Embodied carbon – from challenge to opportunity

Imagine yourself in the future, walking in a city you love. It feels peaceful and serene as you walk through lots of green areas amongst the trees and the plants. The many buildings you pass have green walls and rooftops. When you breathe you feel clean healthy air refreshes your body. And nature is everywhere, even in your office. Can you smell the flowers and hear the birdsong?

To let the dream of thriving real green urban city space become true, we must uncover at least a key blind spot in the built environment: embodied carbon emissions. Currently, a lot of attention goes to operational carbon reduction which are the emissions as a result of powering, heating and cooling of buildings. The developments to reduce and get this renewable are important and this should of course continue.

But, before the lights can go on, a building needs to be constructed and decorated. All materials of a building construction, such as steel, concrete, glass have a carbon journey! The same goes for the products you use to work and live –such as tables, chairs, lamps-, and the products you walk on, your flooring. Before you can use a building a lot of emissions have already been done, these are embodied carbon emissions. And, they can’t be reversed.

And here comes the great part. By selecting low carbon and circular materials the built environment really can make the difference we need so much for our planet. Experts say that the emissions of the built environment need to peak in the upcoming 15 years, whilst we also will have to see a lot of new buildings being built as global population grows to 10 billion in 2050. Therefore, should we not only focus on operational carbon, but also the embodied carbon.

To me the joyful part is the fact that the solutions for a thriving green urban space for people and planet, are around. With local plants and trees regreening streets, rooftops, walls, parks, seeking to create cities and buildings that function as a natural ecosystem. But an important step is also to choose building materials that have a low carbon circular impact, or even better that store carbon such as responsible sourced wood building constructions.

If we focus on products, what is around on helping you with lowering the carbon footprint of your spaces? What ambitions and results do manufacturers have?

We see office suppliers like Velux and Steelcase to commit to ambitious goals in line with the Paris Agreement.

Furniture manufacturer, Steelcase for example recently announced they achieved carbon neutrality throughout their own operations. Over the past decade, they have been cutting their greenhouse gas emissions by over 30% and became carbon neutral through carbon offset projects. Moreover they are positioning themselves to become carbon negative by 2030.

The next step is going beyond reducing carbon, but seeing carbon as an opportunity and building block. Then we might have a real game changer in the challenge to reverse global warming. The shift from products to be produced with carbon emissions, to products that store carbon, is the paradigm shift we need. This can really help to get to net-zero and beyond. In this movement we see all kind of things happening.

At Interface, our new CQuest™Bio backing systems made with carbon negative materials has been launched in October. This means that products with a CQuest™Bio backing will have an all-time low carbon footprint. Moreover, all floorings are Carbon Neutral over the full life cycle of the product.

Our approach at Interface is one example of a trend for the increased use of construction materials with carbon negative properties, for example Cross Laminated Timber (CLT). When CLT is used to build high-rise towers, the carbon savings can be sizeable. The 186 tons of carbon locked into the 9-storey Stadthaus in London equals 20 years of its daily operations.

The future of a real green thriving city is within reach, which is why we need to work on both operational as well as embodied carbon. There are a lot of options to start lowering the Embodied Carbon footprint of spaces, using fact based proof points of an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD).

By making a conscious choice of products and building materials, we can make a significant blind spot for a bright future fade.


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