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A life in carbon

Atkins | 15 Sep 2010 | Comments

People may talk about a low carbon future, but unless we’re able to see the whole carbon picture, how can we manage it effectively? Andrew Green, director of whole life costing at Faithful+Gould (part of the Atkins Group), explains why a low carbon life needs a fresh approach.

How much carbon does an average build produce? And how much carbon does an average office building generate through day-to-day operations and maintenance, over the course of its lifespan?

In the UK, the Government has reported that buildings were responsible for between 40-50 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption. However, a preliminary study published by the Government’s Low Carbon Construction Innovation and Growth Team (IGT), Emerging Findings, may change all that. It reports that 40-50 per cent may only be a portion of the construction industry’s emissions. It suggests the sector must do more than just report operational emissions and address the “whole life carbon” (including embodied carbon) of buildings and constructed assets (see Figure 1).

This would mean assessing both the operational, or “in use”, carbon impact (such as the energy used for lighting, air conditioning and heating, for example) and embodied carbon emissions (such as is produced by cement and concrete, both of which are high-carbon content materials).

The change required of the industry worldwide would be massive, but there are numerous triggers that are already pushing it in that direction.

For example, the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008 and the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) Energy Efficiency Scheme are making energy and carbon management a legal requirement for businesses. Carbon budgets are pushing government departments to do the same. And the fact that carbon now has an intrinsic value, as defined by the European Union Emission Trading System (EU ETS) and other trading vehicles, means there is increasingly a business case for low carbon.

However, there remain many barriers to overcome. For example, a suggestion by the EU Commission earlier in 2010 that Europe commit to cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 30 per cent by 2020 received a cool response from France and Germany. It elicited concerns over “carbon leakage”, where work moves away from highly regulated countries or regions to those with more relaxed rules and targets.

And while the idea that people influence climate change gained acceptance quickly in Europe, the same cannot be said for many other parts of the world, including the United States. Although the US House of Representatives passed carbon-trading legislation in 2009, the Senate still faces an uphill battle to pass comprehensive legislation in order for it to become law. Some lawmakers have promised to vote down any provision of a bill that would introduce any measure of mandatory cap & trade, instead favoring a market-based approach.

In addition, according to the Tenth Amendment of the US Constitution, the Federal Government has no authority over States’ rights. This poses a significant obstacle for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 ruling that CO2 is a pollutant and, as such, should be regulated by the Agency. New legislation was even proposed that would have stripped the EPA of its power to regulate GHGs produced by large factories, electric power companies and automobiles. It was defeated by the Senate in June 2010, but gives a clear indication of the passion surrounding this issue.

Despite the obstacles in the US in particular, many private and public agencies are conducting risk mitigation plans regarding GHG emissions and carbon. The US Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education is behind an initiative through which the presidents of more than 600 higher education facilities have committed their organisations to achieving climate neutrality. They also intend to integrate climate change into education, research and outreach.

Many states and local governments have also mandated local carbon reduction schemes. Even the US Federal Government has committed to monitoring its own carbon footprint for nearly a half million of its facilities. Several private com-panies, including many energy companies, have expanded their own corporate responsibility initiatives to include carbon management on a voluntary basis. Many are doing this as a risk mitigation exercise in the event that any legislation is eventually mandated.

To overcome challenges such as these, the industry needs clear and agreed definitions around the whole life of carbon. Without such explicit definitions in place, many industry players are reluctant to invest in carbon footprint assessments of their products, and construction seems unable to keep abreast of changes in component emission profiles because of its complex supply chains. Aluminium, for example, can be manufactured from either a hydro energy smelter or a fossil fuel energy source, but cost is more likely to guide procurement decisions than carbon.

In order to establish the whole life carbon view as an industry norm, at least four fundamental things will be required:

  • an accepted, standardised methodology for assessing whole life carbon;
  • accessible robust data on embodied carbon for the majority of construction products;
  • competent, accredited assessors to do whole life view of carbon assessments; and
  • stakeholder commitment to make the tough decisions to meet the sustainability targets.

Taking the long view

To achieve low-whole life carbon buildings, the industry and its clients will have to work in a more integrated and collaborative fashion. This will involve a substantial cultural shift, from appraising construction projects based on initial capital costs to a more robust assessment on a whole life basis.

Case in point: the IGT’s preliminary report includes a road map for transforming the market, suggesting that the high-level policy of the Climate Change Act needs to be developed into a clear plan, one that customers can then bring to market for delivery by an improved and integrated supply chain. Those suppliers would, in turn, be motivated to de-carbonise their own processes.

For the final report, a more detailed version will be produced for each sector (including housing, non-domestic buildings and infrastructure – new and existing). It will focus on addressing barriers to progress, on both the demand and supply sides, and means of overcoming them to create new markets.

However, if the intention is to shift from reporting operational emissions only to taking a whole life view of carbon, it is imperative that the construction industry establishes practical ways to set the assessment boundary and allocate responsibilities to the relevant parties in the process.

Assessment options

There are various Green Building Councils around the world calling for a global agreement to standardise carbon metrics for measuring and reporting the sustainability performance of buildings.

At the Ecobuild conference held in London in February 2010, the UK Green Building Council announced plans based on the new international metrics for measuring energy, water and waste that were agreed at the Singapore conference last year. Unfortunately an embodied carbon metric was left out, as it was thought too difficult to achieve.

To address the problem of embodied carbon, the UK Government’s Technology Strategy Board has allocated over £4m of funding for innovation research into design and decision tools for low-impact buildings. Some 14 consortia have just been given the funding to respond to this challenge.

Taking a whole life view of carbon will require the development of more code and new standards, but an avalanche of new policies, reports and initiatives should be avoided, as it may prove too complex for industry to adopt successfully. Instead, there is a need for standardised practical methodologies for assessing the whole life carbon of buildings, which the relevant parties can be suitably trained to use.

Building a business case

The transition to a low carbon build strategy – one that takes the whole life carbon into account – is a huge market opportunity and goes beyond the construction sector itself. It will help reshape the industry to become more integrated, collaborative and progressive, one that can have a radical impact on the performance of all buildings in the future.

As Paul Morrell points out in the IGT report: “We need to develop new buildings that enable their owners and occupiers to lead more energy-efficient lives without loss of comfort. We need to extend the same thinking to the 28 million existing buildings in the UK, and make them as good as they can be too; and we need to build the infrastructure that will support the production of ‘clean’ energy and the operation of sustainable transport systems.’’

This same thinking can be applied to construction around the world. The transitions to low carbon and high performance should be seen as part and parcel of the same challenge. To take advantage of this, the construction industry needs to develop a shared sense of purpose and a clear vision of the future so it can play a leadership role in the move.

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