The goal of climate neutrality requires every part of our economy to decarbonise. An important aspect of this transition is to think of goods and services not in isolation but as part of a system. Embodied carbon is important in this respect and is beginning to receive the attention it deserves, both from policymakers and companies. For Bellona, it is an important new work area to complement our work on climate action, particularly in industry.
What is Embodied Carbon?
Embodied carbon is an essential category of emissions to take into account in order to achieve climate neutrality. It represents both the CO2 footprint of the ingredients and processes going into a product, as well as the emissions resulting from a product’s end-of-life treatment. Embodied carbon differs from operation carbon, which is the carbon that is emitted through the use of a product. In other words, embodied carbon reflects all of the emissions associated with or ‘embodied in’ a certain good, with the exception of operational carbon. Together, embodied and operational carbon covers the whole lifecycle emissions of a product.
Why does Embodied Carbon matter?
Being able to compare the emissions of different products beyond their operational emissions is fundamental to reaching carbon neutrality. By including embodied carbon in the overall footprint of each consumer product, we raise awareness for the whole carbon footprint of a product, we can drive a climate-neutral production of outputs along the product chain, and we also enable greater sustainability of our lifestyles.
Two Examples of Embodied Carbon
Embodied carbon can reach 50% of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of a new building, and its relative share is growing. Stricter energy efficiency legislation and progress in renewable energy transitions are reducing the operational carbon, thereby increasing the proportionate share of embodied carbon over the lifetime of a building.
Embodied carbon in buildings and infrastructures is associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole lifecycle of a building or infrastructure. It covers the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of buildings and infrastructures and their materials.
Electric Vehicles (EV) vs Internal Combustion Engines
The higher upfront emissions of manufacturing an electric vehicle versus a traditional combustion engine vehicle have been an important part of the debate around the sustainability and climate benefit of electric mobility.
Embodied carbon in a car relates to two primary factors. Firstly, the emissions generated through the provision of feedstock and fuel, and secondly, the manufacturing process, including the associated CO2 with the production as well as the end-of-life emissions, which includes the recycling of steel and the battery in an EV. Indeed, for an EV, the carbon-intensive process of manufacturing batteries is the key factor in its higher up-front emissions. Whereas EVs run on electricity that has a certain carbon intensity, they do not actually emit any carbon as combustion engines do during the use of the vehicle.
Source: Based on EPA, https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/electric-vehicle-myths
How can we reduce Embodied Carbon?
Embodied carbon adheres to both climate action and sustainability hierarchies.
The first step, therefore, is to avoid the potential of (unnecessary) carbon being emitted in the product design. Reducing material input reduces the carbon footprint associated with the material’s production. Material efficiency and sufficiency can therefore play a major role in reducing embodied carbon emissions through choosing refurbishment over new-builds, apartments or townhouse rows over single-family houses and smaller, lighter cars over bigger ones. Saving materials makes both ecological and economic sense.
The second step is reducing emissions across the necessary production parts, such as replacing high-carbon cement with low-carbon alternatives, including climate-friendly types of cement and concretes. Electrifying construction machinery and improving the logistics of materials to and from the building site. Utilising low-carbon steel and sustainable sourcing batteries from factories electrified with renewable energy.
The final step goes back to the inception of the product by designing, for example, buildings or cars not only to use fewer and more climate-friendly materials but also to include plans to improve their disassembly and recyclability or reusability at the end of life.