Reducing Embodied Carbon During Construction Can Mitigate the Impacts of Climate Change

The Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Greenprint Center for Building Performance has released a report, “Embodied Carbon in Buildings Materials for Real Estate,” explaining how reducing embodied carbon in the construction process can save developers money and help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Greenprint is a worldwide alliance of real estate owners, investors, and strategic partners committed to improving the environmental performance of the global real estate industry. Through measurement, benchmarking, knowledge sharing, and implementation of best practices, Greenprint and its members are striving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030.

Embodied carbon in buildings, which refers to the emissions associated with the manufacturing, transportation, construction of building materials, as well as building disposal, currently accounts for 11 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. In some cases, due in large part to carbon-intensive material manufacturing processes and the large quantities of fossil fuels used before materials ever reach the construction site, embodied carbon can account for as much as half of a building’s total carbon footprint over its lifetime. To achieve ambitious climate goals, such as those set in the Paris Climate Agreement, addressing embodied carbon will need to be part of real estate’s climate mitigation strategy.

“To date, the real estate market has made fantastic progress on operational improvements to reduce carbon emissions. Now, we’re looking at the other half of the built environment’s footprint: the embodied carbon in building materials,” says Billy Grayson, executive director of the Center for Sustainability and Economic Performance, which houses the Greenprint Center. “With the release of Embodied Carbon in Building Materials, ULI is pleased to drive the discussion and promote action among the real estate industry by sharing the evolving business case for addressing embodied carbon in buildings, and sharing simple steps developers can take to reduce their environmental footprint in a cost effective manner.”

The report details multiple steps that constructors and developers can take to reduce their embodied carbon:

  • Consider low-carbon structural materials, such as green concrete, recycled steel, or mass timber
  • Reduce the total materials in building design, which can result in lower costs
  • Repurpose used materials as much as possible, which can add authenticity to a project
  • Specify lower-carbon materials when offering an RFP, which often comes at no added cost
  • Calculate the embodied carbon of the materials in the project, to understand the emissions impacts and prepare the building for eventual embodied carbon reporting regulations which may be enacted by local municipalities
  • Promote the embodied carbon reductions gain community goodwill and grow market awareness and adoption of reduced embodied carbon buildings

The report adds to ULI’s ongoing efforts to promote sustainable development practices and to highlight its role in helping to mitigate the effects of climate change that are related to the built environment.

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