Writing in FutuREstorative back in 2016, I looked at what a construction project would look like in response to the Living Building Challenge‘s “what if every act of construction made the world a better place” …
Projects would be net positive in all aspects, on place, nature, water, health, even knowledge and of course carbon.
Construction projects are carbon-positive: Strict carbon planning and management is key. Remaining carbon emissions after all carbon management improvements have been made are addressed with restorative offset programmes.
For new buildings, it is critical to focus on reducing embodied emissions;
For existing buildings we need to focus on reducing operating emissions.
The largest reductions came from the use of high-mass and energy- intensive materials.
Carbon and Construction carbons are not understood.
Lloyd Alter writing in Treehugger established Upfront Carbon as a key concept term in addressing the ‘Climate Emergency’. ‘Embodied carbon is not a difficult concept at all, it is just a misleading term … I have concluded that it should be Upfront Carbon Emissions, or UCE”. (By the way, Lloyds articleLet’s rename “Embodied Carbon” to “Upfront Carbon Emissions” is a must read that also illustrates how twitter conversations, with Elrond Burrell, can lead to improved industry thinking)
ARRO: a project carbon hierarchy
To achieve a positive carbon project, focusing on the essential upfront carbons,. FutuREstorative proposed a robust carbon hierarchy approach. As the waste hierarchy of ‘recycle, reuse, dispose‘ has become part of our construction waste lexicon so ARRO – Avoid, Replace, Reduce and Offset.should become part of the carbon lexicon
Avoid: carbon through regenerative low carbon design, construction planning and sustainable facilities management …
Replace: high carbon techniques and activities with low carbon, regenerative solutions…
Reduce: seek to reduce carbon through local material and supplier procurement and a focus on construction travel and transport, carbon productivity and construction efficiency …
Offset emissions that cannot be managed out. But be aware you cannot offset the toxic greenhouse gas emissions eg NOX from use of diesel plant and transport.
It is worth noting that the RIBA 2030 Challenge calls for a reduction in embodied (upfront carbon) … rising incrementally from 50 in 2020 to 75% over the next decade before offsetting become acceptable
Asked recently at the end of a keynote zero carbon talk for three actions that we should be doing today, I responded with firstly to Take Back, secondly to Stop and thirdly to Think like a Tree. Admitedly, his was on the spot thinking, but based on a decade or so of engagement with sustainability thinkers, researchers, scientists, practitioners, it makes the basis for a good strategy
Take Back – On our watch , over the last 30 years , of urging sustainable construction, carbon in the atmosphere has increased from 320 to 415ppm. And we in the built environment are responsible for 40% of that increase. To get back to the science based safe target of 350 we need to be taking carbon out of the atmosphere. Therefore, the most responsible thing we can do is to design and construct buildings that are carbon sinks. Buildings that lock carbon away.
Stop – or at least severely reduce putting pollutants and carbon, into the atmosphere.
Think Like a Tree – carbon is an essential building block within nature. We need to rethink and understand carbon cycles, acknowledge that carbon is not the enemy. We need a better construction carbon and eco – literacy so we fully understand carbon as a natural currency cycle, evaluating carbon efficiency (carbon productivity) as we do financial efficiency.
Once we see carbon as a ‘currency’ then we can understand carbon productivity – how much value of building are we delivering for each unit of carbon emitted. This should become the KPI for projects, alongside or even replacing the measure of productivity in labour terms. It is one of the most simple of KPI’s., or could be, construction cost divided by upfront carbon. We tightly monitor and measure construction value, and we measure construction carbon, albeit unevenly.
In conclusion then …
An ABC for (Net) Zero Carbon Construction
Adopt a carbon strategy: of take back, of stopping emissions and of rethinking carbon as natural cycles,
Build robust carbon ARRO hierarchy strategies that Avoid, Reduce and Repair and Offset into every project
Carbon productivity monitored as a core KPI, with strong carbon leadership and literacy, that matches the level of focus we have on financial and safety performance within the industry
Next: Part 3 – Just What is Construction Carbon and Ecological Literacy
With the construction materials sector exposed to significant transition and physical risk resulting from climate change, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) recent paper, Investor Expectations of Companies in the Construction Materials Sector, outlines the steps that investors expect companies to take to manage climate risks and accelerate action to decarbonise in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The guide is endorsed by other investor networks that make up the Global Investor Coalition of Climate Change, and was developed in line with the goals of Climate Action 100+ in order to inform investor engagement with construction material firms on the initiative’s global list of 161 focus companies.
Investors supporting the Climate Action 100+ initiative expect construction material companies to make commitments in respect of
Implement a strong governance framework which clearly articulates the board’s accountability and oversight of climate change risk and opportunities.
Take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across their value chain, consistent with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Provide enhanced corporate disclosure in line with the final recommendations of the TCFD5 and, when applicable, sector-specific Global Investor Coalition on Climate Change Investor Expectations on Climate Change to enable investors to assess the robustness of companies’ business plans against a range of climate scenarios, including well below 2°C and improve investment decision-making.
Climate change risk is especially acute for companies that manufacture cement. As the most widely used construction material globally, cement is the source of 7 percent of global man-made carbon dioxide emissions. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest global emitter, behind only China and the US.
Declare is a construction materials transparency disclosure programme.
Smart material reuse and sustainability innovations at British Land development will reduce carbon in construction and operation by 33% …
British Land Development at 1 Triton Square works closely with design teams and contractor to retain much of the original building. Smart material reuse and sustainability innovations mean that the building will produce 33% less carbon in construction and operation than best practice new build equivalents – a reduction of 35,600 tonnes of CO2e.
This saving is greater than the building’s operational emissions over the next 20 years and it exceeds the ambitious carbon reduction targets required to meet the UK’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s equivalent to the emissions from heating and powering 8,800 UK homes for a year. High efficiency equipment, low-carbon materials and a circular approach to waste are all part of our BREEAM Outstanding sustainability plans for 1 Triton Square.
“The world faces two existential crises, developing with terrifying speed: climate breakdown and ecological breakdown. Neither is being addressed with the urgency needed to prevent our life-support systems from spiralling into collapse”.
So starts an open letter, initiated by George Monbiot and signed by a raft of influential climate, ecology and sustainability thinkers.
Natural Climate Solutions is a new initiative (website) calling on governments to back natural climate solution measures and “to create a better world for wildlife and a better world for people”. It should also be a call to us all in built environment sectors.
“We are championing a thrilling but neglected approach to averting climate chaos while defending the living world: natural climate solutions. Defending the living world and defending the climate are, in many cases, one and the same.”
Signatures to the letter and the Natural Climate Solutions include: – school strikes activist Greta Thunberg, – climate scientist Prof Michael Mann, – writers Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein and Philip Pullman – campaigners Bill McKibben, David Suzuki and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. – former archbishop of Canterbury, former president of the Maldives, musician Brian Eno – advocacy group directors John Sauven, Greenpeace UK, Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth,Ruth Davis, RSPB, Rebecca Wrigley, Rewilding Britain
Recent research indicates that about a third of the greenhouse gas reductions needed by 2030 can be provided by the restoration of natural habitats, but such solutions have attracted just 2.5% of the funding for tackling emissions.
This is a huge issue for the built environment sector, where costing of approaches for technical carbon reduction solutions far outweigh costing of drawdown of carbon through living systems associated with our buildings and cities. If natural living systems are even considered as carbon solutions that is, to meet our Construction Vision target of carbon reduction by 50% by 2025.
We still see carbon as the enemy, through our too often one sided approach of reduce, reduce, reduce … So, given that, according to the IPCC, we have 12 years to avoid irreversible climate breakdown here are four actions we should embrace today:
Ecologists and Landscape Architects now, urgently need to become project leads.(1)
Locked in carbon should be the reported key carbon performance indicator and driver, not just the (scope1 and 2) carbon footprint
Lets start talking about upfront carbon and not embodied carbon. What matters is the carbon that is being emitted today, and the carbon that is being locked away today .(2)
Zero carbon is not enough, we can do better and go beyond zero, we don’t have time just to reduce carbon to zero.
How this aligns with my thinking, keynotes, advocacy and support for built environment client, design, contstruction, fm and academic organisations …
Rethinking Carbon – our need to focus on durable and living systems, not just fugitive carbon (3)
We need to move from the Eco phase we are currently locked into – to a Seva mindset, where we see buildings as part of nature, the natural ecosystem, not apart from it. (4)
Natural Climate Solutions … a small group of people working voluntarily to raise awareness of natural climate solutions and champion the work of organisations working in this field. who encourage you to support local projects, campaigns and initiatives near you and help ensure that this crucial and exciting answer our global crises receives the attention it deserves.
From my series of Specifi blog posts that pick up on discussions following my presentations there …
At the Cardiff Design event, slides and comments on rethinking and reimagining carbon carbon prompted much conversation over the networking drinks.
If we are to address climate change, avoid climate breakdown, cap global temperature increase to 1.5 and to face up to the IPCC 2018 Report warnings, then only reducing carbon from buildings and construction will not be enough, we need to think different think bigger, think regenerative.
And, so, if we are to make sustainability really attractive we have to balance the challenge of reversing global warming and, simultaneously, deliver economic prosperity for our sector and those that use our buildings
We have the tools, thinking and approaches to create buildings that are regenerative, to function as trees, to function as energy generators, and as carbon sequesters. Buildings that are part of the solution not the problem.
Imagine our buildings self-generating heating and cooling, or create it using power from renewable sources that are connected to a smart grid to optimise energy use.
Our buildings themselves are constructed from materials that take carbon dioxide from the air and lock it up for decades, even centuries, (250 years in the case of the Bullitt Center that features in my presentations).
Within this new built environment are living, biodiverse ecosystems, used for food production, recreation, water filtration, temperature control, and importantly our health, which draw carbon from the atmosphere down into the soil, and living eco systems.
Following the specify Cardiff event, I flew out to Vilnius in Lithuania to present a keynote at the Lithuanian Green Build Council Conference. It is extremely encouraging that the same conversations are taking place across Europe with built environment architects, contractors, engineers, facilities managers, product manufacturers and investors
We are starting to rethink sustainability, moving from just ‘sustaining’ to ‘thriving’ and embracing the new normal.
We often asked by Constructco2 users, can we offset by planting trees on site and if so how much carbon is ‘offset’? The response can be complicated – but that’s not a reason not to balance construction carbon emissions through increasing living carbon in trees and other living eco systems.
Before diving in to the role of trees within managing construction CO2 – we need to understand current carbon footprint thinking – so take a look at this fairsnape blog post – Carbon Is Not The Enemy – on why we need to balance the Fugitive Carbon with Durable and Living Carbons
Trees and Carbon
The answer is not at all straight forward and publications / papers / articles found on the internet do not agree. However, the amount of carbon stored by a tree depends on its size, and age: young trees will absorb carbon dioxide quickly while they are growing, but as a tree ages a steady state would eventually be reached. At this point the amount of carbon absorbed through photosynthesis is equal to that lost through respiration and decay.
Ecometrica study found a one tonne carbon tree locks up around 3.67 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
A tree can absorb as much as 24kg of carbon dioxide per year and could potential sequester 1 ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old.
On average, each National Forest tree will sequester 79kg of carbon, equivalent to 290kg of carbon dioxide, over an 80 year period of growth.
A recent study carried out at Kielder Forest has calculated that the Forest’s 150 million trees lock up 82,000 tonnes of carbon* annually. This means that as a rough estimate each tree at Kielder is locking up 0.546 kg of carbon per year.
It is better to offset in forests rather than individual trees asm within the UK, forest soils contain around four times as much carbon as the trees.
CO2 is absorbed from the atmosphere by trees during their growth through photosynthesis. The carbon element of the CO2 absorbed remains locked into the timber until its End of Life. The sequestered carbon should though only be considered a benefit in the scope of (any) carbon assessment when the timber is sustainably sourced – certified by FSC, PEFC or equivalent. This is to ensure that any trees felled are being substituted with a minimum of the same number of trees planted and therefore not contributing to deforestation and not compromising the overall carbon- absorbing capacity of woodlands.
Understanding definitions.The language used when talking about carbon in trees and other eco systems is important.
Biogenic carbon. The carbon sequestered in timber or other bio-based materials.If we are concerned with using trees to offset our construction carbon emissions then we need to address the tree’s sequestration and storage of CO2.
Sequestration The natural process removing (ie seizing) CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it within biological material.
Sink A carbon ‘sink’ is where there is a net transfer of carbon from the atmosphere to the (tree/forest) A forest only remains a sink while its carbon stock continues to increase.
Store Wood products are a store of carbon, as they themselves do not capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but keep it locked up throughout their lifetime
The most important point is that offsetting – whether through tree planting or not – should not be the first consideration; reducing emissions should always be the main objective.
Perhaps value engineering to increase materials that have a high carbon store (eg timber) in lieu of materials that have a high embedded carbon footprint through processing (eg concrete) may prove a more viable carbon option.
Importance of locking carbon into long lived, circular economy based, timber products …
When a tree dies the carbon that is stored in its biomass is either released to the atmosphere or added to the carbon in the soil through decomposition. The rate that carbon is released back to the atmosphere can be controlled by reducing the rate of decomposition, for example by using timber to create long-lived wood products. However, eventually most of the carbon sequestered by the tree will be returned to the atmosphere where each tonne of carbon will be converted to about 3.67 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
More than just Carbon
UK woodland, especially native species, in addition to providing the habitat for our incredible natural biodiversity, provide a wide range of “ecosystem services” such as the control and condition of water supplies, mitigation of surface water flooding, provision of shade, shelter, control of pollution. Woodland plays a far greater role in the move to a low carbon economy than simple carbon sequestration by trees.
If planting (additional) trees on site obtain a carbon figure from the projects ecologist or landscape architect. (ConstructCO2 can arrange one for you). You cannot count the landscape design as offset for your construction emissions.
A very rough figure for guidance, for each additional young tree planted on the project 1kg CO2 per month that the tree will be growing.
Consider and promote the regenerative benefits of trees, which will be far greater than simply carbon offsets.
If looking to offset your construction CO2 through tree planting offsets – use a certified organisation and ensure that the offset is an additional measure, and not counted elsewhere.
Consider offsetting to schemes that protect, enhance soils and bring peat bogs and moss lands back into healthy, carbon sequestration eco systems. This can be a higher co2 sequestration than trees.
Consider increasing project materials with a high carbon store – locking greater levels of carbon into the building through sustainability focused value engineering.
A single tree can absorb CO2 at a rate of 12kg per year.
Trees act as natural pollution filters by absorbing pollutants through the stomates in leaf surfaces.
Trees lower temperature by transpiring water and shading surfaces.
Trees reduce heat sinks.
Trees reduce erosion.
An acre of trees absorbs enough CO2 over one year to equal the amount produced by driving a car 26,000 miles.
Trees provide food and wildlife habitats.
Planting trees remains one of the cheapest, most effective means of drawing excess CO2 from the atmosphere.
Trees recharge ground water and sustain stream flow.
One large tree strategically placed can replace 10 room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours per day.
ConstructCO2 now allows the calculation of a ‘shadow’ carbon price for carbon emissions from the construction process. The default price is set at £29 / tonne, based on current available data as used by other organisations within their shadow carbon pricing exercises (1) However ConstructCO2 also allows for any user or project to set their own carbon price.
Carbon pricing is increasingly being used to drive carbon reductions, through internal costing arrangements, and as awareness or preparation for what many see as an inevitable carbon future regulations or taxation.
In the light of the Paris Agreement, the calls from businesses and activists to put a price on carbon are becoming louder. To keep global warming below the Paris target of 2 deg C, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the world will need to get to zero net emissions urgently.
Construction processes are part of the climate change problem but a vital part of the solution , and by introducing an operating cost by factoring emissions into bottom-line calculations through carbon pricing will be part of the construction industry contribution to carbon reduction.
See FT article: Companies accelerate use of carbon pricing and for example the advertising group WPP, who use an internal price of £29 a tonne of CO2 when buying or refitting buildings to understand “the impact of future energy and carbon regulations on our business”.
Question for you:who on your board is really championing sustainability and the low carbon agenda?
Board members, as Lucy Marcus reminded us at construcTALKs, need to balance continuity with change, to embrace the changes in technology.
From my experience in (small-medium) construction organizations, boards are too focused on looking back at performance, rather than forward; and when looking forward, tend to do so with the risk-eye of past problems. And sustainability is often only discussed when necessary, as part of an ISO 14001 project or incident issue. Too often, as 14001 sits with Health and Safety, sustainability takes a back seat. Rarely do construction boards view sustainability as a critical strategic, opportunity issue, rather than simply one to be dealt with at project level.
Yet the world is moving forward, and increasingly so towards a low carbon environment and economy. Only those with proven performance and attitude of low carbon approaches may well survive—all the more reason to have board members champion change. Non-execs tend to provide the independent financial and governance role, but increasingly they should drive the organization towards change.
Perhaps it’s because construction boards are slow to embrace the communication power social media can bring that they remain out of touch. I do wonder whether we had the same issue when other, now well-established, means of communication emerged; did we resist telephones, faxes, conference calls and emails as we seem to be doing with social media?
If construction boards were more diverse and embraced a wider range of views and outlooks, through board composition and social media awareness, the transition to a low carbon construction economy would be more successful.
Construction boards really do need to embrace social media potential, not just as a tool for others in the organization, but for the board itself, tuning into discussions and commentaries on emerging standards and legislation and sharing what is working or not. The likes of Twitter, Linkedin groups, blogs, forums and news aggregators are abundantly rich with low carbon and sustainable construction information.
This is all vital client, competitor and industry intelligence that enables boards to move their organization forward – and, through embracing social media in this manner, become role models for its mature use.
To quote from Lucy, boards need to be both Grounded and Stargazers.Are construction boards so grounded they go underground? Or do they at least from time to time stand on a hill and gaze the stars to wonder, then to understand what is out there?
This post originally appeared on CSRWire in April 2011 and savedhere from now defunct Posterous blog
Now Kate’s coming to Garstang to give a first-hand account of the trip and talk about its lessons and implications. Admission is free but space is limited; if you can, please confirm your attendance by email to firstname.lastname@example.org