On Carbon … Planes, Homes and Emails

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The airline industry is in the news again with Ryanair being told by the advertising watchdog to stop adverts that claim it to be the greenest airline in Europe,

The airline industry has become a focus of both carbon ‘anger and angst’, along with a reawakening of the carbon offsetting debate. Yet carbon is not the only issue for the airlines, it is socially unjust (with only some 15% of the population flying regularly) and the other greenhouse gasses such as NOx do damage to health and environment at point of emission – something that cannot be offset.

But, with this sector contributing only 2% of globally emissions we must also look closer to home and to improve our carbon understanding and literacy.

Our homes and buildings contribute 40% greenhouse gas emissions, with 28% through design and the way heat cool and light, the way we live, play and work within our homes and buildings. 11% is through the manufacturer of building materials, with cement and concrete contributing a whopping 8% of total world co2 (if it were a country it would rank 3rd in emission output)

In 2019 the built environment sector woke to climate warming design flaws with a large number of architects, engineers and contractors committing to address the Climate and Biodiversity Emergency. The RIBA 2030 climate challenge sets tough challenges to reduce embodied carbon in homes and buildings by 75% by 2030.

With the huge housebuilding programme across the country these are commitments and challenges our house building sector should be embracing today. Failure to do so only stokes a future of ever increasing emissions, biodiversity degeneration in addition to the health and finance for future generations.

The Government is currently consulting on ‘The Future Homes Standard‘ – an update to the building regulations for new homes. However, the proposed changes to building regulations are likely to make buildings less energy efficient not more, according to the work of London Energy Transformation Initiative (Leti), a network of more than 1,000 architects and engineers. Perhaps even more worrying is a proposal to prevent local councils from going beyond national standards and demanding greater energy efficiency or lower carbon emissions.  If you haven’t as yet, you should be writing to your MP on this as part of the consultation. (Friends of the Earth Manchester have useful information and how to do this)

But perhaps a sleeping giant of carbon emissions is the vast amount of data we generate, share and reshare, store only to never return to. And a major contributor are emails. We have all seen the warning at the bottom of emails, “Please consider the environment before printing.” But if we care about global warming, we might want to consider not writing so many emails in the first place.

Right now, data centers consume about 2% of the world’s electricity, but that’s expected to reach 8% by 2030. Moreover, only about 6% of all data ever created is in use today,” according to research from Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

That means that 94% is sitting in a vast “cyber landfill,” albeit one with a massive carbon footprint.

“It’s costing us the equivalent of maintaining the airline industry for data we don’t even use,”

Understanding carbon is complex and giving rise to awareness courses and events on carbon (or eco) literacy courses. Ideally we need a reliable and accurate equivalent to food labelling that informs us of the carbon or ecology footprint of our flight, our homes and our emails … and all the other stuff we use and do.

A good place to start is Mike Berners Lee (Professor at Lancaster University and Sustainability Patron for Cumbria Action ) ‘How Bad are Bananas’

And of course we need to list not the rising young generation and to paraphrase Greta Thunberg from her talk at Davos ‘we cannot address the climate emergency with clever carbon number fudging, accounting or offseeting – we need zero carbon’

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A Carbon Hierarchy for (Net) Zero Carbon Construction

This is Part 2 of Zero Carbon Series. See Part One Carbon That Was then This is Now

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.

FutuREstorative drew on a Total Carbon Study from the Integral Group, DPR Construction and others that looked at the carbon profile through the life of a refurbishment project (DPR’s Construction San Francisco Office) and reported a number of key findings:

  • 􏰀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 article Let’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

ARRO: From FutuREstorative,

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


Image Source: Unsplash, EJ Yao