Green Leaders Encourage Early Action on Embodied Carbon

At the ULI Spring Meeting, sustainability experts detailed strategies for reducing this major source of emissions.

Sustainability remains top of mind for the commercial real estate industry at large. In addition to trying to curb their operational carbon emissions, owners are increasingly concentrating on reducing their embodied carbon footprints. The implications of climate change are forcing builders and developers to carefully consider how they source materials and build-out their projects outside and inside.

During ULI’s spring meeting, sustainability leaders encouraged developers to start thinking about embodied carbon emissions even before starting construction, as these emissions can’t be reduced after the building is completed.

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Operational carbon and its relation to energy efficiency is steadily tracked and monitored, as seen by the rise in energy-efficient construction and projects earning Energy Star, LEED and other certifications. The reduction of embodied carbon to curb climate impacts, however, has been a more recent effort.

A building’s carbon footprint includes both the operational and the embodied carbon, and carbon measurement tools are essential for assessing estimated and actual carbon footprints.

Image by KoalaParkLaundromat from Pixabay

Incorporating alternative materials such as mass timber and recycled steel can have an impact on your footprint without substantially driving up costs, the panelists said during the session titled “The Future of Building Materials: Embodied Carbon and Why It Matters.”

You can also cut down on waste, starting from the first phase of construction and continuing through the duration of the development process.

Brookfield Properties Director of Sustainability Jill Ziegler said, before looking at all the novel ways to further sustainability efforts, think about the basic tenet of avoiding waste. Determine what materials you spend the most money on and which ones have the highest environmental impact.

Embodied carbon may account for as much as half of the entire carbon footprint of new construction between now and 2050. Starting your journey on reducing your embodied carbon footprint requires a commitment to sustainability and social responsibility.

“When a building goes live, half of its lifetime carbon footprint has already been created,” said Natalie Teear, vice president of sustainability and social impact at Hudson Pacific Properties, noting that cities and organizations should detail their vision and implement strategies for addressing embodied carbon early in development.

The city of Los Angeles is doing just that. Dominique Hargreaves, the city’s deputy chief sustainability officer, said the state is highly committed to reducing its environmental impact and embodied carbon emissions and developing strategies to achieve these goals.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti implemented The Buy Clean California Act, which targets carbon emissions associated with the production of structural steel, concrete reinforcing steel, flat glass and mineral wool board insulation. Any project using state funds must comply with this legislation, which will be strictly enforced with fines for noncompliance.

While tech giants, such as Microsoft and Google, are making strides in the new frontier in green building, embodied carbon reduction is still in its early stages  and there is less data to draw from. Educating everyone involved through the planning, construction and development stages can bridge this gap.

“Collaboration toward a common embodied carbon goal (enables) everybody to meet it,” said Ziegler.

She recommended informing owners about the ways in which sustainability can add value and help secure higher rents, and engaging with designers, architects, suppliers and contractors to ensure everyone has the same goal in mind.