CO2 emissions from buildings represent close to 40% of global energy related CO2 emissions. Of those total emissions, operational emissions are responsible for 28%, while embodied emissions are responsible for 11% annually
In order to meet our climate change targets all new buildings must operate at net zero carbon by 2030 and all buildings operate at net zero carbon by 2050.
How do we get there you ask?
Understanding the difference between operational and embodied emissions is crucial when thinking about GHG reductions for buildings.
Embodied Emissions + Operational Emissions = Total Carbon footprint of a building
Operational emissions are the emissions released from the ongoing operation of the building. Sources will include heating and cooling, ventilation, lighting, and other electronic appliances.
Embodied Emissions (also called Embodied Carbon) are the emissions released from the extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation and decommissioning of building materials.
How Operational Emissions are addressed
The Province of British Columbia developed the BC Energy Step Code and made it available to local governments to use as a consistent set of energy performance standards. Local Governments can choose to require higher energy performance prior to the Energy Step Code being rolled into the BC Building Code over time, leading up to the Provincial target of net-zero energy-ready new construction by 2032.
While the BC Energy Step Code is a great tool for improving overall building energy performance, the biggest influence on operational emissions is the heating fuel source. Local governments are addressing this shortcoming by implementing the regulation in tandem with low-carbon energy system pathways that encourage the use of efficient, low-carbon electric heating through the use of heat pumps.
How Embodied Emissions are addressed
As we build more energy-efficient buildings with low-carbon fuels, embodied emissions become a larger portion of the total environmental footprint of buildings.
At the Federal level, the low-carbon assets through life cycle assessment (LCA) initiative supports the transition to a low-carbon economy through green procurement which means priority will be given to low-carbon building materials. An Emissions-based building code is being considered for the next NBCC update in 2024, which will accelerate whole life cycle thinking.
At the Provincial level, a research is underway to quantify the Embodied Emissions of the built environment in BC and then model some reduction pathways over the next 10-15 years. This work will help local governments set Embodied Emissions reductions targets.
One of the first Embodied Emissions policies in North America, the City of Vancouver’s Green Building Policy introduces requirements to report embodied emissions associated with the construction of a building via a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA2). An incentive program similar to the Near Zero initiative will take place in 2022 to encourage the construction of low Embodied Emissions homes in the City of Vancouver.
Many BC municipalities are following suit.
- The City of Nelson has published resources on low-carbon building materials as a part of their low-carbon homes pilot
- The District of North Vancouver is exploring policies, tools and incentives for reducing Embodied Emissions in New Construction
- The City of Richmond has done a research on the effect of Operational and Embodied Emissions for Step Code homes
- UBC is developing policies and guidelines to reduce the Embodied Emissions of materials
- Metro Vancouver and the Resort Municipality of Whistler have set targets to reduce Embodied Emissions by 40% by 2030
- The City of Langford is the first jurisdiction in Canada to adopt a low-carbon concrete policy
How CEA is leading local Governments to reduce their Embodied Emissions
We know that Embodied Emissions have long been overlooked but as we build more energy efficient buildings and use low-carbon fuels, they become a more pressing issue. This topic becomes even more relevant as we approach the upper steps of the BC Energy Step Code.
An inefficient building can be renovated and improved to reduce future operational emissions, but the clock cannot be turned back on embodied emissions.
We have run some preliminary numbers using the District of Squamish Community Climate Action Plan as an example. The building stock in Squamish in 2017 represented 29% of the total community emissions.
With 83% of buildings built before 2016 (so before the implementation of the BC Energy Step Code), and 56% of them using NG as the main fuel source, Embodied Emissions represent around 1/3 of the total emissions of a building over a period of 60 years.
There are some real climate risks, but also some real opportunities. With most embodied emissions occurring before occupancy, improved practices around embodied emissions management can spare a lot of damage upfront.
That is why it is crucial to start addressing embodied emissions now, even if imperfectly.
The Community Energy Association is working with The District of Squamish, the Resort Municipality of Whistler and Squamish Nation to create an Embodied Emissions Guide for BC Municipalities. This guide will be a valuable resource for local governments to increase awareness, inform decisions and collaborate toward reducing embodied carbon emissions.
Squamish, Whistler and Squamish Nation will serve as case study communities for the guide. The focus is on buildings, particularly Part 9/Part 3 construction.
This project aims to guide communities in making quick and impactful decisions that will help them meet their GHG emission reductions targets while promoting energy efficiency in the built environment.
Questions that we will attempt to answer include:
- Are energy efficient buildings saving money and emissions when we include embodied emissions and assess the full makeup of a building?
- How can local governments and indigenous communities influence construction and deconstruction to not only save on operational emissions but all emissions?
The development of the proposed Embodied Carbon Guide is divided into three phases over a 2-year timeframe. The three phases of the Project are as follows:
Research and modelling will be conducted to build an understanding of embodied carbon emissions for communities in BC based on existing and projected buildings archetypes. We will be looking at different options for lifecycle carbon, energy, and cost implications for mid steps (1-3) and upper steps (4-5) of the BC Energy Step Code. The modelling will guide the development of reduction pathways for smaller communities. Detailed analysis in the three case study communities will occur. It is anticipated that the embodied carbon inventories for the communities will be somewhat similar, but that there will be more embodied emissions related to single-family homes in Squamish, for larger buildings in Whistler and for specific major projects in Squamish Nation.
The impact of each stage of construction will be quantified, (material supply, manufacturing, construction, use, end of life, and reuse recovery or disposal). The intent is to go beyond traditional ‘cradle to gate’ life cycle analyses (LCAs) toward more holistic ‘cradle to grave’ LCAs. This will better inform practices, and also has important implications for communities related to procurement, waste management, material diversion and circular economies.
We will identify, evaluate and develop actions that local governments can take to reduce Embodied Emissions. These actions can be categorized into four main areas, each using different levers and involving different stakeholders:
- Policy and regulation
- Removing barriers and providing incentives for low carbon materials
- Capacity building to facilitate industry transformation
- Complementary strategies and advocacy to higher levels of government
The impact of each action will be modelled based on the data developed in Phase 1 before developing a final implementation roadmap. Opportunities for collaboration will be identified to enable economies of scale, market opportunities and the sharing of best practices.
The creation of a detailed guide and implementation roadmap for all BC governments. Partnerships with industry and other communities will be fundamental to this project to share learnings, data, and policy to maximize the impact of the developed implementation guidebook. The Guide will be written so that ALL communities can quickly reference it, gain some capacity and begin to take action. This includes well-resourced communities that have time and money to dedicate toward the topic, and communities with limited capacity. The Guidebook will include:
- Specific resource materials on certain materials (e.g., wood and concrete).
- Simple estimation methodologies and inventory tools for communities to use.
- Materials to build awareness, advertise events and promote action on this topic.
- Specific resources for planners, waste management specialists, building departments, realtors and developers and other stakeholder groups.
- A detailed list of experts, resources, and case studies.
- Discussion on how local governments can enable a broader market transformation toward and away from certain practices and materials.
Reasons why it is crucial to begin considering embodied emissions in buildings in BC
- Embodied emissions are now emissions, while operational emissions are spread over the life of the building. Poor embodied emissions choices can easily negate all operational emissions reductions that could be achieved by 2030.
- BC communities are rapidly growing and are facing large development proposals.
- Municipal governments have authority to influence new constructions and thereby life cycle building emissions.
- There are viable ways to significantly reduce embodied emissions, including technologies that are net carbon negative. Embodied Emissions can be a good news story.
- There are important waste reduction and waste emissions implications related to embodied carbon, and important associated local social and economic benefits.
For more information on Embodied Emissions, please contact our Project Lead, Elisabeth Baudinaud at: firstname.lastname@example.org