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Building sector must be more aware of whole-life carbon

by Mark Cantrell
A person holding biochar in their hand

More consideration needs to be given to a building’s whole-life CO2 emissions if the construction industry is to substantially reduce its carbon footprint, say Manchester academics.

Writing on the University of Manchester’s Policy@Manchester website, Judy Too, a PhD researcher, and Dr Obuks Ejohwomu, reader in Sustainable Built Environment & Project Management, say that consideration must begin from the production and transport of materials, right through to the disposal of old properties.

Basing their article on research conducted in partnership with the University of Melbourne in Australia, Too and Ejohwomu warn that the building sector is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Globally, the building sector contributes 40% of emissions, while the UK building sector is responsible for around 25% of domestic emissions.

They write: “At a tipping point for global action on climate change, this is truly building a house on sand.”

In their article, published by the university’s policy engagement unit, the two academics propose three areas where policymakers can take positive action to reduce emissions in buildings.

First, they argue that manufacturers should be mandated to produce Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for all materials.

They add: “This will build the necessary knowledge infrastructure, while increasing awareness of the embodied carbon content of building materials.”

However, the authors acknowledged that the market may not yet be properly prepared to meet the necessary requirements “due to significant gaps in primary data”. They suggest a series of graduated steps including the short-term use of industry-wide EPDs with product specific EPDs becoming mandatory within two years.

Second, based on their research, the University of Manchester academics believe that end-of-life treatment of materials and buildings is often overlooked.

Change the code

They advocate updating building code regulations to include considerations for whole-life carbon impacts.

Too and Ejohwomu write: “This update will mandate whole-building life cycle assessment, shifting the focus from prescriptive emission limits to evaluating and optimising the overall performance of the building in terms of its environmental impact.”

Third, they argue for the introduction of “project-level carbon budgets based on predefined boundaries and benchmarks aligned with sectoral carbon limits” with a target time of three to five years.

As they explain: “These limits establish precise emission targets that building projects must meet, with enforcement mechanisms such as audits and monitoring systems in place to ensure compliance.

“By implementing such limits, projects are held accountable for their emission levels over the building’s lifecycle, thereby driving carbon reduction within the building sector.”

Built on sand: the need for new environmental standards in the construction industry, as the article is called, argues that the lessons of their research show how the building sector can make significant reductions in its carbon footprint.

As the authors conclude: “By acting on these recommendations, policymakers can lead a combined effort to balance environmental goals with economic considerations. To not do so and continue to ignore the whole-life emissions of buildings risks locking-in unsustainable buildings for decades.”

Image credit: Wikimedia

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