Embodied carbon: the next big climate challenge for real estate

June 6, 2022 7 Minute Read


Embodied carbon is defined by LETI and the UK Green Building Council as the carbon emissions of a building created by its materials: their extraction, transportation, construction, maintenance, replacement, and end of life treatment. The embodied carbon associated with buildings contributes 11% of global carbon emissions and represents 28% of emissions originating from the built environment. In this blog, I look at the challenge of reducing embodied carbon emissions.

Optimising the whole life carbon of a building involves striking a balance between minimising embodied carbon and reducing operational emissions. But unlike operational emissions, embodied carbon impact is fixed at the time of construction and can’t be reduced thereafter. This means that embodied carbon will account for around 50% of built environment emissions by 2035, as operational emissions of buildings reduce – but we carry on building.

This suggests that without action on embodied carbon, the UK’s 2050 net zero goal is not achievable. There are tough choices ahead around whether operationally-efficient new builds or refurbishments are most effective at reducing overall carbon emissions. But given that 80% of 2050’s built stock is already standing, the need to reduce the impact by refurbishing existing buildings is clear.

Fortunately, there is evidence that refurbishment is less risky, quicker to the market and allows carbon savings to be realised sooner (by limiting the weight of additional embodied carbon). The decision can be further informed by the choice of building materials – both the energy that was used to create them, and the amount of energy that can be saved if they are re-used. Material re-use can be relevant to both new builds and refurbishments and save up to 95% of the embodied carbon emissions compared to buying new.

With this in mind, transparency and data sharing throughout the material and building lifecycle would allow for more informed strategic decisions about new build, retrofitting and carbon savings through sustainable planning and design.

Building regulations issued under the 1984 Building Act aim to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, but there are currently no formal regulations or planning policies nationally for the measure or reduction of embodied carbon emissions. However, there are a number of active or proposed initiatives, to include:

All of these activities suggest that embodied carbon is rising up the agenda whether regulators act or not. However, until firm policy is in place, the willingness of occupiers and landlords to pay to reduce this source of emissions is likely to be the principal factor in pushing forwards initiatives such as these. And there’s some evidence that they are willing to pay. We’ve found that progressive industry players do wish to differentiate themselves by reducing embodied carbon across their real estate, driven by their brand and the need to attract and retain talent.

If you want to know more about how embodied carbon affects you, CBRE UK’s ESG Consultancy team can advise.

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