Building better: understanding carbon emissions in construction 

Discover actionable insights and expert perspectives from our recent webinar, “building better: understanding carbon emissions in construction.” Charlotte Bowles, Sustainability Consultant at Planet Mark, and Alex Benstead, Senior Advisor at the UK Green Building Council, shed light on crucial strategies for reducing carbon emissions in the construction sector.

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The progress towards decarbonisation in the built environment sector is evident. Construction companies are beginning to understand their client’s environmental expectations and the important role their work plays in lowering global emissions. With the sector contributing 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), taking action to lower these figures is crucial. 

Read on to discover actionable insights and expert perspectives from our recent webinar, “Building Better: Understanding Carbon Emissions in Construction.” Charlotte Bowles, Sustainability Consultant at Planet Mark, and Alex Benstead, Senior Advisor at the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), shed light on crucial strategies for reducing carbon emissions in the construction sector. 

Here’s a summary of the key points covered in the webinar. If any topics catch your attention, we encourage you to watch the full webinar here. 

Embodied carbon vs operational carbon emissions 

Resource extraction, construction, refurbishment, energy use and demolition are only a few areas that should be incorporated when measuring a building’s environmental and social impact. Measuring these stages of the building life cycle is categorised into embodied and operational carbon emissions.  

So – what’s the difference? Embodied carbon emissions are the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) associated with the non-operational phase of the project. This includes the emissions caused by extraction, manufacture, transportation, deconstruction, disposal and end-of-life. Operational carbon emissions are associated with energy consumption while the building is occupied. This includes emissions associated with the modelled regulated energy consumption i.e. heating, cooling, ventilation, and lighting.  

Both categories are equally important to cutting emissions and are vital for making informed decisions over a building’s lifespan. For instance, concrete, steel and aluminium are widely used materials within the industry and contribute towards embodied carbon emissions. Focusing on how these materials are made and sourced can lead to a significant dent in your emissions numbers and help make big strides towards decarbonisation. Regarding operational carbon emissions, increasing efficiency by using renewable energy sources and offsetting after reductions. 

Measurement and reduction 

To effectively manage carbon emissions, measurement is crucial. Shockingly, less than 1% of all new buildings worldwide are being assessed to determine their carbon footprint. In our webinar, Charlotte outlined how we measure emissions in the built environment sector using three key greenhouse gases: 

  • Carbon dioxide 
  • Methane 
  • Nitrous oxide 

Other greenhouse gases are also incorporated, all of which are given a ‘global warming potential figure’ comparable to that of carbon dioxide. We then combine all emissions under a comprehensive carbon dioxide equivalent unit of measurement: kgCO₂e. 

Charlotte discussed why this measurement is used with a succinct comparison at the start of the webinar: 

‘Methane absorbs more radiation per kilogram than carbon dioxide, but it stays in the atmosphere for a shorter time. In turn, its global warming potential figure is between 28 and 34. Nitrous oxide, however, is more powerful and stays in the atmosphere longer than carbon dioxide, so its global warming potential is around 265 to 298. That global warming potential figure is updated regularly to reflect new research and the current concentration of greenhouse gases.’ 

kgCO₂e and this all-encompassing approach therefore allows us to incorporate every type of emission in a building’s life cycle. From there, effective strategies to reduce embodied and operational carbon emissions can be made. 

Policies and standards 

The industry lags in meeting COP26 targets. Embodied carbon emissions decreased by only 4%, falling short of the 17% target, highlighting the need for improvement. 

In our webinar, Alex delved into key aspects of carbon reporting in the industry, spotlighting the UKGBC’s extensive embodied carbon report, particularly on Scope 3 emissions. Reporting in the built environment sector is divided into two main areas: 

Alex expanded on the overlap of these two data sources and the data from one can feed into the other. 

‘The idea here is that the overlap will support a clear strategic-level understanding of how your organisation is causing emissions. You’re not just looking at these categories separately, but really, really understanding that, in the built environment, it’s all about what we build and what we operate on and maintaining the focus there.’ 

Alex highlighted three key calls to action from the report: 

  • Incorporating Embodied Carbon Assessments into Scope 3 emissions reporting 
  • Architects and engineers should report and be accountable for project emissions 
  • Advancing Whole Life Carbon regulation 

There’s a strong call for government intervention through policy and regulation. Organisations and industry bodies propose mandating whole-life carbon assessments in building regulations and eventually imposing legal limits on embodied carbon emissions. 

Next step  

Discover how our Development Certification endorsed by the UKGBC can empower you to make impactful, informed decisions for your buildings’ entire lifespan. Our certification goes beyond compliance, ensuring that your buildings not only meet standards but also enhance society, add value to the local community, and contribute to economic prosperity.  

Building LCAs are a vital component of our certification process, enabling you to uncover innovative low-carbon design solutions. By demonstrating your commitment through third-party verification, you can strengthen your property value, increase stakeholder transparency, and maximise revenue potential.  

Get in touch with one of our expert team members today to explore the exciting possibilities for your business. 


Rewatch our building better: carbon emissions in construction webinar
How to measure and reduce Scope 3 emissions

Wednesday 7th August 2024, 12:00pm - 1:00pm