Embodied Carbon in Real Estate: The Hidden Contributor to Climate Change

The Climate Crisis Ticking in Our Homes

As we navigate the urgency of climate change, one crucial element often overlooked is embodied carbon. This silent contributor to climate change resides in an unexpected placeā€”the real estate industry. In this article, we’ll explore the concept of embodied carbon and its significant impact on our environment.

What is Embodied Carbon?: Unseen Threats Within Our Buildings

Before delving into its role in real estate, let’s understand what embodied carbon is. Embodied carbon represents the sum of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, transportation, and installation of building materials. These emissions are a hidden part of a building’s carbon footprint, and they matter more than you might think.

The Real Estate Industry’s Hidden Guilt: Responsible for 40% of Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The real estate industry, often overshadowed by the oil and gas giants, holds a significant share of the climate change burden. It is responsible for approximately 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions are largely attributed to the construction and maintenance of buildings, making real estate the second-largest climate offender.

The Surprising Culprits: Fashion and Flights vs. Building Materials

It’s astonishing to learn that building materials are responsible for about 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, surpassing the combined emissions of the fashion industry and air travel. This revelation underscores the need to address the carbon impact of construction materials in our fight against climate change.

Embodied Carbon Over Time: More Than Just Construction

While structural materials play a significant role in a building’s embodied carbon, experts estimate that finishes and furnishings account for over 50% of a building’s carbon impact throughout its lifespan. For instance, a recent report revealed that furniture alone contributes to about 50% of a commercial building’s total carbon emissions over time.

The Irreversible Footprint: Carbon Locked In at Manufacturing

Unlike operational carbon emissions, which can be reduced through energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, embodied carbon emissions are locked in during the manufacturing and construction phases. Once materials are chosen and construction begins, there’s no turning back. This permanence underscores the urgency of addressing embodied carbon.

Why Aren’t We Measuring It?: Embodied Carbon Neglected by the Real Estate Industry

Despite its profound climate impact, most real estate firms are not actively measuring embodied carbon. Why is this the case? Historically, the industry has prioritized operational carbon emissions, considering embodied carbon as a “nice to have” rather than a necessity. However, this perspective is changing, driven by legislative changes and increasing awareness.

Legislative Winds of Change: From “Nice to Have” to Compliance

California’s Green Building Code, for instance, now mandates a 10% reduction in embodied carbon emissions below the baseline starting in 2024. Toronto and Vancouver are also adopting measures to curb embodied carbon. These legislative changes are pushing real estate firms to take embodied carbon seriously.

Tools for a Greener Future: Measuring Embodied Carbon Made Easier

Measuring embodied carbon has historically been challenging, but tools like Tangible, EC3, and BEAM are simplifying the process. These tools provide accessible ways to measure and understand embodied carbon, empowering real estate owners and developers to make informed decisions.

Overcoming the Fear: Embracing Embodied Carbon Disclosure

Some firms are hesitant to measure embodied carbon due to the potential for high carbon figures. However, disclosure laws, like California’s recent legislation, may pave the way for carbon taxes. Starting with measurement can help firms prepare for potential costs in the future.

Steps Towards a Greener Future: Taking Initiative for Climate Action

Addressing embodied carbon requires coordination and resources, but it’s a critical step in reducing the real estate industry’s carbon footprint. Some initial steps include establishing a baseline, setting decarbonization goals, and identifying areas for immediate improvement.

Conclusion: Our Role in a Cooler World

Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius can significantly reduce climate-related risks and poverty for millions. The science is clear: embodied carbon in real estate is a hidden contributor to climate change. It’s time for the industry to measure, disclose, and take action to ensure a greener and more sustainable future.

What is embodied carbon, and why is it important in real estate?

Embodied carbon refers to the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, transportation, and installation of building materials used in construction. It’s crucial in real estate because it represents a hidden yet significant part of a building’s carbon footprint. By understanding and reducing embodied carbon, the real estate industry can make a substantial contribution to combating climate change.

How does the real estate industry contribute to climate change through embodied carbon?

The real estate industry is a major contributor to climate change primarily through the embodied carbon in building materials. This sector is responsible for approximately 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While operational emissions (such as energy use) have received more attention, embodied carbon emissions are often underestimated. They are released during the manufacturing, transportation, and construction of materials, and they remain locked in for the building’s lifespan

What tools are available to measure embodied carbon in construction?

Several tools are available to measure embodied carbon in construction projects, making it more accessible for real estate professionals. Some notable tools include Tangible, EC3 (Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator), and BEAM (Building Environmental Assessment Method). These tools provide data and insights to help project managers, architects, and developers make informed decisions about materials and construction methods to reduce embodied carbon.

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