Together, steel and concrete are responsible for 15% of global carbon emissions. Every day brings another announcement of a highway widening or a new tower. All of this is solid embodied carbon. It is all going into the atmosphere. This is why it is so important to build green and to build less.
The World Green Building Council’s report Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront shows the above chart of project development stages. The top one is “build nothing,” followed by building less, building clever, and building efficiently.
Will Arnold, the head of climate action at The Institution of Structural Engineers in the UK, wrote about the conflict between the need to build and the need to reduce resources, and how engineers can construct whilst keeping the environmental impact to a minimum. Arnold wrote “We can’t just stop construction altogether though – as we need more buildings and infrastructure (more so in some parts of the world than others). So instead, we must learn how to construct while minimizing our damage to the environment.”
Arnold put forward a simple rule: Use less stuff. “Most approaches to reducing structural emissions fall into one of two types of action. You can minimize the amount of material that you use, or you can minimize the amount of carbon released when producing those materials.” So you first try to use less stuff.
Engineer Scott Brookes wondered if the world has changed post-Covid. “Before Covid, working from home was rare; now it has become completely normal. This shows that we can rapidly adjust our relationship with the built environment should it be required.” Maybe we don’t need all this new space but can reconfigure what we’ve got.
Brookes also says, “In the not-too-distant future, embodied carbon in building projects will incur steeper taxation and new-builds will have a carbon cap. The best way for us to help the planet is to keep abreast of this regulatory and taxonomy landscape, reduce as far as possible the requirement for new-build and anticipate the future demands on existing buildings, including alternative uses.”
We are already addressing embodied carbon too late. We are already banging up against the ceiling to stay under 1.5 degrees of warming if we haven’t busted it already with the projects on the boards now. It’s why everyone in the industry has to remember those three words: Use less stuff.
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