Moving forwards with embodied carbon

In the pursuit of a Net Zero built environment, the performance scope of buildings and infrastructure must increase to measure and address whole life cycle emissions – expanding our focus beyond our historical emphasis on just operational emissions.

The urgency of climate change must be met with equal regulatory and voluntary ambition and the UK Government is due to consult on whole life cycle assessments for buildings in 2024. However, we must be sympathetic of the fact that the inclusion of data on emissions such as embodied carbon as a product performance and, increasingly, tendering requirement for new infrastructure and construction projects is still a relatively new requirement of industry.

It is so new, in fact, that we have yet to define a consistent approach to how we gather, process, request and use this information which enables comparability. There are also differing views of the definition and scope of product embodied carbon. This limits our ability to utilise embodied carbon data effectively as the supply chain, manufacturers, and designers. If there is no denying that this is the direction in which we must head, what do we need to move forwards ensuring reliable, consistent, and comparable product embodied carbon data which is fit for purpose?

Government direction

The current focus on embodied carbon is a clear example of the built environment leading where Government has yet to follow - from the creation of the market-proposed Approved Document Z to increasing supply chain requests for data on the embodied carbon of products.

This has been an extraordinary effort by the market to go above and beyond the existing operationally derived regulations. The current (but not lasting) lack of Government policy in this area has meant that there has been a guidance vacuum supporting the market in how to utilise embodied carbon for projects. The upcoming consultations in this area should help to provide structure for a market and supply chain currently fragmented in its approach.

Communication and collaboration

Policy and regulation can only take us so far and collaboration across the value chain is required to ensure a consistent and comparable approach to product embodied carbon data processes. The inclusion of the supply chain is imperative here to ensure that embodied carbon initiatives and requirements are realistic and achievable. This is especially the case where they apply to HVAC, electrical, and mechanical products, which can have highly complex global supply chains and such requests of upstream supplies can result in confusion or unreliable data.

With time and clear definitions and boundaries, amongst other things, manufacturers will be able to ensure that their suppliers are able to provide this information. But until this time, the data received will nearly always be limited in its use and reflection of reality.

Standards and best practice

As described, the effective collection and use of embodied carbon data is still in relative infancy. This creates challenges within the standards and best practice sphere, which is used by industry for guidance and credible comparability. This is because the creation of such standards and best practice documents is a lengthy, complicated process which is trying to keep pace with the speed at which the market is developing its focus on embodied carbon.

This goes hand in hand with the need for standards and practices which enable accuracy of reporting. At the moment, accuracy within the data collection process cannot be guaranteed due to differing understanding, focuses and processes, especially when manufacturers need to rely on third party data.

The industry and standards bodies are not being idle in the face of this and are in the processes of creating standards and best practice documents to fill some of the required gaps, but as we learn and experience, areas where we require even more additional standards and best practice are regularly being highlighted. As industry works to standardise processes to catch up with the market’s ambition, manufacturers are often trying to provide embodied carbon data requirements without the existence of a clear industry agreed structure, and this should be recognised.



Moving forward

It is accepted that assessing the whole life cycle of a building will become the norm for the built environment over the coming years. However, we need to ensure that we are moving forward with a consistent approach across the value chain where we recognise that we are moving into new but necessary waters to meet our Net Zero and environmental goals.

There is also a mindset which applies beyond just embodied carbon. Our journey towards Net Zero and a circular economy will lead to new and evolving sustainability requirements for both the market and the supply chain. We need to collaborate and plan as much as possible to ensure that these future requirements are aligned across the market and do not lead to fractured, bespoke requests and approaches within the value chain.

At BEAMA, our members are highly engaged in the Net Zero transition and the reduction of emitted and embodied emissions in line with a science-based approach which also prepares for increasing circularity. We are and always will be open to collaborations and partnerships to support industry, the market and Government initiatives in this space.