06 Jun 2023
The Carbon Footprint We Don’t Pay Enough Attention To!
In today’s world, we are all aware of the impact that carbon emissions have on the environment. We’ve been told time and time again to reduce our carbon footprint by driving less, using energy-efficient appliances, and utilising public transportation.
What about the carbon footprint we don’t even realise exists? Let’s talk about embodied carbon. This sneaky carbon footprint comes from the production and transportation of the materials and products we use every day.
Understanding embodied carbon vs operational carbon
When most people think about carbon emissions, they’re likely thinking about operational carbon. This type of carbon footprint comes from the energy used to power our homes, cars, and devices.
Embodied carbon, on the other hand, is the carbon footprint associated with the production, transportation, and disposal of the products and materials we use. This includes everything from the raw materials used to make a product to the energy used to transport it to the store where we buy it.
Embodied carbon is often overlooked because it’s not as visible as operational carbon. We don’t see the emissions that are produced during the manufacturing process or the transportation of goods. But make no mistake, embodied carbon is just as significant as operational carbon when it comes to the impact on the environment.
So why does embodied carbon matter? Well, for one, it’s responsible for a significant amount of the carbon emissions in the world. Some report this figure to be as high as up to 45% of total global carbon emissions.
Additionally, embodied carbon is becoming increasingly important as we shift towards a low-carbon economy. As operational carbon becomes less of a concern, embodied carbon will become more important to focus on.
How embodied carbon is measured?
Measuring embodied carbon can be a complex process. It involves calculating the carbon emissions associated with every stage of a product’s life cycle, from raw material extraction to disposal. This is known as a product’s “cradle-to-grave” carbon footprint.
To calculate a product’s embodied carbon, a life cycle assessment (LCA) is typically conducted. An LCA takes into account all of the inputs and outputs associated with a product’s life cycle. This includes not only the carbon emissions but also the energy and water used, as well as any waste produced.
Once the LCA is complete, the embodied carbon can be expressed in terms of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). This is a standard unit used to compare the carbon impact of different products.
The impact of embodied carbon on the environment!
As we mentioned earlier, embodied carbon is responsible for a significant portion of global carbon emissions. But what impact does that have on the environment?
One of the biggest impacts of embodied carbon is the contribution to climate change. Carbon emissions are a key driver of climate change, which is already having devastating effects on our planet. From rising sea levels to more frequent extreme weather events, the consequences of climate change are far-reaching.
But climate change isn’t the only impact of embodied carbon. The production and transportation of goods can also have a significant impact on local ecosystems. For example, mining for raw materials can lead to habitat destruction and soil erosion. The transportation of goods can also contribute to air pollution, which can have negative impacts on human health.
Industries with the highest embodied carbon emissions
So which industries are responsible for the highest embodied carbon emissions? There are a few that stand out.
First is the construction industry. Buildings are responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions, both operational and embodied. The materials used to construct buildings, such as concrete and steel, have high embodied carbon footprints. Additionally, the energy used to power buildings over their lifetime is a significant contributor to operational carbon.
The fashion industry is another major contributor to embodied carbon emissions. The production of textiles, particularly cotton, is a highly resource-intensive process that contributes to carbon emissions. The transportation of clothing and accessories also contributes to embodied carbon.
Finally, the transportation industry is a major contributor to embodied carbon emissions. The production of cars and other vehicles, as well as the energy used to power them, results in significant embodied carbon. Additionally, the transportation of goods and people contributes to embodied carbon emissions.
Reducing embodied carbon in construction and building materials
So how can we reduce embodied carbon in the construction industry? One approach is to use more sustainable building materials. Materials such as wood, bamboo, and rammed earth have lower embodied carbon footprints than traditional materials like concrete and steel.
Another approach is to reduce the amount of materials used in construction. This can be achieved through design strategies like modular construction and prefabrication. These approaches allow for more efficient use of materials and can reduce the overall embodied carbon footprint of a building.
Using renewable energy sources to power buildings can also reduce the overall carbon footprint. This includes approaches like solar and wind power, which can help to reduce both operational and embodied carbon.
Sustainable transportation and its impact on embodied carbon
When it comes to reducing embodied carbon in the transportation industry, there are a few strategies that can be effective.
One approach is to shift towards more sustainable modes of transportation, such as biking, walking, and public transportation. This can help to reduce the overall carbon footprint of transportation.
Another approach is to use more sustainable fuels for transportation. This includes approaches like electric vehicles and biofuels, which have lower carbon footprints than traditional gasoline and diesel.
Finally, using more efficient transportation systems can also reduce embodied carbon. This includes approaches like ride-sharing and delivery consolidation, which can reduce the overall number of vehicles on the road.
The role of consumer behaviour in reducing embodied carbon
While industries have a large role to play in reducing embodied carbon, consumers also have an important role to play. By making conscious choices about the products and materials they consume, consumers can help to reduce embodied carbon emissions.
One approach is to choose products with lower embodied carbon footprints. This can include products made from sustainable materials and products that are produced locally.
Additionally, consumers can reduce their overall consumption of goods. This includes strategies like repairing and repurposing existing products, as well as reducing overall consumption through approaches like minimalism.
Embodied carbon and the circular economy
Relationship with Circular Economy
The circular economy has the potential to play a very significant role in reducing embodied carbon. The circular economy is an approach to production and consumption that seeks to minimise waste and maximise the use of resources.
By keeping materials in use for as long as possible and reducing the need for new materials, the circular economy can help to reduce embodied carbon. This includes approaches like recycling, repurposing, and upcycling materials.
Embodied carbon is a significant contributor to global carbon emissions, and it’s a carbon footprint that many of us don’t even realise we have. By understanding embodied carbon, measuring it, and taking action to reduce it, we can all play a role in reducing our impact on the environment.
Whether it’s through sustainable building materials, more efficient transportation systems, conscious consumer choices, or adopting physical and digital solutions to extending their life there are many ways to reduce embodied carbon.
Next, we’ll look at specific industries like construction, textile architects, schools, shopfitters, and sustainability consultants and how they can best navigate all the incentives and potential penalties surrounding their embodied carbon footprints.