When President Joe Biden re-signed the Paris Accord and introduced the largest clean-energy and climate-justice plan the country has ever seen, he launched a significant opportunity to fight climate change. Buildings can be part of the solution.
Many have long known that buildings account for a whopping 39% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. What comes as news for many building professionals and policymakers alike is that over the next few decades, as much as half of those new building-related emissions will be released during the production and transportation of the materials themselves. That’s right: Much of a building’s emissions will be released into the atmosphere before we even turn the lights on.
As decision makers increase building efficiency measures and work to decarbonize building operations (such as Seattle’s decision to ban natural gas for space heating in most new commercial and apartment construction), we must also reduce the impact required to construct our buildings in the first place.
The industrial processes behind mineral extraction and the production of building materials such as concrete, steel, glass and interior finishes are incredibly resource intensive. And when we’re anticipating so much construction that the equivalent of a New York City (in terms of floor area) will be added to the world nearly every month for the next few decades, it becomes clear that something must be done, fast.
While these last four years have not been filled with significant national progress on climate change, policymakers and industry stakeholders have taken some crucial first steps toward a zero-carbon future. And as local, state and national institutions accelerate climate action, it’s crucial that buildings and infrastructure play an active role.
The Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF), based at the University of Washington, has been educating, convening and enabling a wide swath of building professionals to employ materials and practices that emit less carbon. Formerly an industry blind spot, these upfront emissions are now recognized by a growing group of building professionals and policymakers as a key lever to reduce building-related emissions. By implementing clean manufacturing practices to lower the emissions associated with materials such as steel and concrete, by adopting new design principles, and by using plant-based materials like sustainable wood, algae and straw, leaders in the CLF network are demonstrating how buildings can store billions of tons of carbon while supporting more vibrant and healthy communities.
For example, Microsoft is investing in a multibillion-dollar refresh of the company’s main campus east of Seattle. This project leveraged the Embodied Carbon in Construction tool, a calculator that was conceived by the industry, incubated by CLF and is now administered by a new nonprofit called Building Transparency. This tool compares the sustainability attributes of similar materials throughout design and construction to enable data-driven decisions that facilitate carbon-smart building material selections (think lower carbon concrete, steel, etc.). Since its launch in late 2019, this free tool already has attracted more than 12,000 users who together are signaling market demand for products with lower carbon footprints.
With new data, decision-making tools and emerging technologies, these organizations are confronting conventional design and construction practices to reimagine the role buildings can play in the fight to reverse climate change. Now, government policies are emerging to join the movement to reduce industrial carbon emissions.
One positive sign is President Biden’s “Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice,” and in January, he signed the executive order on “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” which calls for “regulatory amendments to promote increased contractor attention on reduced carbon emission and Federal sustainability.” This means that procurement practices, which dictate how to source and purchase materials for federal construction projects, may soon prioritize materials with lower carbon footprints. Similar strategies are proposed in the US CLEAN Future Act, introduced in Congress on March 1. With public projects making up nearly a third of the embodied carbon in construction, this can make a significant impact.
Biden’s clean-energy and environmental-justice plans are just one example of the changing landscape. Since California introduced the first state-level low carbon procurement policy in 2017, a growing number of states, from Washington to New York, have introduced their own. Better yet, many have support from environmental organizations and labor groups.
With collaboration among policymakers, industry and the people whose lives are most impacted by real estate development, now is the time to scale low-carbon building practices that transform buildings from significant net carbon emitters to zero-carbon or even carbon absorbers.
According to the most recent IPCC report, these next 10 years provide a narrow window for us to mitigate the most extreme impacts of climate change. In that process, buildings must become less harmful. And with the right mix of research and development, political grit and collective determination, buildings can become a true solution to climate change.