urgent need for new solutions that deliver measurable reductions in both global warming potential (GWP) and CO2 equivalents (CO2e).
What is embodied carbon?
The term “embodied carbon” refers to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during the production, transport, installation, and maintenance of construction building materials. It is an important measure of a building’s life cycle emissions and a key component in calculating its total carbon footprint.
While embodied CO2 is often thought about in terms of product-based emissions (e.g., steel manufacturing, concrete production, or construction site waste), it also includes other components such as transportation fuel or electricity used for site preparation and construction activities like digging foundations or transporting finished products from manufacturing plants to building sites.
Embodied CO2 has become a powerful metric for assessing the environmental impact of buildings because it accounts for a multitude of variables that contribute directly or indirectly to climate change. These could include things like:
- Energy usage during site preparation, foundation laying and scaffolding
- Logistics vehicle travel distance, fuel requirements and passive emissions
- Heating/cooling requirements for plants, construction site interiors and equipment
- Material extraction processes (including mining, oil and gas or heavy metals)
The current state of embodied carbon emissions in the construction industry
The construction industry has been at the forefront of efforts to reduce embodied carbon in buildings. A recent study found that the construction industry is responsible for 25% of all energy use and CO2 emissions across all industries today—and this only covers electricity usage during construction!
There are several reasons why it can prove challenging to lower embodied carbon in buildings:
- Energy intensity: It takes a lot of energy to create building materials and make them into structures. For example, steel manufacturing uses three times more energy than aluminum manufacturing.
- Long supply chain: Materials have to travel long distances before they’re ready for use in construction projects. This means they have higher transportation costs per ton compared with local materials that don’t need as much travel time or distance.
- High material ratios: The ratio between how much material there was original versus how much remains after manufacture (or deconstruction) matters a lot when calculating embodied carbon. So, if you have a building with high material ratios—it will have more embodied carbon than a building that uses less material.
- For example:
- 1 cubic meter of cement requires approximately 7 cubic meters worth of water
- 1 cubic meter of steel requires approximately 0.5 cubic meters worth of iron ore
- 1 cubic meter of insulation board requires approximately 3 kilograms of polystyrene beads
How to assess embodied carbon in your building
The first step in assessing embodied carbon emissions is to measure and assess the embodied carbon emissions in your building. Start with evaluating the embodied carbon emissions in your building construction process. The main components contributing to embodied carbon during construction include:
- Materials sourcing including extraction and transportation
- Transportation and other non-manufacturing activities related to design, site preparation, demolition
- Processing (such as smelting)
- Manufacturing (such as cement production)
- Assembly on site
Factors contributing to embodied carbon during building construction may also include:
- Material types and mixes
- Material origin (locally sourced vs imported)
- Energy use throughout each stage of construction
- Waste management practices
- Availability of local resources/materials vs importing from elsewhere
- The geographic location where the building will be constructed (climate, altitude)
Digital construction site management tools can help improve the efficiency of these processes, by enabling improved collaboration between stakeholders with relevant data that impacts their decisions during design, planning or engineering.
A way to assess embodied carbon in buildings is by looking at how construction companies use digital construction data to cut down on emissions. Many companies have adopted digital tools like 3D BIM modeling software for making virtual mockups of their projects before they start putting up actual walls and floors. This makes it easier for them to do things like measure energy demands and make adjustments as needed without having real workers on site wasting precious time or resources (and thus creating more pollution).
For example, digital construction management software platforms like PlanRadar allow you to access all construction project related information including building models in one place. Using this software, you can access and collect facility operations or building-related data that provide detailed insights about your embodied carbon emissions and day-to-day energy usage. To learn more about how PlanRadar helps you build data that can help with embodied carbon emission calculations, you can try the app for free or contact us here.
How can digital construction enable companies to cut embodied carbon?
Digital construction can help reduce embodied carbon in buildings by:
- Reducing waste and increasing efficiency. By using digital blueprints, companies can cut down on errors, which saves money and reduces the amount of material that goes into making a building. This also reduces the amount of time spent building as there are fewer mistakes to correct as well as fewer wasted materials.
- Cutting costs for contractors and developers by enabling them to eliminate waste from their supply chains – meaning they have more funds available for other activities that contribute towards reducing their environmental impact such as investing in renewable energy technologies or hiring greener staff members (e.g., architects).
- Digital construction processes also have the potential for reducing the time taken for construction projects—which translates into reduced carbon emissions due to less fuel being used on site over longer periods as well as improving worker safety.
The construction industry is in a unique position to address climate change and the embodied carbon problem. As we look to the future, digital technologies will help us get there. Data-driven design and construction can help us achieve new levels of environmental performance for buildings.
To tackle this challenge, we need to go beyond simply collecting data in a vacuum: we must dig into it with our partners and clients, using it as the basis for actionable insights that drive real results on-site while continuously improving our understanding of how best to use data in this way.