Quantifying and abating embodied carbon in the built environment remains a significant challenge, making it a major focus during an Urban Land Institute (ULI) Toronto webinar exploring issues around lowering carbon emissions in buildings.
Embodied carbon consists of all greenhouse gas emissions that result from the construction of a building, as well as the disposal of the materials afterward or at the end of their lifetime.
“The time to address embodied carbon is now, and the reason that we have to start addressing embodied carbon now is because embodied carbon will account for approximately 50 per cent of global building sector emissions between now and 2050,” Corey Diamond, the executive director at Efficiency Canada, said during the discussion.
“That's because operational emissions are going to be going down as we have stronger building codes, as we install better technologies, as we electrify the economy. The slice that is going to grow as part of that is embodied carbon.”
The other panelists were Lee Hodgkinson, Dream Unlimited’s head of sustainability and technical services; Adam Molson, vice-president of sustainability and rental communities at the Daniels Corporation; Charles Ormsby, Arup Canada’s sustainability and climate services leader; and Michelle Xuereb, director of innovation at BDP Quadrangle. The panel was moderated by Kirk Johnson, president of Eco-Efficiency Consulting.
ULI is a non-profit research organization with more than 46,160 members worldwide, representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines. Its Toronto chapter represents 2,188 members across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.
Embodied carbon and net-zero
The Canadian government is planning to have a federal net-zero building code by 2024, and will address embodied carbon by 2030.
Buildings account for 13 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. This rises to 18 per cent if electricity-related emissions are included.
Ormsby explained how Arup is tackling embodied carbon.
“Arup is now the first engineering firm to be qualified to certify green bonds, because there is such an inherent linkage now between the built environment and financing and climate action that we can't look beyond that,” Ormsby explained. “So (that’s) one way that we've actually started to support the industry in delivering pathways to decarbonization.”
He further explained that back at COP26, Arup committed to a life-cycle assessment for all its buildings. That has now grown to 1,000 buildings across 30 countries and 16 different typologies.
The panel highlighted private sector efforts like the Canada Green Building Council’s Zero Carbon certifications, as well as the international Net-Zero Asset Managers initiative, which encompasses over US$59 trillion in assets under management. Dream counts itself among the initiative’s approximately 300 signatories.
Hodgkinson said there is plenty of demand from investors, tenants and consumers for a sustainability-focused property, but it is still not entirely clear where embodied carbon fits in from a regulatory perspective.
“I think embodied carbon is also gonna play a really interesting role in this discussion, (because) I'm not sure we've really fleshed out as an industry and from a regulatory perspective, we don't really have a mechanism right now to integrate embodied carbon into a building asset value,” Hodgkinson said.
“Will that change is really interesting for me to think about. Would there be some sort of carbon passports that go with the building, on acquisition and disposition?”
Carbon data and preparing for the future
In February, Daniels released its decarbonization roadmap, which involves achieving near-zero, whole-life carbon emissions for all communities which start development in 2026 and beyond – without the use of carbon or renewable energy credits.
The company has some experience with modelling emissions, but Molson, the vice-president of sustainability and rental communities, explained the publicly available information sometimes does not align with a developer’s internal data sets.
“What I would say is, most of the measurement work that's being done really is retrospective at this point when it comes to embodied carbon. So there's still a bit of a challenge about, how do we get the data early enough in the development process, when you're going in creating a new asset that you can actually action in? We're probably not quite there,” he said.
“What I see on the horizon on the data set is really working with our consultant partners to really leverage technology as we start to get into a much more robust integration of (building information modelling),” Molson added.
There was also a focus on the process needed to acquire that carbon data right from the start of a project, which includes life-cycle analyses as a critical step. Hodgkinson, for example, said Dream started conducting life-cycle analyses in 2022.
Xuereb concurred, saying, “We're definitely experimenting with what I was talking about, which is how you get good information about the embodied carbon at the schematic design, phase design, development, and construction and all the way through."
“Can you build a model that carries all the way through?”