Embodied Carbon Resources

This section includes embodied carbon and life cycle analysis resources, including methodology and tools, policies and codes, and project case studies, to support low carbon construction materials. Introductory guides explain the basics of calculating carbon throughout the life cycle of a building; calculators and web-tools will highlight material carbon intensities, and other references will suggest how materials should be specified.

The built environment accounts for 39% of total carbon emissions in the United States. Operational carbon reduction has been the focus of high-performance building design for years. However, attention should be given to address a building’s embodied carbon. Embodied carbon is the carbon dioxide emitted during the manufacture, transport, and construction of building materials, combined with end of life emissions. Embodied carbon is less discernible than operational carbon, yet an equally important carbon emission source that is causing environmental degradation.

Select case studies provide insight into the design process and materials installed to reduce embodied carbon.
A curated set of tools to calculate whole building life cycle analysis and embodied carbon.
Recent rules, standards, and programs that highlight the environmental impacts of construction materials.

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Addressing Embodied Carbon in Building Codes

This factsheet shows how the building code can address embodied carbon from buildings as we aim to reduce national GHG emissions 50% by 2030. Building codes have been one of the most influential tools to address climate change: The energy code addresses operational emissions, and the building code address resiliency. The document illustrates cost considerations and the market’s readiness to address both prescriptive and performance-based embodied carbon requirements. Jurisdictions can use existing policies, processes, and fee structures to present, confirm, and enforce these requirements.

Lifecycle GHG Impacts in Codes

NBI’s report presents language to incorporate embodied carbon requirements in building codes. Researchers explain the need to address the embodied carbon of the highest emitting materials and the carbon emission benefits for jurisdictions. This report works to address the current lack of understanding of what a regulation on embodied carbon would look like in a U.S. base code. The code acknowledges the importance of building materials in the construction industry and aims to achieve practical reductions in climate impact by selecting lower embodied carbon materials. Example code language can be adopted by jurisdictions starting with EPD reporting to target GWP limits for specific materials, and finally moving to whole building lifecycle analysis.

Refrigerants & Environmental Impacts, A Best Practices Guide

Refrigerants' operational carbon is an essential consideration in carbon neutral buildings. Integral Group's guide can support teams make well-informed decisions in the design of refrigerant-based systems. Early consideration of refrigerants can impact ta building's emissions for years to come. The guide reviews currently available refrigerants for common system types, with advice on how to reduce refrigerant charge, leakage, and enhance recovery at end of life. It should be considered ‘live’ and will be updated periodically to reflect the latest industry data.

Decarbonizing construction: Guidance for investors and developers to reduce embodied carbon

The WBCSD and One Click LCA report provides a resource to companies who want to set requirements for embodied carbon reductions in projects they finance and develop in a performance-based way. It also references a selection of emerging national regulations focusing on embodied carbon. And it provides examples of how to include circular solutions in the design phase of projects, which is an important economic, environmental and social opportunity to catalyze innovation and new business models to reduce embodied carbon. We encourage investors, developers, asset managers, lenders and tenants to use this resource to set requirements for carbon performance and pursue sustainability strategies in the earliest phases of project planning and development.

Reducing Embodied Carbon Isn’t all About Materials

Make Architects explores the case for building reuse and how designers can design for future reuse. Topics address the building form, structure, façade, and material section. The document includes case studies and compelling graphics.

Framework for Design Excellence: Design for Resources

AIA's Framework for Design Excellence represents the defining principles of good design in the 21st century. Comprised of 10 principles and accompanied by searching questions, the Framework seeks to inform progress toward a zero-carbon, equitable, resilient, and healthy built environment. The Design for Resources section is focused on material selection, health, embodied carbon, and waste diversion.

Building the Case for Net Zero UK GBC

This UK Green Building Council report presents the findings of a feasibility study that shines a light on the real-world implications for achieving new net zero buildings. It illustrates how new buildings can be designed to reach net zero performance targets and the effect this has on cost. The findings are intended to improve the collective understanding for the buildings sector and help build the case for new net zero buildings.

Embodied Carbon in Building Materials for Real Estate

ULI's report prepares the real estate market for a low-carbon materials future, makes the business case for why real estate should pay attention, highlights smart steps to reduce embodied carbon, and showcases peers already addressing the issue.

Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront: Coordinated Action for the Building and Construction Sector to Tackle Embodied Carbon

WBCSD's report emphasizes that it's critical to create a conversation around the value and importance of embodied carbon, with the aim of creating and stimulating market demand for transparency, improvements, and verification of embodied carbon reductions. To be successful, the industry needs radical cross-sector coordination to revolutionize the buildings and construction sector towards a net zero future, and tackle embodied carbon emissions.

2021 Material Baseline Report

CLF's material baselines provides information about the high, median, and low embodied carbon impacts of a material category. Designers and policy makers alike can use the baseline numbers as a starting point from which to develop carbon caps or reductions.

Climate Smart Wood Group

Climate Smart Wood Group was formed in early 2021 and is actively exploring how to help building project teams successfully identify, access, and use climate-smart wood. While the group does not currently have standards, or public recommendation, it is a group to watch. The effort is jointly managed by the Forest Stewardship Council–US (FSC–US), Ecotrust, Sustainable Northwest, Northwest Natural Resources Group, and Washington Environmental Council.

Concrete Solutions Guide

RMI's Concrete Solutions Guide provides a user-friendly overview of proven and scalable solutions to reduce concrete’s contribution to climate change. This guide highlights six key opportunities to reduce embodied carbon in concrete products without compromising financial or material performance. Based on decades of research, the solutions are market-ready and based on real-world trials. In addition to helping advance the environmental goals of concrete purchasers, these solutions offer opportunities for producers to reduce costs and establish a leadership role in a changing industry.

Reducing Embodied Carbon in Buildings

RMI's report highlights low-cost and no-cost solutions for reducing upfront embodied carbon in buildings during a project’s design and construction phases. In case studies of three common building types, applying these solutions demonstrates an embodied carbon savings potential of 24 - 46% at cost premiums of less than 1%.

Net-zero Buildings Where do we Stand?

This report from WBCSD and Arup details the results of six whole life cycle assessment (WLCA) case studies to illustrate some of the challenges, barriers, and opportunities relating to the building industry’s carbon footprint. The case studies are presented in easily digestible graphics that present the upfront and whole life embodied carbon emissions. The report aims to provide an insight into the industry’s current performance and compare it to possible net-zero trajectories.

Clean Construction Policy Explorer

C40's Clean Construction Policy Explorer is an interactive dashboard showing how cities around the world are supporting the transition towards a resource-efficient and low- to zero-emissions construction sector. Use the map to explore and learn about the actions cities are taking to tackle the embodied emissions of their built environment. The map is frequently updated.

EPD Requirement in Procurement Policies

Carbon Leadership Forum's analysis of environmental product declaration (EPD) definitions in Buy Clean and other North American procurement policies. The document presents when to use EPDs within policy development and when EPDs are not a helpful tool and how they can be improved.

CLF Policy Toolkit

Carbon Leadership Forum's Carbon Policy Toolkit provides a variety of educational resources to support those who are drafting policies on reducing embodied carbon. The website also includes a frequently updated policy map and additional policy resources.

City Policy Framework for Dramatically Reducing Embodied Carbon

Developed by the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, Bionova Ltd, and Architecture 2030, this policy framework is for cities and other government bodies to develop a strategy, action plan and policies they can adopt to reduce the embodied carbon in transportation, transport, use and end of life of construction materials.

Embodied Carbon of Buildings and Infrastructure – International Policy Review

This report, commissioned by Forestry Innovation Investment Ltd., offers policy considerations and a potential menu of options that could reduce the impacts of buildings on the environment over their life cycle. The findings and recommendations in the report are based on a review of seven leading examples: Belgium, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Embodied Carbon in Construction Policy Primer for Ontario

This policy primer is intended for design teams and policymakers interested in addressing embodied carbon, emissions associated with construction material extraction, manufacture, and transportation, and building and infrastructure construction, maintenance, and decommissioning in the Ontario context. The primer provides an overview of the concept of embodied carbon and describes how life cycle assessment (LCA) can be used to calculate and minimize life cycle GHG impacts from construction projects.

Bay Area Low-Carbon Concrete Codes Project

The County of Marin developed standards around practical requirements for the composition of concrete that maintains adequate strength and durability for the intended application and at the same time reduces greenhouse gas emissions associated with concrete composition. This code includes pathways for compliance with either reduced cement levels or lower-emission supplementary cementitious materials.

Carbon Leadership Forum Website of Embodied Carbon Resources

The Carbon Leadership Forum, an industry-academic collaboration hosted at the University of Washington, maintains a database of over 200 embodied carbon resources. Each resource specifies the intended audience as well as the suggested level of expertise.

Green Buildings Policy for Rezonings

The City of Vancouver adopted the Green Buildings Policy for Rezonings, requiring all projects to report the life cycle equivalent carbon dioxide emissions (i.e. global warming potential impact, or ‘embodied carbon’) of each building, in kgCO2e/m², as calculated by a whole-building life cycle assessment (LCA), for compliance pathway B, "Low Emissions Green Buildings".

CAL Green: California Green Buildings Standards Code

CAL Green is the first-in-the-nation mandatory green building standards code. Section 5.409 of the 2017 Intervening Code Supplements details a pathway to compliance through Life Cycle Analysis. In 2007, the California Buildings Standards Commission developed green building standards in an effort to meet the goals of California’s landmark initiative AB 32, which established a comprehensive program of cost-effective reductions of greenhouse gases (GHG) to 1990 levels by 2020.

Buy Clean California Act

The Buy Clean California Act, AB262, states the Department of General Services (DGS) is required to establish and publish the maximum acceptable Global Warming Potential (GWP). It targets embedded carbon emissions of structural steel (hot-rolled sections, hollow structural sections, and plate), carbon steel rebar, flat glass, and mineral wool board insulation. These materials must have a GWP that does not exceed the limit set by DGS.

Building Transparency: Embodied Carbon in Construction (EC3 LCA Tool)

The Carbon Leadership Forum developed an open source tool to help construction professionals efficiently quantify, report, and reduce embodied carbon. The Embodied Carbon Construction Calculator (EC3) is a free tool that allows professionals to find and compare materials, plan and compare buildings, declare products, and verify and audit EPDs for incorporation into full LCA.

Life Cycle Assessment of Buildings: Technical Guidance

The Carbon Leadership Forum's Technical Guidance provides detailed recommendations for conducting life cycle assessments of buildings and is directed towards seasoned LCA practitioners and LCA tool developers in North America.

Life Cycle Assessment of Buildings: A Practice Guide

The Carbon Leadership Forum published this guide to introduce the concept of life cycle assessment to building professionals. The Practice Guide is divided into two parts: 1. an introduction that addresses how buildings impact the environment and how LCA can be used to quantify environmental impact and 2. an implementation section that describes the five key steps to conducting an LCA of a building.

AIA Guide to Building Life Cycle Assessment in Practice

In this paper, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) provides guidelines to help architects understand and use LCA methodology as part of the design process by identifying scenarios for the use of whole building LCA. AIA establishes a basic understanding of LCA for the building industry, the utility of LCA, and proposed suggestions for conducting LCA. The state of research was reviewed to find answers to present limitations of use of LCA in practice. The paper shows that LCA results help answer numerous questions that arise during the design and construction of a green building. It can reinforce the decisions made by architects by providing a scientific justification for those decisions.

Critical Issues When Comparing Whole Building & Building Product Environmental Performance

MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub's paper aims to address critical issues and make recommendations to practitioners and those developing guidance to enable more robust comparisons of building products and whole buildings. The paper classifies critical issues when comparing building and building product environmental performance into two categories: system boundaries and analytical approach. The paper recognizes the desire to perform comparisons today that cannot be put off until methodologies advance further and offers two kinds of recommendations: current practice and future advances.

Athena Guide to Whole-Building LCA in Green Building Programs

The Athena Sustainable Materials Institute is the pioneer of whole-building life cycle assessment (LCA) in North America. This guide provides tips on how to incorporate LCA during the building design process and presents the Institute's supplementary best-practice recommendations for performing whole building LCA. It also offers an introduction to the Athena Impact Estimator for Building, which makes LCA accessible for architects, engineers, and other non-LCA experts in design and construction professions.

Enhancing the Value of Life Cycle Assessment

Deloitt's paper outlines how LCA can be used to assess the end-to-end environmental impacts of a business decision on overall value creation. The paper evaluates several value-creating business objectives, and shows how the LCA methodology can help companies achieve these goals.

Buy Clean California Incentive Program

USGBC-LA assists manufacturers of steel, flat glass, and mineral wool insulation through the Buy Clean Incentive Program by offering incentives of up to $15,000. The incentive can be used to acquire their Environmental Product Declaration and green their own supply chain and manufacturing processes.

USDA Mass Timber Material Quantities Final Report

This study explores how mass timber buildings can be optimized for material efficiency and support a regionally-specific life cycle assessment case study of a mass timber office building in the Pacific Northwest. The University of Washington Architecture team defined a reference commercial office building using heavy timber/cross-laminated timber (CLT) to substitute for conventional construction. The School of Forest Resources Team developed regionally-specific LCA models to evaluate the environmental impact of potential CLT production in the Olympic Peninsula.

Life Cycle Assessment of Residential Buildings: A Case Study in Canada

The World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology published this Life Cycle Assessment in the International Journal of Energy and Environmental Engineering. LCA methodology was employed to study the primary energy uses and associated environmental impacts of different phases (i.e. product, construction, use, end of life, and beyond building life) for residential buildings. Four different alternatives of residential buildings in Vancouver (BC, Canada) with a 50-year lifespan have been evaluated, including High Rise Apartment (HRA), Low Rise Apartment (LRA), Single family Attached House (SAH), and Single family Detached House (SDH). Life cycle performance of the buildings is evaluated for embodied energy, embodied environmental impacts, operational energy, operational environmental impacts, total life cycle energy, and total life cycle environmental impacts.

A Life Cycle Approach to Prioritizing Methods of Preventing Waste from the Residential Construction Sector in the State of Oregon

The purpose of this project by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality was to evaluate the environmental benefits of potential actions aimed at reducing material use and preventing waste during the design, construction, maintenance, and demolition of residential buildings within the state of Oregon. Within this report, the phrase waste prevention practices is used to describe practices that reduce material use or reuse materials - and subsequently reduce waste generation.

Buy Clean Washington Study

The Buy Clean Washington Study presents embodied carbon policies and proposes methods to categorize structural materials and report structural material quantities and origins.

LCA for Low Carbon Construction: Estimates of Embodied Carbon for Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, and Tenant Improvements

This study is an extension of the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) for Low Carbon Construction Project. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality selected mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) and tenant improvement (TI) as research topics of interest to investigate because there is very little data on these environmental impacts. This study presents estimates of material quantities and environmental impacts for commercial office buildings in the Pacific Northwest. This study is funded by the Charles Pankow Foundation, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and Skanska USA.