• May 27, 2022

Everything we do has an environmental cost, and we’re operating with a finite budget. In a world grappling with ongoing climate change, we need to take stock of every way we can make a positive impact and accelerate our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s what makes embodied carbon so important: While energy efficiency has become an everyday part of our built environment over the last three decades, the materials that environment is built out of and how it is built remains a largely untapped source for decarbonizing our world.

What is embodied carbon?

Embodied carbon is the carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions that come from the materials used and construction processes involved in the whole lifecycle of a building or infrastructure. If there was ever a more important environmental impact to turn our attention to, embodied carbon would be it. According to the Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC), embodied carbon is responsible for 10% of all emissions globally, and in Canadian buildings alone, it represents over 90% of their emissions from now until the year 2050.

The issue lies in how much embodied carbon forms a part of our efforts to address climate change, and it isn’t nearly as much of an industry standard as it should be. While buildings’ general operational emissions from energy use—things like power, heating, cooling and ventilation—have historically seen a decrease, the embodied carbon associated with building materials has only increased, creating a great environmental cost to creation of new buildings. That’s why the upfront carbon cost of our built environments should be top-of-mind before the construction of a building has even begun, let alone being used.

There’s no question then that embodied carbon requires an unwavering focus if we want to meet the targets set by the IPCC’s goal for carbon neutrality by the year 2050 and keep global temperature increases within a range of 1.5 degrees Celsius, but this is more than an overwhelming responsibility: It also presents an opportunity. Within the integration of embodied carbon into industry planning, there’s a new pathway full of growth and job creation, riding a wave of renewed governmental commitments both in Canada and elsewhere in the world.

Where decarbonizing begins

So how do we start incorporating embodied carbon into our processes for built environments? Part of the puzzle of reducing embodied carbon emissions lies in how architecture and design, and the construction it requires, can reduce its impacts. Even the retrofitting and recycling of existing buildings needs to emphasize deep emissions reductions.

If architects and designers look to leave the world a better place than they found it, then work begins with a commitment to action. Avenues of change are already opening up, new standards are being set and there are a growing number of tools at the ready, but they require further adoption: The increased use of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), for example, can help detail building materials’ traceability, environmental impact and chemical composition; precise details like these help us opt for the most sustainable option. They also form part of the criteria of certifications like LEED V4 from the U.S. Green Building Council and the CGBC’s Zero Carbon Building Standard Design version 2 (or ZCB-Design v2). All of these measures provide data transparency that’s vital to quantifying and reducing embodied carbon.

According to Architecture 2030, by 2040, two-thirds of the global building stock will be the buildings we create today. By adopting these kinds of new standards and practices, we can create and improve our built environment to prioritize carbon emission reduction hand-in-hand with the energy-efficient designs we’ve developed in the last few decades. Every change now can prevent them from emitting greenhouse gases in the future.

A journey, not a destination

As important as addressing embodied carbon is, it remains an ongoing process. Once it is engrained into our everyday thought processes behind practices like architecture and construction, it remains a step on a continual road toward ambitious Net Positive goals and benefitting the environment as much as possible.

These beneficial changes don’t, however, mean that the elements of good design need to change. Architects and designers around the world have demonstrated this time and again, and at Lemay alone, our sustainable works have ranged from manufacturing plants and transportation hubs to high schools and our own office in Montreal, Quebec.

When we optimize our materials, reduce the impacts of our construction, and improve performance in operation, we can continue to create generous spaces that inspire and propel us towards an even brighter future than the one we first set out to create.

Lemay has committed to using best possible practices for the environment, beginning with our Net Positive approach, an initiative that seeks to accelerate the ecological transition of the built environments we are responsible for.