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Our vision for a net zero carbon construction sector

image credit: Cristina Gamboa, CEO at the World Green Building Council

The global building and construction sector can reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 if it makes changes along the whole of the production and supply chain, says Cristina Gamboa, CEO at the World Green Building Council, the global network leading the transformation of the built environment towards sustainability across almost 70 countries

To coincide with the UN climate action summit in New York and to mark the tenth annual World Green Building Week beginning on 23 September 2019, the World Green Building Council has set out a radical vision for how buildings and infrastructure across the globe can reach 40% fewer embodied carbon emissions by 2030, and achieve 100% net zero buildings by 2050.

Buildings and infrastructure together account for 39% of total carbon emissions globally (when upstream power generation is included), with operational emissions from energy used to heat, cool and light buildings responsible for 28%. The remaining 11% stems from embodied carbon, the emissions associated with construction materials and processes throughout the entire lifecycle of a building.

For too long the emissions conversation has focused on operational carbon at the expense of embodied carbon. Yet while operational carbon is emitted over many years, most embodied carbon is released before a building comes into use and is therefore consuming our carbon budget now! Our vision for fully decarbonising the sector requires the elimination of both operational and embodied carbon emissions.

That is why, in collaboration with our network of Green Building Councils and our community of forward-looking industry partners, we are launching this groundbreaking report that aims to put embodied carbon firmly in focus within a whole lifecycle, whole value chain approach to achieving net zero carbon across the building and construction sector.

Stimulating market demand

Published under our global Advancing Net Zero programme, the report, Bringing embodied carbon upfront, describes practical, coordinated actions our sector can take to tackle embodied carbon today and tomorrow. The report sets out to:

  • establish a widely accepted definition of net zero embodied carbon, describing key principles for achieving it
  • communicate globally the urgency of achieving net zero embodied carbon for buildings and infrastructure, proposing deadlines for actions, targets and goals
  • explain and demonstrate the feasibility of these goals, actions, deadlines and principles with evidence of current best practice and market leadership

We view our report as crucial to sparking a conversation around the value and importance of embodied carbon, with the aim of stimulating market demand for low and zero embodied carbon products and solutions. We need to increase transparency and improve verification in respect of embodied carbon emissions reductions.

Actions described support the ambition of the Paris climate agreement to limit global temperature rise to below 1.5ºC. They also acknowledge the stark assessment by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2018 special report, of the catastrophic increase in adverse impacts associated with 2ºC of warming.

Enabling market transformation

WorldGBC’s transforming vision is endorsed by leading developers and construction companies, financial institutions, cities and city networks, and governments, as well as influential actors drawn from across the concrete, steel and timber industries worldwide.

Our embodied carbon report describes a clear pathway of actions that designers, investors, manufacturers, government, NGOs and researchers across the whole value chain can take to accelerate decarbonisation, to address current market barriers, and to help bring novel low carbon solutions to market.

But it is clear from our research that change will not happen unless there is a radical shift in how industry works together to enable a market transformation.

The transition towards mainstream net zero carbon standards requires immediate action to drive up awareness. It also requires innovation, improved processes for the calculation, tracking and reporting of embodied carbon, voluntary reduction targets from industry, and the roll-out of new legislation at city, national and regional level.

Approaches such as maximising the use of existing assets, promoting renovation over demolition, and seeking new circular business models that reduce reliance on carbon intensive raw materials are also needed. To accelerate cross-sector collaboration, WorldGBC is calling for new national and sectoral roadmaps to be developed, such as those already produced in AustraliaFinlandNorway and Sweden, with strong support from industry and policymakers.


Market leadership and best practice

To demonstrate the feasibility of reaching net zero carbon goals, the report includes case studies of existing best practice across the construction industry. Businesses involved in design and delivery have already committed to ambitious individual or national decarbonisation strategies.

For example, Skanska, a development and construction group, is taking strides in enabling projects to be evaluated for full lifecycle impacts.

Materials suppliers are also assuming a leadership role. HeidelbergCement has committed to developing carbon neutral products by 2050 and Dalmia Bharat Cement, one of India’s leading manufacturers, is committed to becoming a carbon negative group by 2040. SSAB, a steel company with plants in Scandinavia and the US, is investing in new hydrogen-based steel making, aiming to be fossil-free by 2045.

Cities have also been instrumental in pushing for innovative approaches. Oslo, Norway has a commitment to fossil-free construction sites. Vancouver, Canada has mandated that embodied carbon be reduced in new buildings by 40% by 2030 as part of its climate emergency response, demonstrating the type of regulatory framework that can drive market change.

Against this encouraging backdrop, our report issues a call to action and a rallying cry for others to join us. Only by envisioning and demanding action from organisations on both the demand and supply-side will we transform our sector from a major contributor to the climate crisis into a leading part of the solution.

With the support of our global networks and the endorsements we have already received for our new report, we are confident we can stimulate market demand and facilitate radical whole value chain collaboration that will be truly transformative and benefit both people and planet.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 11, 2019 4:25 pm GMT

We view our report as crucial to sparking a conversation around the value and importance of embodied carbon, with the aim of stimulating market demand for low and zero embodied carbon products and solutions. We need to increase transparency and improve verification in respect of embodied carbon emissions reductions.

This conversation is a critical one, so it's great to see-- but what's the next step? How do you turn conversation into action most effectively? 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Oct 11, 2019 10:31 pm GMT

Decarbonizing the construction sector is certainly important. Cement manufacturing is a major part of the embodied carbon in buildings and infrastructure. It's also one of the largest sources of global carbon emissions. Decarbonizing it could be easy or difficult, depending on how we approach carbon sequestration.

If a cement plant has access to a pipeline to transport CO2 for geological sequestration, then decarbonizing cement production is relatively easy. It requires an air separation unit to support oxy-fueled combustion in its lime and clinker kilns, but the flue gas stream is then nearly pure CO2. After sulfur compounds and ash have been scrubbed, the stream is "pipeline ready". The air separation unit adds capital and operating costs, but saves overall when carbon emissions are priced realistically. 

OTOH, If we refuse to price carbon emissions realistically and choose not to deploy infrastructure for carbon sequestration, then decarbonizing cement production is nearly impossible. There are formulations that are less carbon intensive than ordinary portland cement, but the ones compatible with poured concrete only achieve incremental reductions. There's a nearly carbon-neutral alternative, but as far as I know it only works for cast parts that can be cured in a pressurized CO2 atmosphere.

One measure that would help in the long term would be to stop using steel rebar. Composite rebar made from basalt fiber is available and performs as well as steel. Concrete made with it lasts essentially forever. It does not crack and degrade over time from the slow corrosion of steel rebar. Use of composite rebar won't do much to reduce concrete's initial carbon footprint, but it will certainly save on maintenance.

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