Embodied carbon: WorldGBC embarks on 'radical' new approach towards net-zero

EXCLUSIVE: The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) has issued a new report outlining how companies in the sector can focus on both operational and embodied carbon to reach net-zero emission buildings by 2050, warning the companies ignoring this new approach could be "outpaced by the innovators".

Speaking exclusively to edie, Gamboa said that the report acts as a market signal for how companies within the built environment sector should act

Speaking exclusively to edie, Gamboa said that the report acts as a market signal for how companies within the built environment sector should act

The WorldGBC’s ‘Bringing embodied carbon upfront’ report outlines the sector’s new vision for how buildings and infrastructure can reduce embodied carbon emissions by 40% by 2030, to assist with the ambition of reaching 100% net-zero emissions buildings by 2050.

The report notes that operational emissions (from energy used to heat, cool and light buildings) accounts for 28% of the built environment sector’s 39% contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 11% derives from embodied carbon emissions found in the material and construction processes across a building’s entire lifecycle.

Speaking exclusively to edie, the WorldGBC’s chief executive Cristina Gamboa said that the report acts as a market signal for how companies within the built environment sector should act – and that there were opportunities and risks based on the actions of corporates.

“We have to address carbon,” Gamboa said. “It’s not about doing a bit less harm, it’s about how we eradicate carbon from the built environment. We can’t build buildings that cost the earth, we now have a call to action for more demand and to scale up solutions that are already there.

“We need to get it to the point where all our members understand and ask questions about their business models and the products and materials they use in a way that doesn’t exploit the planet. If you aren’t in this movement, you are outside the market forces and your business may not be prepared for the change that is coming. You’ll be outpaced by the innovators.”

In 2018, and in line with the targets of the Paris Agreement, the WorldGBC launched a net-zero commitment, setting a 2050 deadline for the transformation of the sector. Since the launch, research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has outlined the necessity of limiting global warming to 1.5C in the same timeframe.

As well as accounting for nearly 40% of global emissions, the built environment is expected to double the global building stock by 2060 as the world’s population approaches 10 billion. Gamboa believes that tackling both operational and embodied emissions are required to reach net-zero.

The report warns that a “radical” shift is required in how the industry collaborates to catalyse a “market transformation”. There are, however, best-practice case studies to learn from. The WorldGBC is calling for new national and sectoral roadmaps to be developed that account from embodied carbon, such as those produced in Finland, Norway and Sweden.

The report is also backed by more than 80 organisations within the sector, including Skanska, which is enabling projects to be evaluated for full lifecycle impacts.

Unlocking finance

Gamboa noted that the awareness, transparency and disclosure required to account and act on embodied carbon would also drive green investors towards the sector.

“Full disclosure of the whole lifecycle is going to make a difference,” Gamboa added. “We’re looking to develop policy and roadmaps, but the financial sector is already stating that they’re looking for responsible businesses.

“The less opaque and more transparent we can be, the more finance the investors can unlock, which will make a huge difference in the low-carbon transition. When talking about embodied carbon, we’re talking about a radical change to the industry, one that will require work with other sectors.”

A coalition of eight European cities, including Dublin and Leeds, have pledged to completely decarbonise their existing building stocks by 2050. On a national level, the UK Government last year vowed to halve the energy use from new buildings by 2030 and to halve the energy costs from the existing building stock - both domestically and commercially. The Government also published its £420m construction sector deal, outlining a course for halving building energy use and emissions by 2030. 

While policy and investment are starting to align with the ambitions of the WorldGBC, companies operating within the built environment sector have also been tasked with enhancing biodiversity alongside carbon emissions.

During Friday’s climate strikes (20 September), the UK Green Building Council’s chief executive Julie Hirigoyen noted how member organisations were declaring climate and biodiversity emergencies. Listen to an exclusive interview with Hirigoyen here.


The net-zero transition at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum

edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum returns in 2020, as some of the biggest companies, individuals and organisations championing sustainability gather at the Business Design Centre on 4 & 5 February to discuss the emergency response in transitioning to a net-zero economy.

The flagship, multi-award-winning event features keynotes speakers including Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland; Rebecca Marmot, Unilever CSO; Tom Szaky, TerraCycle CEO; Gilbert Ghostine, Firmenich CEO plus directors and senior managers from Interface, Vattenfall, John Lewis, Taylor Wimpey, Aviva, Pret A Manger, Pernod Ricard, LEGO Group, M&S, Diageo, Tesco, WSP, BASF, Mondelēz and more. For details and to register, visit: https://event.edie.net/forum/

Matt Mace



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