If zero carbon is the answer then just what was the question?

If zero carbon is the answer then just what was the question

Is it ‘just because’ I am currently  seeing things from a different perspective as I re-read Cradle to Cradle, (which I feel  has more resonance with where we are now)  but a number of recent issues and events  have left me questioning our approach to zero, and that going to zero is not enough.   Indeed it may even be dangerous ‘just’ going to zero.

Lets consider the built environment in its widest sense, not just from design to FM but from wining raw materials through construction to end users, and consider the opening premise from Cradle to Cradle, and ask who today would allow a sector to :

Put billions of pounds of toxic materials in the air water and ground every year

Produces materials so dangerous they require constant vigilance by future generations

Results in gigantic volume of waste

Puts valuable materials in holes all over the planet

Requires thousands of complex regulations – not to keep people and nature safe, but to keep them from being poisoned too quickly

Measures productivity based on how few people are working?

Creates prosperity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burning or burying them

Erodes the diversity of species and cultural practices.

McDonough and Braunghart were referring to the industrial revolution in these ‘consequences’, but they do describe the construction sector oh so well.  OK so no-one today would allow such a sector which exhibited these ‘by- products’ a licence to trade, so why then do we allow the ‘built environment’ to continue doing so but at a reduced rate?  As McDonough and Braunghart comment – doing only a little good may well be doing no good.

Indeed Janis Birkeland comments in her argument for Positive Development – if we build all new buildings to the highest, greenest standards, then the net contribution to carbon reductions would be only 0.04%.

And with this in mind, the questions that kept forming last week included:

How much do we spend within the global built environment on waste management, (disposal, recycling, regulation, etc) in comparison to the amount spent on eliminating waste full stop, through for example cradle-to-cradle paradigm thinking?

A rule of thumb is that the built environment uses 40% materials, creates 40% waste and generates 40% emissions. Ed Mazria from Architecture 2030 puts this figure higher at 48.5%.  We need to monitor and watch these figures reduce, but at the moment the production of cement remains responsible for about 7% of all carbon dioxide emissions.  Am I the only one who feels guilty with these?

Indeed another rule of thumb puts the quarrying sector at a third contribution – but what proportion from this sector is used to derive materials for construction? If the Cradle to Cradle authors are correct then the consumer (end user) only deals with 5% of the total waste of a product, the remainder 95% is waste created in manufacture.

So why are zero carbon definitions largely ignoring embodied energy and putting them in the ‘too difficult to deal with box’ ?  Dealing only or mainly with a carbon zero definition for buildings in use?

Passivhaus is emerging as the aspirational darling or solution. But what is the true embodied energy of passivhaus, in particular the massive amounts of insulation, sheeting and duct tape?  Passivhaus will reduce energy requirements and costs. Excellent. But I would love to see the payback time on the total and higher than normal embodied energies and waste.

Why are plastic, polyurethane and uvpc now considered green (such products now abound at eco exhibitions and within green guides) based it would seem solely on their performance, not on the harm done during production.

Why doesn’t BREEAM and LEED make more of a  focus on embodied energy  in its scoring?

Oh and why isn’t responsible sourcing to BS6000 more widely known or enforced?

Are we trying to solve the built environment environmental problems with the same mode of thinking that created them in the first place? I have always accepted that within sustainability we will make mistakes, take dead ends and end up in cul de sacs, and that this is all part of the learning and moving forward. But is time running our too quickly, to be so ‘narrow’ and we are just storing another problem for future generations to deal with?

Are we looking down the telescope the wrong way?  Turn it around and we may see the scale and maybe solutions to our problems.

We are in a period of developing strategies, codes and defining zero carbon itself.  Now is the time for that debate to be wider, for a collaborative debate across the sectors that make up the built environment, from raw materials to end users. And here  is where I mention be2camp, as it is through web technologies (in both the widest and most specific aspects) that will allow and enable such debate and dialogue to take place.

And as the Cradle-to-Cradle sub heading says – its time to remake the way we make things

(This is a rewitten and shortened and hopefully bettered reasoned version of the rant I started at the end of last week)

9 thoughts on “If zero carbon is the answer then just what was the question?

  1. Pingback: If zero carbon is the answer then just what was the question? « Keeping Ahead of the Oil Curve

  2. Pingback: Elemental » Links for July 2nd through July 8th

  3. Pingback: Elemental » Interesting links for July 2nd through July 8th

  4. Nick Grant

    Hi Martin

    I resisted commenting first time but now Mel has flagged it up . . .

    Embodied energy not ignored in Passivhaus concept, has been looked at in great detail. Indeed embodied energy is one of the reasons PH stops short of going to zero energy. I don’t have original papers to hand but when this was discussed at the recent AECB conference Wolfgang Feist specifically looked at the question of can you have too much insulation. Obviously space and economics are major reasons and these tend to trump embodied energy which only starts to overtake savings when you get some way beyond PH thickness. Cellulose (eg Warmcell) is cheap and low embodied energy.

    Rule of thumb for most life cycle stuff is that manufacture and disposal account for about 10% of life cycle impact but as energy comes down due to increased insulation the proportion goes up (but total still comes down!).

    I’m all for minimising embodied energy (we used straw in wall and Warmcell in roof for our house) but so many people are still prioritising embodied energy over performance, e.g. cob, rammed earth, recycled windows etc.

    If you post something on this on the aecb.net forum I am sure you will get some very well informed responses.

    Now if you had rubbished CSH levels 4, 5 and 6 I’d have to agree with you!




  5. Alex Albon

    Martin raises some issues here which need several volumes of a very large book to even get close to addressing. How he has done it in about 300 words is beyond me and here is my (more lengthy) contribution (or ‘rant’) to the debate.

    My background is environmental systems but found myself working for 20+ yrs in the UK construction sector almost by accident. There are very few people with an understanding of environmental systems working in the AEC fields – which is a shame. The construction sector has changed our landscape for ever and probably causes more environmental damage than anything else. Indeed we spend £billions deliberately changing environmental systems to our ‘advantage’ though construction with often unforeseen consequences. For example, environmental scientists (e.g. Environment Agency) have warned about developing on floodplains for decades as this reduces flood storage, but profit driven development has always overridden the obvious environmental system ‘negative feedback’.

    What’s all this got to go with Zero Carbon?

    On Twitter in initial response the Martin’s blog I briefly mentioned the Laws of Thermodynamics. Architects and Engineers say “great I know all about them and I model heat transfer through walls using a natty computer models”; Contractors say “you what?”; Environmental scientists say “Ah… the key to everything”.

    The Laws of Thermodynamics are ‘laws’ (not theories) because they are one of the most robust weapons in our scientific armoury.

    • First Law : Energy can neither be created nor destroyed – it can only change form.

    • Second Law : The Entropy (disorder) of an system is not in equilibrium and will tend to increase over time, only energy into the system will reduce Entropy.

    There are others, but that’s for another time…

    What I am driving at here is that the ‘Cradle to Grave’ concept is the closest thing I have come across in AEC which actually considers the unavoidable first two ‘global’ Laws of Thermodynamics. If we make things, we merely transform the matter/energy, some of which has undesirable or unforeseen consequences (by products e.g. carbon dioxide, chlorinated hydrocarbons etc). The products that we be put into the building and the building itself will inevitably increase its level of Entropy.

    I am no climate change sceptic – it’s happening and just like Al Gore, I saw it happening in environmental science research papers from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. But I am a believer in the robustness of environmental systems in bringing about equilibrium through negative and positive feedbacks. The problem is, is that we are not going to enjoy those feedbacks too much. The planet will survive, but it will take a few of us with it as it re-adjusts, and these re-adjustments will happen very quickly – the climatic record for the last 2million years shows this.

    Martin focuses on two debates about ‘zero carbon’ construction. First – build using zero fossil carbon and local resources to creating traditional, albeit ‘drafty’ buildings which require carbon investment to heat during the building’s life. Or secondly, build hi-tech air tight buildings which require virtually no maintenance or heat but invest heavily in embedded carbon as part of their structure.

    The first option is ‘my’ preferred route – feel free to disagree because I know there are performance issues here.

    The reason for my preference is that this option reduces carbon input ‘now’ (not later) and the less ‘transformation’ of stuff we do the better things are (as when entropy inevitably rises, the less energy and further transformations of energy we need to restore it). But this option has to be coupled with a rapid shift from a carbon to a hydrogen based economy (with a little help from (yet to be invented) nuclear fusion and, of course, renewables). Therefore I know one thing for sure, a compromise between the two options will be the route we take – I know I’m right by the way!



  6. Nick Grant

    Good timing, presentation that I mentioned by Dr Feist from the AECB conference is now up.


    Energy consultant Peter Warm and others have done similar sums with similar conclusions, ie practicality and cost become an issue before embodied energy of the extra insulation.

    Also many of the PH principles are about getting energy savings by good design not extra bolt ons whether insulation or ineffective micro renewables. Many architects have been using a foot of insulation for years and yet their buildings use many times the heat energy they should because of heat and air leaks.

    Also this book of PH details includes standard and ‘eco’ versions of details with simple LCA type analysis plus discussion of practical issues such as moisture etc.




  7. Pingback: a transition view of the transition housing plan « isite

Please add your comments:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s