When we talk about 39% of the emissions of the world coming from the built environment, we often focus almost exclusively on the 75% of those emissions that are the result of our operations. The energy consumption associated with operations. In 2019, however, we finally began to again mention the other 25% – the emissions from the built environment that are embedded in the materials we use for our buildings.
In the early 1990s, a committee looking at new construction began exploring the idea of a “green building”, promoting a more holistic and integrated design process that recognized the environmental impacts of new construction. What emerged from that committee we now call LEED. While LEED has evolved significantly since version 1, one thing that version 1 did emphasize was the importance of materials and resources and their contribution towards the environmental impact of new construction. As LEED evolved, the emphasis tilted more towards operational impacts, but those early efforts resurfaced in 2018 in the form of a conversation around embodied carbon.
The conversation around Embodied Carbon concerns that other 25%, those emissions related to the materials used in creating our buildings, including the impacts of material extraction, manufacturing, and transporting those materials to the job site. While it may seem like focusing on 11% of the global emissions is focusing on a small percentage of the source of emissions, it is material and especially because of the urgency of climate change. The emissions we produce between now and 2050 play a very large role in the general trajectory of the overall global impact. Think of it as a snowball rolling down a hill, the longer it rolls downhill, the more momentum it has and the greater the amount of snow it carries when it finally reaches the bottom of the hill. The bottom line is if we do not include the consideration of embodied carbon into our overall reduction strategy, we will not meet our targets.
So what does this mean to sustainability professionals? It means we have a larger role to play in ensuring that our strategy includes not just operational impacts, but supply chain impacts as well. This means working with designers, architects, and procurement to require the inclusion of supply chain impacts when acquiring building materials and designing specifications. It means evaluating both the products and the vendors providing those products, a holistic view of the entire process.
Let’s think a moment about the largest retailer in the world. While we all hear about the second-largest retailer, Amazon, the largest remains Wal Mart. 58 years ago, Sam and James “Bud” Walton founded this giant, but what was the secret sauce to building a company that in 2019 grossed nearly $519 billion dollars in revenue? It boils down to relentless and precise management of inventory and their supply chain. James Crowell, Director of the Supply Chain Management Research Center at the Walton College of Business has said, “I don’t believe there is a university in the world that doesn’t talk about Wal-Mart and the supply chain.”
So why is this important? As early as 2009, Wal-Mart launched its Sustainability Index, essentially a supplier questionnaire. This index goes beyond asking suppliers for the price of their product, it also gathers and analyzes information about a supplier’s approach to managing the social and environmental impact of the full life cycle of its products.
At the heart of the supplier questionnaire are essentially three questions:
- Do you measure and set goals for your environmental impacts?
- If so, what impacts are you measuring, what are your goals, and are they consistent with recognized standards?
- Do you know if your suppliers are doing the same?
By taking the lesson taught by arguably the most successful supply chain manager in the world, this same concept can be applied in our own organizations to address embodied carbon. We already ask suppliers for their price, we typically ask for their terms and conditions, why are we not asking if they can also support our sustainability goals? Why are we asking if they are working towards our goals or against our goals in their own organizations?
Fortunately, the reemergence of evaluating materials and resources has resulted in new tools being developed that can be added to our supplier questionnaires to further help identify where embodied carbon is entering into portfolios. To get a general idea of what embodied carbon is there are several free resources available, such as the Bath Inventory of Carbon and Energy (ICE). The Carbon Leadership Forum is also an excellent place to begin understanding what embodied carbon is, how to identify it, and how to reduce it.
As you become more familiar with embodied carbon, the tool of choice is the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). Just as LEED initiated the conversation around materials and supplies many decades ago, the green building certification program has again emerged as a thought leader through LEED v4.1 with changes to Materials and Resources Credits that address embodied carbon and importantly outlines the use of the EPD as a tool to conduct this analysis.
Back to our role in identifying reducing the impact of our portfolios, this all comes full circle in the development of metrics around measuring the impact of embodied carbon within your own portfolio. Through the tools discussed: surveys, EDP’s, and specifications we are able to start to measure and assign reduction targets to our embodied carbon.
To accomplish this, sustainability leaders must be willing to collaborate within their own organizations. We have likely become comfortable talking to operations about efficiency improvements and in many organizations, we have established ourselves with the asset managers. However, have you established a relationship with procurement? If your organization also develops properties, how about the design team? Establishing these relationships will be critical in evaluating the impact of the supply chain on your organization.
Getting the data is a key step and the survey concept is a way to start to get data. Organizations that are tracking both operational carbon impacts and embodied carbon impacts are organizations differentiating themselves from their competition. When investors are looking at where their funds will be responsibly invested, a more holistic approach will inspire more confidence than a narrower approach.